As a Ph.D. candidate, most of my writing is geared toward an audience composed of fellow grad students, professional archaeologists, university professors, and avocational archaeologists. In many ways, we write in a language that only other archaeologists, those initiated into the discipline and its methods, can understand. How, then, do we translate this idiosyncratic language into something that elementary school students, the target audience for the Archaeology 101 project, can easily digest, enjoy, and learn from?
Aside from the technical aspects of creating an interactive website, this language barrier has been one of the largest challenges for this project. Not only must jargon be used sparingly and, when used, must be clearly defined, but sentence length, sentence structure, and word choice are also critical factors for making text understandable for young readers. We must also try to make the content of the webpage, including complex topics like preservation or how archaeologists tell time, engaging and relatable for a much younger audience, as this will help kids to understand the content of the website and hopefully create a greater interest in archaeology. Part of this engagement is demonstrating that archaeological research is a process and that there is a great deal left to learn, indicating that readers are not just passive recipients of information, but can actually contribute to our understanding of the past.
During our development of the Archaeology 101 Project website, we have tried to tackle these issues in a number of ways. We decided that our first step would just be to write, to get ideas and examples onto the webpages no matter the writing style. We would then go back through and re-work this text to adjust word choice, make sentence structure less complex, fine-tune the examples, and to try and make our writing more active and exciting. We are working on this second step right now.
In our writing, the use of some jargon is unavoidable. While we tried to use jargon sparingly, when we do use it, the word is bolded in the text and is immediately defined. When possible, examples are also included in order to create a more concrete understanding of what terms represent. Through text, images, examples, and our interactive elements, we also strive to explain concepts and then show how to apply them in order to reinforce learning. Finally, at multiple points in the website, we seek to demonstrate that our knowledge of the past is incomplete and that there is much more to find and understand.
While it is a challenge to write for different audiences, it is something that academics need to learn about and do more often. Communication between experts and the public is essential, as it helps to disseminate research results in a proper manner and exert some control over the narrative, instead of leaving it in the hands of celebrities and popular authors who can distort the past, do harm to descendant communities, and mis-represent the scientific endeavor as a whole (see Zach’s recent blog for a great discussion on why we should engage with the public). It is a skill that takes training, and should become a greater focus in the future as archaeology wrestles with popular media and those pesky ancient aliens.