How will archaeology and social media meet in specific cultural contexts?

This blog post doesn’t answer that question: it poses it, and I plan (hope!) to respond to your ideas in future posts.

Since 2007 I’ve been part of a team conducting archaeological research at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bat in north-central Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. Over the past six years the project focused on the fundamentals of archaeological research: exploration. Most of the world knows little about the country as a whole – I couldn’t locate the Sultanate of Oman on a map until I learned I might be visiting there — and we have focused most of our energy on understanding the basic context of the 4500 year-old monuments.

Archaeologists research the past, but we do so in the present, and anticipate needs of the future. In order to understand how to navigate the everyday of a project AND to develop knowledge for dispersal in the future, archaeologists spend a lot of time figuring out the cultures of the present. As the newly-named American-Japanese Bat Archaeological Project (AJBAP) enters its next phase, we’re confronted with the question: What do we do with all of our new data?

Sure, there will be a Final Report, written in English for an academic audience, to complement our annual technical reports to the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. While that will satisfy a portion of our stakeholders, there is a real need to understand the interests and issues of local, national, and Gulf communities involved in this venture.

Below are some elements of Oman society, infrastructure, and culture that will color the ways in which the AJBAP shares what we have learned with Bat’s local, national, Gulf, and international communities. This is not exhaustive — it’s a blog post, folks — and I hope that others will make this part of a conversation aimed at creatively integrating various facets of community-focused archaeology, social media, and national development plans within a Gulf context.

English, literacy, and English literacy

Arabic is THE language of Oman, and it is primarily a spoken one. Omanis are literate in Arabic. English is taught in primary and secondary school — yet reading is not a leisure activity, nor is it the primary way in which Omanis give or receive information. Parents do not read to their children to put them to bed, and although nationally syndicated newspapers (half of which are in English) are gaining traction there are no local versions.

Focus on the Family

Information travels primarily through family and neighborhood groups. Family networks are extensive and include many members (nearly all men) who work in regions far from their homes. Family networks are maintained through frequent contact, by weekly visits to the home village, a strong sense of responsibility to and solidarity with the family group, and near-constant mobile phone coverage. Online social networks are not part of the Omani understanding of neighborhood or community, although this could be changing. One university student informed me that her Facebook page was completely private so that her parents wouldn’t find out that she was online.

Nationalism and Omani cultural diversity

Oman is Arab. It is also a coastal country between Africa and Asia, and has been in steady contact with both continents for thousands — even tens of thousands — of years. This has created an Oman that is both culturally varied and nationally unified — a characteristic of Oman that provides tourists and anthropologists endless intrigue, and is of equal interest to Omanis themselves. OmOmanis from the show Asala ("Authentic") reporting on the Muscat Festivalanis are proud of their cultural diversity and consider that richness an important part of their national identity. In addition, the government has aggressively sought to maintain a specific national identity that includes the “Omanisation” of public and private sectors, and trickles down to such aspects of daily life as national dress requirements of schoolboys.

The future of social media in an Omani context

The infrastructure of Oman changes at a breathtaking rate. Following a newly updated road map is a foreigner’s exercise in frustration, as the map will frequently indicate roads that do not yet exist and omit the roads that were built almost overnight. Mobile networks are accelerating, as well. In November 2010 a fellow project member spent several hours each evening on the roof of the house, holding her laptop above her head for the best possible reception as she sent her graduate school applications off. A year later, communication provider Nawras came out with — wait for it — high speed Broadband internet for one-fifth the price. The issues of network coverage in such a sparsely populated country coupled with competing mobile networks have been answer not by a movement to smartphones, but by the addition of even more basic mobile phones: one for each network: a 22-year-old of my acquaintance had five.

This may seem to set a somewhat grim face to the potential uses of social media in Oman. I don’t think this is the case. Slightly smaller than Kansas (and considerably more rugged), the Sultanate of Oman has a mere 2.2 million residents. That Omanis keep close social ties across such vast distances suggests that social media have important roles to play in this changing nation. The specific forms these media take are likely to be as unique as the culture itself. I welcome ideas, examples, caveats, and comments. Up next from me: government-sponsored digital infrastructure, and potential applications in heritage management and education.