Tuesday, 22 September 2015


     We’re all familiar with mansplaining, right? Where a woman talks about something she has had direct personal experience of, only to be interrupted with an unasked for contribution from some bloke, telling her that she’s wrong and it’s not really like that at all, and he is here to explain it all for her. I’ve had it happen to me many times. What I’ve also had happen quite a few times this year is archsplaining.

     I’m not an archaeologist; I have no pretensions towards being one, nor a historian, nor a heritage professional. I’m me, just me, a twatty blogger with a history of mental health problems who has happened to fall under the spell of graffiti (medieval graffiti in particular), and am evangelical/loud/quite annoying and difficult to shut up about it. I don’t lay claim to being an expert on any aspect of archaeology, mental health, or graffiti.

     That’s the disclaimer. What I am, however, is a member of the public who is passionate about history and heritage, about people and their lives, and why it’s important that we study and learn from them. Why it matters that we engage people with what is their history, in whatever form that takes, whichever period of history or aspect of it that appeals to them. I’m very fortunate to live in Norwich, a city that’s filled to the brim with past lives and buildings that reflect that. Perhaps if I lived in Milton Keynes I’d feel differently. Who knows?

     I could bang on for a fair bit about the importance of history and people and so on, but I do that quite a lot, so I’ll just get to my point instead. And from now on, when I type ‘archaeologists’, please take it as a given that I mean ‘some archaeologists/historians/heritage professionals’. I’ve come across quite a few in recent years, and many of them have been utterly lovely, encouraging, helpful and supportive. If you’re on twitter, I suggest you follow Natalie Cohen, Helen J, medieval graffiti, Waveney archaeology, Ian Groves and Andrew Macdonald at the very least. They will bring you happiness, insight, and quite a few giggles too (and apologies to Other Lovely Archaeologists I know I’ve forgotten, add yourself in the comments).

     So. Archsplaining. It takes two forms. The first is quite straightforward. A twatty blogger writes a post about an aspect of archaeology she finds interesting, or her personal experience, solely from her perspective, with no pretensions towards academic glory or even really historical accuracy, because she is but a civilian. Many people enjoy the post, and say so. And then… the archaeologists descend. And don’t talk to her directly, but perhaps say ‘oh dear. She really doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. Let’s sneer at her from a not really very discreet distance at all, or perhaps comment about her mental health.'

     The second type of archsplaining is the one that annoys me most. It is the seemingly limitless ability to find gloom and doom and negativity in even the most beautiful unicorn farting rainbow glitter over a waterfall (sample archaeologist reaction: who’s going to clear that mess up? And I bet it pollutes the water. This is an ancient monument, I don’t think it’s right to add a unicorn to it. It’s all become too commercialised these days. Look at all the people enjoying this sight, they have precisely NO knowledge of unicorns! This really should be closed off before we have too many members of the general public seeing it and not understanding it’s significance, I’m not going to waste my time trying to explain it to anyone who doesn’t have my level of knowledge, and anyway I don’t get paid enough and archaeologists are special and precious and we must not allow anyone in to our exclusive club and and and)

     I don’t mind being sneered at so much (I mean, I do mind, it really fucking pisses me off to be honest, but hey ho, life isn’t a popularity contest and we all end up dead), what infuriates me is the fact that I am giving archaeologists a sodding gold plated opportunity to engage with people like me. If I’m wrong about something, then talk to me about it, don’t talk about me instead. It’s the insular nature of archaeology that winds me up to the point that I could power the bloody Aswan dam. Take last week’s post about me gaining confidence via a community archaeology project. At no point in that did I say ARCHAEOLOGY FOR EVERYONE WITH MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS SHOULD BE MANDATORY. No, I was just relating my experience, in what I think was a fairly honest way, and I was pretty overwhelmed at the response I got, from people like me, people not like me, and the Lovely Archaeologists I’ve mentioned above.

     And you’re already reading ‘BUT’, before I’ve even typed it… god ALMIGHTY the reaction on one facebook page. It wasn’t all negative, not at all, so don’t get huffy. But the gloomy, woe-filled, ‘yeah, but what about US as archaeologists, who cares about our mental health, and I don’t think archaeology should be used as therapy, and loads of projects will exploit mental health patients, and we’re not responsible for people who are ill, and and and’ comments that followed... I mean, seriously, guys? Seriously? From one twatty blogger’s celebratory and joyful post about how one community archaeology project made one of her days wonderful and has given her confidence, hope, and a new passion… and instead it becomes an issue about how archaeologists are so unfairly treated man, it’s just not even funny (there was also a glib remark about ‘being barking mad’ that I may have seriously got The Arse with).

     Jesus wept. I appreciate that there are very real dangers facing archaeology, both as a profession and in terms of physical heritage. But the instinctive behaviour of so many professionals seems to be to huddle inwards into a circle, backs against the world, moaning and sighing that no one outside the circle understands. Well, maybe, and this is just the suggestion of someone who isn’t an archaeologist… perhaps if no one understands, the fault lies not with us, the public, the volunteers, the twatty blogger, but with the way in which you choose to communicate? That’s my little bit of archsplainery advice.


BAJR said...

Gawd bless you... and thanks... Hope some of us take note ;) Was not like this in the old days.. blah...etc...

Brilliant observation


Put Up With Rain said...

An awful lot of you are brilliant at telling the world what you do, why it matters, and making us care too :-) I wouldn't even have written this post were that not the case!I suppose this is preaching to the converted - and hoping some archsplainers might listen.

Anonymous said...

That "glib comment" cane from someone who has had his own mental health issues for twenty odd years and so tends to be a little flippant at time - if I didn't laugh I would cry, this having had a significant impact on my career, including being directly responsible for being made redundant from a very good job at a reasonably senior level and finding it very hard to get going again..

Put Up With Rain said...

I'm very sorry to hear you've had your own mental health issues, and I fully understand the impact this can have on a career - I haven't been able to work for over five years now. I understand that humour can be a way of deflecting the very real anguish of mental health problems, and frequently use it myself as a coping strategy. However, I do feel that your response was inappropriate to my initial blogpost - as were many others!

Unknown said...

Sorry you got that response - and a bit weird considering you were clearly not being remotely flippant about the need to protect and preserve historical artefacts but actually living and breathing history and passing on your passion (albeit through a layman's eyes) to others. X

Put Up With Rain said...

Sam, it was utterly bizarre! But not entirely unexpected... mutter mutter grumble gurmble... ;-)