Dungeons, no Drag-ons

Sorry about the title. I thought it would be funnier when I came up with it, now I just can’t think of anything better.

Quick recap of the work I’ve been doing this week:

Finished fieldwork on a survey project on Monday and worked on three different reports, one with a hard deadline for Monday. I had to hand off a fourth report to another supervisor to write because it also has a tight deadline next week. I found out I might be traveling for another project potentially this coming week or the week after, but the details are up in the air for that one. We have been busy this winter which means we can keep our techs working, and that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Okay, now for the fun stuff:

Public archaeology forum I moderated

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about my experience at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference this year in St. Charles Missouri. Just to sum up I avoided regular paper session like the plague except for a couple of papers that had particularly interesting topics for me and and instead attended mostly sessions on public archaeology. A lot of sessions at these conferences are people literally reading papers for 15-20 minutes at a time one after another for an hour or three. These papers can have a lot of interesting and useful information in them, but it can be difficult to stay awake during those types of papers to absorb that information. The forums I attended, aside from having subject matter I was interested in (mostly public archaeology), were engaging and interactive. I and Dr. Alexandra Jones, of Archaeology in the Community, put together our own forum on public archaeology and how to make keep archaeology relevant to the public. You can watch it here.

Keeping archaeology engaging can be an issue with a lot of archaeological subject matter. We archaeologists love to wax poetic about little broken pieces of pottery, and how many of what type of nail, and wear patterns, and all sorts of other minutia. All these small pieces of evidence add up to a virbrant image of the past when we’re lucky, but only to the initiated. The problem we as archaeologists need to address is finding a way to make this method of understanding the past less mind numbing to the general public.

I believe this is part of the reason shows like Ancient Aliens and Legends of the Lost, have as much appeal to TV channels. These shows tend not to focus on the details, and can have a subtle colonialist/racist slant, but I’ll leave that topic for another time, and maybe a different author. The shows that do discuss real archaeological tend to focus on exotic locations and items made of gold and jewels, or unique items. While these are exciting this is not the majority of the artifacts we find in the field. It’s countless tiny pieces of broken things that we need to analyze to find trends and patterns. This doesn’t appeal to most of the general public because most people don’t have a good grasp about how we reach those conclusions, or the vast catalog of background knowledge needed for interpretation.

Tabletop tool kit

As a solution I suggest tabletop role playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons. Gameplay podcasts can have huge audiences and can reach people that may not otherwise be exposed to archaeological data and interpretation. This has already been attempted by Marine Biologists with some success, in a podcast called Dugongs and Seadragons. The format of the show is a more or less normal Dungeons and Dragons campaign with details thrown in to introduce different topics in marine biology. Every other episode of the podcast is an interview with one of the players, all of which are marine biologists, where the topic introduced in the previous episode is explained. The interviews often include a little about the scientist’s experience in their field. Similar to this project, the scientists are from different geographical regions, work in different subfields, and are at varying stages in their careers.

I started playing a dungeons and dragons campaign with some archaeologists a few months ago, including a couple of the authors on this project (Ama and Sara). We and our dugeon master Bill Auchter have started working on a homebrew set of rules for an archaeological campaign. The end goal is to set up a podcast similar to the structure of Dewgongs and Seadragons to introduce topics in archaeology, history and cultural anthropology (where applicable). Another minor goal of this gameplay and podcast is to help remove some of the tomb raiding stigma (pun intended) that tabletop and video games tend to promote.

Please feel free to comment below if you have ideas for game mechanics or other ideas to make archaeological methodology engaging.

-Tom

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AITC’s 10th birthday is coming up in the beginning of March. We are having a fundraising push leading up to the date, March 9. Donations to this fundraiser help fund our educational programming for youths as well as paid internships for students entering the field. You can donate here.

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