Archaeologists like things - in fact things are the very stuff of what we dig up all the time. The very excitement of discovery, when you never know what is likely to pop out of the ground at any moment, is what keep us all going, all those long days in the horizontal rain on windswept hillsides! The tangibility of actually touching something that you know was last seen centuries ago, and then to face the challenge of working out what they may mean. What date is this pottery shard? What was this little piece of bronze made for? How does this fit into the wider picture of the story of the site? In fact we are digging up not things but people and their stories.
This was first realised by the famous archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950's, who managed to combine a career as one of the most successful archaeologists of his generation with an extraordinary ability to communicate his discoveries to the public. He set a standard and, since then, archaeology has never been off the TV screens for long - Animal Vegetable Mineral, Buried Treasure, Chronicle, Time Team, Meet the Ancestors - all long running shows that brought archaeology into the living room. The public are probably better informed about archaeology than any other scientific discipline.
But now the world of media is moving on - TV is no longer the source of everyday knowledge, as the internet and social media can provide instant information if you know where to look. In the true tradition of Wheeler, archaeologists have been particularly good at embracing the new technologies; it is now routine for digs to have their own Facebook pages, blogs and twitter feeds. It is amazing where the interest lies. On our recent dig in Gloucestershire, we had over 120,000 hits over three weeks. We had followers from all over the world; after the UK and USA, the next most popular was Ukraine (surely they have better things to do?!). All this is great, but like the TV of yesterday, it's all screen-based and we live as slaves to the screen. But archaeologists like things, not screens.
Can there be an internet of things? The internet can power not just screens but objects as well. We have been working on a project called REACT Objects Sandbox funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to develop a 'storyteller' that captures some of these ideas. This internet-enabled device - we have called it Reflector - literally 'recreates' the archaeological excavation through images, sound and text, close to how it actually happened. So as the discoveries are made, they can be recorded and interpreted, and anyone with a device connected to the internet will receive the feed through the printers or loud-speakers. We have designed the device to look beautiful - from solid pieces of mahogany that can capture the smell and sense of antiquity.
Reflector would obviously have to be distributed to those who want to receive the experience. So we see a huge potential for museums who want to work with schools using their collections, or community digs that want to engage with those who may not be on project. The new world of crowd funding is obviously ideally suited to this approach. And because its limited to those who have the device, archaeologists can share information that they may be more reluctant to on the wider web. Too many sites have been looted by metal detectorists after benign information has been posted.
Beyond archaeology, I think it is an approach that could enable scientists to engage more generally with a wider community. Science is not a cut and dried process, but one that moves forward and backwards, and relies on observation and discovery. We need not to share what we have discovered, but share the very process of discovery. This, I believe, is the new direction that the public engagement and understanding of science needs to take.
Reflector, developed during REACT Objects Sandbox, is a collaboration between Uniform and Mark Horton and Alex Bentley from the University of Bristol. It will be exhibited in Christie's at the London Design Festival from 17-21 September 2014
REACT is a knowledge exchange hub funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is collaboration between the University of the West of England and Watershed and the universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.