Portus’ dirty little secrets


Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets Coursera Course image - used with permission
Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets Coursera Course image – used with permission

Working with Sue Alcock and Müge Durusu at Brown University on the Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets (ADLS) course on the Coursera platform, and chairing a recent session with the ADLS team at the Annual Meeting of Computer Applications in Archaeology in Paris this past April, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of institutions tackling the same issues we encountered during our MOOC adventure. At ADLS we were overwhelmed with the dynamic and exciting discussions emerging in our forums amongst a truly international student body. Connecting the ideas of the various archaeological MOOC offerings has the potential to maintain and expand this community of online learners across courses, and I’m happy to write briefly here on some of the ways the content and themes of ADLS and Portus are linked.

Graeme and I are both really excited about the possibilities of courses that interlink, whether at the level of course content, via shared publications, or linking research data and we are going to explore these more in the future. We also think that the two courses work well together, with Portus providing an archaeological overview and also detailed examples relating to Roman archaeology and one site in particular, complementing the broader approach taken in ADSL. I know that Graeme is hoping to develop these links further with other courses including Newcastle University and FutureLearn’s Hadrian’s Wall, and there have also been links made on the Portus course to the Yale and Coursera Roman Architecture course. Graeme also told me that the Classical elements from the Warwick University and FutureLearn Shakespeare and his World Course are being compared to the Roman material on the Portus course and the nature of different kinds of evidence analysed. This really sums up the kinds of connections MOOCs are making across areas of study.

In terms of specific links, there are a number of direct relationships between methods discussed in ADLS and the Portus MOOC. The first Units of ADLS introduce some of the basics of archaeological practice – what is archaeology, what is not archaeology, how do archaeologists work in the field – and many of the same concepts and techniques emerge in the first weeks of Portus. For example, Unit 3 of ADLS (How do you find things?) introduces site prospection practices such as geophysical survey, aerial photography, remote sensing, and fieldwalking. The Portus MOOC also covers these topics, through direct application at the site of Portus itself, particularly in the Week 3 activities on geophysical survey, the palaeoenvironment, and finds in the landscape. Excavation techniques and stratigraphic analysis we covered in Unit 4 (How do you get a date?) of ADLS are also included in Portus Week 4 activities on Documenting the Excavation, and Objects in Context.

The importance of objects to archaeologists is also central to both courses. In ADLS, different object types were explored in a series of ‘Demonstrations’, particularly in Unit 5 (What do you do with what you find?)  – ceramics, metals, human remains, animal remains. We see some of the same object types appearing at Portus, and effectively applied to the specific historic questions of the site, for example in the discussion of the Portus burials. Moving from the more general introductions of ADLS to the specifics of a single site is a great way to apply and expand on the archaeological knowledge of participants of both courses. I was excited to see how ADLS’ broad questions – “What can we ask of pottery?” or “How do we use finds to date things?” – were applied and narrowed within the context of Portus, such as in the Week 2 questions “Why are brickstamps so useful? What do the brickstamps of Portus tell us?”

There are also a number of related themes across the two courses, moving beyond particular content to the overarching questions of archaeologists everywhere. In ADLS, these questions often emerged in discussions between Sue and archaeologists working at other Brown University projects. The later Units of ADLS in particular focussed on some larger archaeological debates: What is involved in the archaeology of people (Unit 6)? Where does archaeology happen (Unit 7)? Who owns the past (Unit 8)? The team working at Portus is dealing with these issues on the ground, and activities such as ‘The People of Portus‘ (Week 5) show some of the practical implications of ethical questions. These same issues are at the forefront of independent archaeological projects, and have also emerged as central questions to two independently developed MOOC offerings. The insights of the students of both ADLS and the Portus MOOC can help us as archaeologists understand these issues, and the ADLS team is excited for ongoing collaboration and connections between the growing number of archaeological MOOCs as we move toward an open and engaged online archaeological community.

You can find me on the Archaeology of Portus course via my FutureLearn profile and on ADLS via my Coursera profile. You can find Graeme on Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets via his Coursera profile.

(Note from Graeme: As with the other Archaeology of Portus links on this blog the above links will cross-reference to the first version of the course i.e. May 2014. If you were enrolled on this course you should continue to be able to follow these links indefinitely after the course officially finished on 29 June 2014. You can still enrol on the course until this date. If you were enrolled on the first version of ADLS the links above will work. If you were enrolled on the second iteration change “secrets-001” in the URL to “secrets-002”. As the Portus course re-runs we will provide updated cross-references between the various MOOCs in a more consistent format.)

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