In February historian William Cronon admitted his deeply rooted skepticism about Wikipedia as a scholarly resource.  Cronon, the President of the American Historical Association, acknowledged he had originally had misgivings about an online resource penned by the masses, and he recognized that he and many other scholars were hard-pressed to see Wikipedia as much more than a shallow and often flawed introduction to a modest range of topics.

Yet this year Cronon was compelled to confess that Wikipedia is now one of the single most comprehensive research sources on the face of the planet, and as I write today it has 3,961,053 articles traversing literally every possible subject from musicians’ biographies to historical events.  The pages are updated almost instantly; current events are updated in nearly real time, and each time an elder musician or movie star draws their last breath their Wikipedia entry appears to be edited before the body has cooled.  Wikipedia includes thoughtful if brief entries on astoundingly specialized topics, including entries on the simulated Nazi invasion of Winnipeg, the Bredon Hill Hoard, or the traditional Icelandic dish of Svio.  Wikipedia’s History Portal is systematically organized by period and culture groups for those seeking broader entry points, and many entries have links to peer-reviewed scholarship.  Nearly any search engine will identify a Wikipedia entry as the very first possibility out of scores of other web pages, and it is among the single most visited web pages in the world.  Strong Wikipedia entries provide a succinct introduction to a subject, reliable background on it, and links to resources containing more detail.  Some subjects are not completely amenable to Wikipedia-style linear outlines, but many of the subjects scholars examine can be very thoughtfully introduced in a Wikipedia entry.

What Cronon recognized is that it is foolish for scholars to ignore such a rich resource, because many people wade into scholarly topics and perspectives through their introductions in Wikipedia pages, and many times we need only a reliable overview of a topic.  When he wrote in February, the American Historical Association—the largest and oldest professional historians organization in the US—had a superficial Wikipedia entry, but now it has a thorough entry that includes an astounding set of links to Wikipedia entries for nearly every single AHA President since 1884, which has included George Bancroft, Woodrow Wilson, C. Vann Woodward, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich among its number.

In February the Society for Historical Archaeology did not even have a Wikipedia page, and we now have a brief entry on which we can build a more thorough introduction to the SHA and historical archaeology.  The historical archaeology entry is likewise exceptionally lackluster from a discipline that has produced so much insight into a half-millennium, and an enormous number of Wikipedia entries could be strengthened by contributions from historical archaeologists and material culture scholars.

Many of the scholars who founded our discipline remain largely invisible on Wikipedia, as well, which is especially disappointing since many of them are still active in SHA, many have former students who could very ably represent the discipline’s first practitioners, and we have some fabulous oral histories with some of the SHA’s founding figures.  There are now entries for a handful of these figures, including Ed Jelks, John Cotter, and J.C. “Pinky” Harrington among others, but certainly many more influential scholars could be introduced to a broader audience through relatively brief Wikipedia entries that would lead students, avocationalists, and even some professionals to the work of these earliest historical archaeologists.  Developing wikipedia entries for all the Harrington Award winners would be a fabulous class project for somebody out there.  Of the 27 winners, virtually none has a respectable wikipedia entry directing readers to each scholar’s work and scholarly importance.

Some archaeological sites have thorough Wikipedia entries, with 36 entries for archaeological sites in Virginia alone, including the sites we would expect like Mount Vernon and Jamestown, but also a few lesser-known but fascinating places like the Falling Creek Ironworks.  Many more entries for historical sites could productively incorporate archaeological analysis of those spaces to balance out the conventional historical pictures or architectural histories that dominant Wikipedia.  Indeed, a vast range of Wikipedia subjects have material culture if not concrete archaeological implications that remain largely unaddressed.

It would not be that hard to make historical archaeological insight a central feature of many more Wikipedia entries.  SHA probably does not need to be intent on coordinating a host of archaeological wiki contributors, but there is good reason for us to take Wikipedia seriously and recognize all the potential it has for historical archaeology and the SHA.

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  • Paul Courtney

    Very interesting work In Czech Republiic and the Czechs publish a biannual monograph based on ongoing Prague conferences in English, Studies in Post-Medieval Archaeology which I have reviewed for Historical Archaeology but is hardly known in UK and USA. I recommend visiting the conference where they have simultaneous translation into English- whn I was there 3 years ago there were 3 English and one German using the services of 2 translators- wonderful.  Prague is also a very low cost tourist venue and has some wonderful architecture.

    paul courtney, Leicester UK

  • Ed Bell

    Thanks Paul. The Wikipedia entry for Historical Archaeology *was* lackluster. Why hasn’t anyone taken a go at it before now? I changed the misperception that the field deals only with sites and topics that are already fully known and apparently sworn to under penalty of perjury (“attested”) in written records, added oral traditions, and fixed a mistaken word use:  the antonym for a literate society is not an “illiterate society,” but rather a “non-literate society.” But then again sometimes it is. –Edward L. Bell, Boston, Mass.