The Explorator Newsletter ~ Spreading the News of Archaeology

Let me preface this ‘Day of Archaeology’ post by noting that I am not an archaeologist and do not profess to be. I’m a Classicist by training and a couple decades ago I thought the then-emerging World Wide Web would be a great way to promulgate news about archaeological finds specific to the Classical world. The idea was spawned by a clipping of the 1997 discovery of the Demosion Sima in Athens (not, as I have mistakenly said elsewhere, the discovery of plague victims in the Kerameikos) which was posted on the old-style bulletin board in the Classics department at McMaster University. The initial idea became a webpage known as Commentarium, which was somewhat regularly updated and did not just concentrate on the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. By May of 1998, assorted technical issues with the website encouraged changing to an email format and the Explorator newsletter was officially born.  It originally came out every couple of days, but eventually settled into something that came out every Sunday morning and grew from a short newsletter with a dozen or so links to a much longer beast with links sometimes numbering in the hundreds.

And so, today — as with most Sundays for the past twenty years or so — I’ve thumped down the stairs and done the compilation of this newsletter. Over the course of the week, my spiders (a couple of decades’ worth of tweaked Google alerts) and my correspondents have sent to me plenty of links which need to have some order imposed on them. I should, of course, mention that I am eternally grateful to my correspondents, many of whom have been diligently sending me stuff for over a decade and a few (Mike Ruggeri, Trevor Watkins, John McMahon, and Arthur Shippee) from before the turn of the millennium. Their contributions are generally not in need of ‘vetting’, but the stuff my spiders bring back does required a bit of checking. As readers of Explorator are aware, I usually have more than one link for a particular story, but the links that make it into Explorator do have to meet some ‘quality control’ criteria, most of which relates to closeness to the original source and readability. This results in a sort of hierarchy of links — e.g., the ‘big three’ (, Science Daily, and Eurekalert) are usually first listed because they usually reproduce a press release or are one step removed from a scholarly paper on whatever is being presented.  After that (depending on what section of Explorator we’re dealing with) come the UK news sources, which are among the last to have reporters who actually deal with archaeology, and the LiveScience folks. In the ANE section, the Israel press sources tend to come next. After that, it’s a bit of a tossup, with news sources closest to the site tending to get privileged.

I try to avoid linking to sites (including blogs) which generally present just a rewrite of an AP or other news source piece (e.g. the Huffington Post and others) but make an exception for the Past Horizons blog, which is compiled by people with archaeological backgrounds and cites sources. Other blog sites which don’t cite where they’re getting their information, which charge to look at their articles, or which simply link to the ‘front page’ of a news site do not meet my criteria. Another exception I make is to Daily Mail coverage of archaeological stories. Almost without exception, the Daily Mail presents rewrites of other things (often poorly edited), but they usually have all the photos that are available and some useful sidebars with other information. Even so, I continue to struggle every week to justify including the Daily Mail.

Whatever the case,  over the course of the week I’m usually checking what’s been sent to me (I generally get 200 or so emails a day) and applying Gmail labels to things in anticipation of Sunday’s compilation. Come Sunday, I’m cutting and pasting those links into separate Google Documents (one for each category), and checking to ensure that links are still live, if necessary — one of the nice things about the development of the Internet over the past couple of decades is that links have a much longer shelf life than they once had. There are some annoying irregularities, though, with some news outlets limiting the number of times you can look at their site ‘for free’ during a one-month period (e.g. the New York Times). The Wall Street Journal is a bit of a puzzle for me as well because often articles show up without problem when I first look at them on my phone or tablet, but when I’m looking on my laptop on Sunday they only have a preview. Ha’aretz is somewhat similar, and sometimes is visible and sometimes isn’t (and there are assorted Internet tricks which sometimes work and sometimes don’t).  Getting back to the the ‘nice developments’ side of things we should also mention the use of some useful extension for Firefox which make compilation a bit easier: one extension gives me a nice vertical tab view of all my sections (separate Google doc in each section) and I have another which cleans up a lot of the detritus that gets added to an url when it is sent out by email. Their existence in Firefox but not Chrome (my primary browser) justifies the continued use of the former.

It generally takes three to four hours on Sunday to compile a typical Explorator issue. Once all the links are compiled in their respective Google Doc — and I don’t get my double espresso until the Classics section is complete — the relevant sections are cut and pasted into a template which has grown markedly over the years (the first issues just had ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’!). The newsletter is then posted in a number of ways in an effort to give it the widest possible exposure. Currently, the primary email delivery method is via Yahoogroups, which sends it out to 5581 subscribers (according to the latest stats). It is also posted to the Britarch email discussion group. Early on, Explorator was also posted to a trio of usenet newsgroups (sci.archaeology, sci.archaeology.moderated., and de.sci.geschichte) and continues to be posted there since usenet’s acquisition by Google a number of years ago. It’s possibly worth noting that if one is looking for an archive of Explorators, sci.archaeology.moderated is much more complete than Yahoo’s, which seems to be perpetually having issues. That Yahoo seems to regularly have issues also is the reason I’ve recently been posting the newsletter online in a WordPress blog — there was a period when Yahoo was cutting off everything after sixty lines. The creation of the WordPress blog, in turn, led to the posting of a link to the online version in the Reddit archaeology group (posting the whole newsletter ages ago was deemed a ‘link scrape’ and so I discontinued posting there for a while).

So that’s my contribution for the past couple of decades to the world of archaeology. Currently in its twentieth year (give or take), Explorator continues to present news of the world of archaeology every Sunday, cost free and ad free. I hope you find it useful.