Awash in a sea of text

Working in academic research involves a lot of writing. This is especially the case when you are coming towards the end of a project, and even more so when that project has been running for a long time. I work on EngLaId at the University of Oxford, a project that has been running for 5 years now and will be coming to a close towards the end of this year. My job was to work on the GIS and database aspects of EngLaId, but I’ve also been heavily involved in producing the various written outputs from the project. Currently, therefore, I am spending most of my time either writing, editing, making figures (especially maps, my favourite part of the job!), or thinking about what to write. Just in the last week or so, I have worked on:

  • Final edits for a paper by the project team accepted by the Archaeological Journal. This is a paper that has taken a long time and a lot of work to get to its current point, but is looking rather good now I think.
  • I have finished a first draft of a paper that will be going in an edited volume on “critical cartography” in archaeology. This is a solo effort and has turned into as slightly odd mix of autobiography, polemic and cherry-picked theory. I like it!
  • I am co-authoring Chapter 6 of the project monograph with Chris Gosden, the boss. This is an interesting exercise in reaching a balance between my more quantitative and Chris’s more theoretical approaches. The chapter is on field systems in England from the Bronze Age to the early medieval period, in particular their morphological characteristics.
  • I am also starting to write text for the project atlas, which I am collating in a database as a first step. This seemed the easiest option as there is no point getting into page setting etc. before we know the dimensions of the pages, and it also allows me to keep track more easily of how much I have written for each page (more easily than in Word, say), by setting up fields that automatically count the number of characters in a text field.
  • Various other bits and bobs in various stages of preparation.

Today, I am mostly working on the atlas text. I want the atlas to be very visual, with lots of large maps, so I am trying to keep the text on each page to a minimum. This is harder than one might think, as some of the concepts being explored are quite complex and hard to summarise in a few thousand characters without being fatuous / over-simplistic.

Obviously, one isn’t really able to spend all of one’s time writing and still produce decent text, so I am also distracting myself from time-to-time by reading bits of Chris Wickham’s excellent Framing the Early Middle Ages. And by eating the odd Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer biscuit.

Chris Green

Academic Research: A Day of Meetings…

I work as a researcher at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford.  My job is to look after the GIS elements of a large (ERC funded), 5 year project to study the English landscape from 1500BC to AD 1086, which we call the EngLaId project.  For any who don’t know, GIS stands for Geographic(al) Information Systems (or sometimes Science) and it is, essentially, computer software that lets you create maps and analyse data in its spatial context (to cut a long story short!).  Our project is using GIS as one of the tools in its armoury in order to try to understand continuity and change in the English rural landscape over the period of 2,500 years from the Middle Bronze Age to Domesday.  My job mostly involves bringing together a large number of pre-existing datasets within GIS software (specifically, ArcGIS) and trying to find patterns and trends over time.


ArcGIS. Spatial data: contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2012 (OS OpenData)

However, Friday was not a day that involved a lot of GIS work for me.  Two of my colleagues on the EngLaId team work at the University’s eResearch Centre (OeRC).  During the morning, a few of us went over to the OeRC to meet with them and a Professor of Visualisation (Min Chen) and his team.  We had a long and interesting discussion about innovative ways of visualising data.  Prof Chen made a distinction between the two purposes of visualisation: to enable better academic understanding and exploration of data and to enhance public presentation of data.  The former is where his team’s research interests lie and they have done some fascinating work on creating ‘glyphs’ to display multiple data attributes at once.  The previous time we met with him, Prof Chen had shown us a series of glyphs that described the behaviour of sperm, which was most memorable for the erratic travel paths of the sperm found in ‘rats on drugs’!  The meeting ended with me being invited to take part in a workshop on geospatial visualisation at the end of August.

I returned to my office for a couple of hours, ate some lunch, and set my computer to running some GIS tools.  I then returned to the OeRC after lunch, leaving my processing processing, for our biweekly EngLaId team meeting.  We normally meet here at the School of Archaeology, but the building is being partly rewired over the summer, so there is currently no space to hold meetings here.  The team meeting lasted until after four o’clock, and seemed to be productive.

When we got back to the office, my colleague was told there was in a rat in her office (presumably disturbed by the builders), but I don’t think this rat was on drugs…  As it had been a long day, the pub beckoned, so we swiftly adjourned to there.  I had to return to the office later to check on my GIS processing (and pick up my bike), which had completed by that time.

Friday wasn’t really a typical day for me, as I am more usually found working at the computer in our attic office.  But it was a fairly productive day over all, despite the relative lack of normal work.  If anybody wants to know more about EngLaId, then please feel free to check out our own blog.