Launch, Lunch & Reflections

Well, this is the last blog post from me (Debbie). The Rock Art Mobile Project is drawing to a close and this seemed like a good way to round it off.

Since the last post a lot has happened. Our super anoprinted signs were delivered and duly installed at the rock art sites (Lordenshaw, Weetwood Moor and Dod Law). Thanks to the Northumberland National Park rangers, Peter Hall, and Wooler Golf Club for all your help and patience!

Our newly arrived signs

After long hours, the mobile websites were completed (oh, how I miss those conversations debating photographs, wording and full stops!), the desktop site finished, and everything set for the official RAMP launch. Hurrah!

Luckily, Aron had booked a sunny day for the launch, and I’d remembered to book lunch, so we were all sorted. We (myself, Aron, Areti and Kate) were joined at Lordenshaw car park by friends, colleagues and all those invaluable people who had kindly contributed their time and thoughts to the project.

One of the signs at the launch, Lordenshaw

The launch was a great success with everyone seeming to enjoy themselves. Stan Beckensall himself was there, and it was lovely to see people again who’d come along to our workshops in September 2010.

But after the heady euphoria of the launch there was still work to do – and not just polishing off the leftover cakes. The beauty (and downfall) of websites is that they are never completely finished, something can always be tweaked and improved upon. So since the launch there have been some inevitable minor changes to adjust the look and feel of the sites.

The Website

For those of you eager to see the websites here you are:

Does it work?

We wanted to check to see how well the websites worked in a ‘live’ setting, so I spent a weekend in Northumberland meeting people and walking round Weetwood Moor and Lordenshaw with them to try and see if we’d managed to address all the points raised at our first workshops in September. And have we? More or less.

The content in general worked well, and the maps worked in that the cup and ring marks were all successfully found, although there were some usability issues which we’ve subsequently addressed.

The negatives? Mobile phone signal is ropey. We knew this of course, but to my mind it still remains the only feasible option. Bluetooth? Too complicated for people to use (I can count the number of times I’ve used Bluetooth on my mobile on one hand). An app? Too limiting; not everyone has an iPhone or Android. A downloadable audio tour? Well, we’ve kind of got that already – you can download the audio clips from the website before going, but this solution obviously assumes you know about RAMP before visiting.

It would have been nice to test the websites using the participants’ own phones but unfortunately most of the people taking part in the evaluation didn’t have Internet enabled mobiles, which meant using the project phones. Getting used to a new phone always takes some time, so surfing the web and testing a website on a new phone is even more taxing. However, our participants rose to the challenge admirably, and of course, a big thanks goes out to all of them.

And you mentioned ‘reflections’?

Ah, yes. Visiting the rock art again and listening to the ideas of a new set of people got me wondering. What do I think rock art means? Has my perception of rock art changed over the past 15 months?

Initially I simply viewed it as an element of the landscape. I remember feeling slightly awed but enthused by Kate’s rock art excitement on my first visit to Roughting Linn. Kate pointed out that simply the fact that someone had sat there all those years ago and put their hands where mine were now was quite incredible.

Later on, I was inspired by a storytelling workshop where we made up stories around the function of rock art. I heard two rich, powerfully visual tales in my group around wedding rituals (for example, the groom had to scale the rocky heights of a rival clan’s territory to carve a symbol before being deemed worthy of the bride) and told my own tale of a young boy surreptitiously carving a symbol into a sacred rock site – a rite supposedly only undertaken by women. These fictitious accounts have I supposed coloured my views. I now see the carvings as a part of some kind of ritual, only done by certain members of society, whether that be as a rite of passage or by a wise woman/shaman.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of any archaeologists! (I’m an interested digital media person, nothing more, nothing less.)

Wider project reflections however, are easier (and less controversial) to discuss. For me, it’s been a fascinating journey from discovering Northumberland, rock art through to meeting a lot of interesting people. I’ve even done a spot of dry stone wall building as a result of RAMP!

RAMP has been a challenging project, there’s no easy solution to developing a cultural heritage mobile phone experience in a rural setting. However, I hope we are in some way helping to enhance enjoyment of the rock art landscape, and instil a sense of respect around these ancient carvings through new technologies. I feel a strong sense of connection with these landscapes and rocks now, and I felt truly sad when I said goodbye to them at the project end.

Debbie

RAMP Team at Lordenshaw. L-R: Aron Mazel, Kate Sharpe, Areti Galani, Debbie Maxwell.

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The final countdown

This is it. The final stages of the Rock Art Mobile Project are well underway. And once again, I find myself blogging with a sinking feeling, knowing full well that I should have been blogging far more frequently than I have. The best laid plans…

Nevertheless, since’s Kate’s previous post, we have got small signs designed for our three rock art sites (Lordenshaw, Weetwood Moor and Dod Law), and they are now in the process of being made up by our printers, the fabulous Multitechnic in Morpeth.

“Signs?” I hear you cry. “But I thought this was a mobile technology project?” And you’d be right, it is a mobile technology project. The thing is though, it can be very difficult to navigate through the rock art landscape. The landscape changes dramatically throughout the year due to vegetation (think 6ft high bracken in summer, bluebells and bog cotton in spring, and exposed and/or snow in winter). Coupled with this however, is the lack of permanent, visible structures (like you might have in an urban environment). So written and visual directions, whilst vital and helpful, sometimes need a little boost.

We’re fortunate that the three sites we’ve chosen have some basic infrastructure in the form of wooden waymarker posts showing paths. So, we’ve decided to add our own RAMP signs to them (after seeking all the relevant permissions of course!) and in two cases, add wooden waymarker posts. The signs have a simple stylised map, our name & logo, the web url and a QR code. We also have slightly larger signs for the carpark areas to tell visitors what RAMP is and how to use it.

So apart from the signs, working up the content, developing and testing the mobile websites, we’ve been organising the RAMP launch event. Hooray!

Invites will be going out shortly, but it will be on Saturday 2nd July at Lordenshaw & Rothbury. We’ll be going for a rock art walk so here’s hoping it’s a lovely sunny day. Wait, it’s always lovely and sunny up there. For any sceptics out there, here’s the photographic evidence…

Weetwood Moor

Weetwood Moor

Lordenshaw

Lordenshaw

PS. If for some inexplicable reason you don’t receive an invite and think you should have one, drop me an email/comment on this blog and I’ll get back to you.

Debbie

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The Last Post…with a brief reference to albino crocodiles

The last 12 months have whizzed past, and it’s time to say farewell to RAMP. I’ve had a great time meeting everyone in Rothbury and Wooler, and getting to grips (sort of!) with the wonders of mobile technology. I depart with a whole new perspective on archaeological interpretation, and with increased respect for the power of the Post It note and the lolly stick. I’m sure that Debbie will do a great job pulling everything together for the big launch and look forward to my invitation :)

Cave art and crocodiles
We celebrated my last day with a trip to the Tyneside Cinema to see a rock art related film (what else?): Cave of Forgotten Dreams - the Werner Herzog documentary about the amazing palaeolithic art discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Cave in France. For any rock art enthusiast this is one not to be missed.  It was a privilege to explore the caves (not open to the public) in the company of a group of experts, and the 3D effect really emphasized the way the artists had used the contours of the cave walls to bring to life the horses, lions, mammoths, and bison. The music was slightly jarring, and the rather odd post-script about albino crocodiles was definitely a bit random, but I now feel like I’ve really witnessed this incredible place in person.  If you can’t get to  one of the cinemas showing the film you could always do the virtual tour on the official Chauvet website.

To other things…
I may be leaving RAMP but (happily) there’s no getting away from those cups and rings! Work continues apace on the CSI: Rombalds Moor project in West Yorkshire where our volunteers are now trained and setting out to test their rock art recording skills. You can follow their progress on the CSI blog. I’m also busy doing the final edits on the Spring issue of Rock Articles so watch out for that, and don’t forget that the British Rock Art Group Annual Conference takes place at Durham University this year, on the 7th and 8th May. I’ll be talking about RAMP and Aron will be presenting on South African rock art. Hope to see you there!

So long,

Kate

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Museums and the Web 2011

The annual Museums and the Web Conference starts today. And, drum roll please, RAMP has a paper there! Areti will be presenting “Situating Cultural Technologies Outdoors: Design Methods for Mobile Interpretation of Rock Art in Rural Britain” in Philadelphia tomorrow (paper available online).

Good luck Areti!

I’ll be following virtually via the power of Twitter. If anyone has any questions or comments about the Rock Art Mobile Project, please feel free to contact us either via this blog or Twitter (@RockArtMobile) and we’ll get back to you.

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Rock on!

Today I checked my pigeon-hole and found two postcards from our first workshops in September. (We handed out pre-stamped and addressed postcards asking people to send them back with any thoughts or comments on the workshop or project.)
I’ve got no idea who they’re from – they simply say, ‘Rock on!’ and, ‘It rocks!’ in suspiciously similar hand-writing. Hence the blog post title. I’m taking them as a random but positive sign! If nothing else, it’s always exciting getting mail, as long as they aren’t bills… So, if you’re reading this and you’re the mystery author, feel free to let me know, or leave me guessing forever!

In other RAMP related snippets, since the workshops there has been a veritable hive of activity. Kate has done a mass re-write of the content for all three rock art sites, taking on board what we discovered at the last workshops, and I’m working on redeveloping the interface.

Sadly, however, Kate’s time on the RAMP project is almost over, so I’m adding this photo of her here (yes, I know I’ve used it in a previous post, but it always makes me smile!):

Kate in a Cist!

Kate in a Cist!

Fear not, though, I’ll be sure to invite her along to the RAMP launch!

We’ve also been thinking about the relationship between the mobile RAMP experience and the off-site, ‘desktop’ experience. There are arguments for and against the existence of parallel, visually different websites, and generally speaking, I subscribe to the idea that a single website should be the ideal. Content and styling should be well designed so that a streamlined, elegant, ‘mobile friendly’ website can be carried over to larger Internet devices without any missing content or duplication. However, this isn’t always practical, especially for large, unwieldy websites.

In the context of RAMP, it’s a little more complicated. The mobile experience (in the field) is only partly about the informational content. Physcial navigation around the rural landscape is also vitally important. This navigational information is unnecessary on a desktop site (unless it’s as a download for a future visit). Similarly, some of the informational content only makes sense when you’re standing right in front of the rock carvings.

Conversely, the desktop site can handle more demanding content (e.g. video, large images, rich user interactivity) without concerns around mobile phone signal strength. This scope could in some cases compensate for not being in situ (e.g. an audio slideshow highlighting key features of the rock carving). We’re still deliberating what any additional or replacement content might be on the desktop site, but for now, it’s enough to recognise that there will be a different treatment for the two experiences.

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More workshops

Two blog posts in quick succession – wonders will never cease.

Last weekend (Friday 4th and Saturday 5th March) RAMP held another set of workshops. This time we were based entirely in Rothbury and Lordenshaw, a design decision made so that we could test our first working mobile prototype at a single rock art site.

The workshops followed a similar pattern to the ones we had in September: going out on a site visit in the morning, returning to Rothbury for lunch and then having group discussions in the afternoon.

Listening to dialogue, Lordenshaw

This time however, we added a new component – mobile phones! We brought along a set of mobiles (a Blackberry, a Samsung running Android, an iPhone and an HTC Desire, also running Android). We also had some Flip video cameras, and asked participants in pairs to take a phone and a video camera and look at the mobile website we’d built once we arrived on site. We were looking for indications on how well the website dealt with navigating around the physical site of Lordenshaw – would everyone understand the directions and be able to find the information? We were also keen to find out how the rock art information itself worked – were the diagrams useful? What about photographs? How the style of the text we’d written fit? Was what we said interesting or useful?

While we’re still going through all the data, a few things quickly became clear:

  • The navigation system worked, in part at least. While there are some glaring faults with it, the actual directions themselves seemed to be clear, in the main.
  • The conversational style of the content we’d written was well received.
  • The use of a question (in essence, ‘Do you think rock art was painted or occasionally re-pecked?’) provoked some discussion and debate.
  • Diagrams showing the carvings were helpful, especially annotated ones which picked up on some of the interesting features of the rock art panel.
  • Speculation on the meaning of rock art was missing. Whilst we were testing an early stage prototype, it was obvious that we hadn’t addressed this.

Our next steps are to look at all of this information in more detail to try to address all the issues, and build our next, more complete prototype. We will then test the mobile website again, probably in a more informal setting, by basing ourselves in the car park at Lordenshaw for a day or two, trying to find visitors willing to spend an hour with us, finding out more about the local archaeology.

However, at this stage, we need to say a big thank you to all of the participants who gave up their free time to visit rock art with us, peering at mobile phone screens, and telling us their thoughts. It is much appreciated by the whole RAMP team.

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Finally, an update!

Despite all evidence to the contrary, this blog is still alive and kicking. (Or twitching at least.) So here goes, a quick catch up.

Months ago, in September, we ran three workshops in the local areas of Wooler and Rothbury. I am pleased to report that all the material collected has now been reviewed, broken down, put onto 5000 sticky post-it notes (or at least, so it seemed), and re-combined to give us an analysed, nuanced sense of the data.

Kate adding a post it note

Kate adding a post it note

But what does this mean? Well, the core outcomes are:

  • The ‘findability’ of rock art – Many participants told us how they struggled to find the physical rock art panels, despite sometimes having visited the site previously.
  • Desire for evocative ‘rich descriptions’ of rock art – The tone of the content provided should be engaging and imaginative, providing a level of connection with the original carver. Participants seemed to enjoy the discussions and conversations which emerged while standing at the rock art panels.
  • Desire for Speculation - It’s the key question everyone asks about rock art: ‘What does it mean?’ We had lots of answers and discussions about this, both on site and during focus groups afterwards. Rock art seems to provoke more questions than answers (at least, that’s how it appears to me as a non-archaeologist!). Who made them? What were they like? What was the landscape like? Were they meant to be viewed by everyone? Were they meant to be touched or just looked at? The list goes on…

Perhaps there’s nothing too controversial or surprising there, but it’s always good to have these issues confirmed. For example, when I joined the project I wondered whether the difficulty in finding panels was part of the fun. (I can now confidently say that this is not the case!)

In other RAMP news:

  • We have had a paper accepted at the Museums and the Web 2011 Conference in Philadelphia next month.
  • Kate & I have been spreading the word about rock art and mobile technology through lectures to post-graduate students, including one group of digital media designers who we challenged to come up with some creative ideas around the project aims. Results included interactive digital poetry, making use of social media, using rock art to tell fortunes using the stars (bit like horoscopes), and a visual art installation using phone triggered lights in the ground to gradually illuminate the outline of the landscape and the shape of the carvings. We’re going to have a think on some of these and see if we can take any of them forward.
  • We ran another set of workshops to test our first RAMP prototype (see next blog post!)
  • Finally, Areti and I demonstrated our first RAMP prototype to heritage professionals at the Bits 2 Blogs conference in Newcastle last week.

Phew! All done. And I promise to try harder to blog more frequently.

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