Can eBay be public archaeology?

This month of PA2015 will look at the ways in which relatively mundane objects move around and what that has to do with people. It has long been a contention of mine that archaeology and archaeologists have a particular perspective on material culture that enables them to locate, understand and describe active, contemporary material networks in a certain, distinctly useful way. Further, I think that understanding material networks with an initial focus on the object being moved can tell you about the relationships between people and other people, things and places that other more widely focused perspectives cannot. Lastly, I think that communicating this understanding to people can give them new ways of engaging in contemporary politics (which means a lot of different things).

Where is the public archaeology?

In this conception, there are two different public archaeologies. The first is found in the archaeologist developing these themes and methodologies, then working to create ways to communicate them to non-archaeologists. The second, both equally and differently important, is in non-archaeologists finding some use in approaching aspects of their lives in an archaeological way. These two public archaeologies meet in the middle, but do not have to operate together. One does not have to lead to the other in a direct fashion. People can take inspiration from archaeology in any way they want to and I see the potential to create another kind of archaeology that might be useful and to make it visible so it can be appropriated.

Making it visible

This month will split into two parts, the first focussing on eBay, the second on recycling. I’ll come to the recycling later in the month.

EBay has massive archaeological potential, both as a fluctuating repository of material culture, but also in what it might tell us about the relationship between people and objects. I’ll be chucking a few stats around over the next week, but let’s start with a few jaw-droppers.

  • Recently, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) celebrated the recording of its one millionth artefact, an incredible achievement. EBay lists, at any given time, somewhere in the region of 112.3 million items.
  • Looking just to object types on both the PAS and eBay, eBay listings in any one month equate to approximately 2.4% of the PAS database.
  • It follows that in numbers alone – i.e. discounting qualitative variables, which I will come to  – eBay sells the entire PAS every 3.5 years.
  • With qualitative adjustment, taking into account the relative frequency of different artefact types on the PAS, it would take eBay about 18 years to sell an equivalent set of objects. That’s not long.


EBay as public archaeology

So, where can eBay and public archaeology meet? When I tell people about this project, they hear the word ‘eBay’, smile and shake their heads. EBay is, in my experience, treated by archaeologists as a whole, and as a negative phenomenon. It’s where people sell metal detecting finds, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a normal part of millions of people’s lives and one of the primary ways in which objects move nationally and internationally on a person-to-person basis. So, it can tell us a lot about how things move and who is involved in moving them, this in addition to the almost unimaginable rolling dataset of 112300000 objects.

Working with the data

I can go into this in more detail through comments if anyone is interested. Basically, some years ago, eBay got annoyed with people scraping their customer site and slowing it down; they took people to court over it. One of the ways they have addressed this, realising that people using scrapers to categorise data drives more business through the site, is that they replicate their entire database on a secondary site and allow you to set up tools to extract information. Basically, you can set any parameters you want and collect information within them straight into an Excel file.

So, with a lot of help from my brother-in law, Andy Venables (he did 100% of the IT set-up), I ran a scrape of for the whole of November 2014. I collected data on every listing during that month on six representative artefact types: Jetton; Clay Pipe, Musket Ball, Spindle Whorl, Roman Coin and Lamppost. That scrape recorded 828 entries, which reduced to 605 after removing re-listings and misidentifications. For one month, it’s a workable dataset. Any PAS figures I refer to were gathered at the end of this period too.

For your own amusement, here’s the data: eBay data November 2014 for PA2015

Next week, I will do some work with the data and investigate the potential for eBay to play a role in the development of public archaeology. Also though I want to address my failure to engage any eBay sellers in my research! I’ll need people’s help with that bit, it needs to be a conversation and I look forward to having it with you.

Before that, over the next week, I simply want to introduce you to the data and, by extension, to the idea that eBay isn’t merely that bad thing over there, it’s loads of different people doing the same thing for different reasons. I’ll get going the day after tomorrow.


5 thoughts on “Can eBay be public archaeology?

  1. Archaeologists do ‘have a particular perspective on material culture that enables them to locate, understand and describe active, contemporary material networks in a certain, distinctly useful way’, but so do public enthusiasts let alone historians and for that matter geographers and some of our colleagues in the English and other departments. Ebay has been monitored in relation to anything associated with a well known archeological site for over 16 years, indeed, research interests aside, much that arises in terms of art and literature that isn’t already in captivity has seen attempts to acquire it for publicly accessible collections/archives. Unsure as yet what you mean or are going to say about ‘recycling’, I can only add that one only starts to achieve a sense of what is going on if Ebay monitoring is paralleled with monitoring such as High Street activity through charity shops and newsagents, table top sales and such as what lines the shelves of heritage outlets at or near archaeological sites. Even with just this site based focus the task is massive, and in itself is just an aspect of the Velcro like public engagement specific to the monuments and landscape. I am delighted and much intrigued by the line you have taken above James, and am looking forward to more. Incidentally, I find researching this material unrewarding and say without jest it is potentially an open road to senility, but using it to capture goodies and occasional gems for museums and archives punctuates with satisfying moments what is otherwise a mundane drive to a cliff edge. Apologies if this comes over as blurted, it was, and on just 2 hours sleep with monster toothache!

    • Thanks Brian, good to hear from you again. Yes, there are certainly valuable perspectives from lots of different fields. I only mention archaeology in particular as it’s my own starting point, it’s not meant as a restriction! It would be really useful to see any other work with eBay if you can link anything or perhaps email me. Has this other project built a search tool like we did or is it just ‘by hand’?

      In one sense, it is as you say an immense and unrewarding dataset, but I was surprised how easy it was to collect basic data and the stats arising from it are interesting and useful. If this month gets a bit of interest, I will try a bigger scrape. JD

      • Hello James, Nothing sophisticated beyond Ebay emailing renewed saved searches, the aim was much simpler and not focused purely on online auctions. We can chat via mail if you like, saves me boring anyone else and what you are doing is rather more interesting. And I still have toothache so even more miserable than usual! 😉

    • Hi Paul. It’s good to hear from you, I’ve been reading a lot of your work in this area, so I hope you can get involved with some of the discussion in a week or so when I post a bit more in depth. Just to reassure you, I’m very aware of the problems with the sale of certain kinds of object on eBay and will be addressing the issue in a future post. Hopefully at the moment I’m not obviously pro- or anti- , just trying to investigate the potential of the data. Hope to hear from you again. JD

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