Scholarship and experience outside the academy

The Wall Street Journal has an inspiring story of a hairdresser who turned her curiosity about Roman hairstyles into novel scholarship: "On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head".

In 2007, she sent her findings to the Journal of Roman Archaeology. "It's amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you're doing," she says. "I don't write scholarly material. I'm a hairdresser."
John Humphrey, the journal's editor, was intrigued. "I could tell even from the first version that it was a very serious piece of experimental archaeology which no scholar who was not a hairdresserin other words, no scholarwould have been able to write," he says.
Ms. Stephens' article was edited and published in 2008, under the headline "Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles." The only other article by a nonarchaeologist that Mr. Humphrey can recall publishing in the journal's 25-year history was written by a soldier who had discovered an unknown Roman fort in Iraq.

There is so much room in archaeology for people with deep subject knowledge, but not necessarily archaeological training, to make original contributions. Last night's NOVA episode, with a group of people trying to reconstruct Egyptian chariots, is another case where an ancient tradition can only be examined by those with insights about the subject beyond the historical and archaeological record -- in this instance, how to get a team of horses to work together using bridles, bits and yokes that no one had seen used in more than 2000 years.

One of the great potential strengths of online media and open access is to enable this kind of participation by non-academicians. I'm hoping to capture some of that enthusiasm and knowledge in an upcoming project.

(via Charles Mann)