I’ve been reading articles in the New York Times Archaeology and Anthropology section.  The articles are written by journalists for the most part and they are written for the public.  I’ve been struck by the seeming necessity for storytelling and speculation on the part of the anthropologists/archaeologists presumably to excite the type of public interest that leads to more funding.  More often the articles lean heavily toward the storytelling.  Other articles, especially shorter ones, tend more toward bare facts.   Sometimes they present a story-like presentation from one group and a more just-the-facts commentary by another as in Lucy’s Kin Carved Up a Meaty Meal, Scientists Say.  My interest at the moment is not so much in stories versus science concerns.  I’m more interested in the stories themselves.  Are there similarities in storytelling style among archaeologists or do individual archaeologists follow the storytelling style of their native culture or do they follow the storytelling style local to the dig or research?

I browsed the net and immediately found a related grouping of articles discussing mostly the science versus storytelling concerns.  I only had access to the first pages of the articles, but that was enough get a feel for some of the issues and concerns.  A group of three articles appeared in Historical Archaeology in 2000.  Two of the articles in part critiqued an article by James Gibb, “Imaginary, But by No Means Unimaginable.”  Here’s the abstract for that article:

“Imaginary, But by No Means Unimaginable,” a phrase coined by L. Daniel Mouer and Ywone Edwards-Ingram at the 1998 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, epitomizes a new approach to archaeological analysis and public interpretation. The suddenness with which examples of storytelling appeared in conferences and publications has left little opportunity for comment, particularly to address the theoretical and methodological issues that underlie this hybrid of science, humanities research, and artistic expression. This commentary suggests that storytelling is more than a means of engaging public audiences: it is a form of archaeological analysis.

The idea of storytelling as a form of “archaeological analysis” stands out to me and brings back my question of whether archaeologists create, synthesize, fashion stories in a similar way.  I found comments from the other two articles of general  interests.  From “Scientific Creativity and Creative Science:  Looking at the Future of Archaeological Storytelling,” Larry McKee and Jillian Galle write:

Storytelling is not so much about fiction as it is about presenting a story–be it true or embellished–that connects with an audience.

More importantly, we argue that effective engagement must come from a well developed sense of what is important about the site being studied, and how this can be related to the changing needs of various audiences.

In “We Are All Storytellers”:  Comments on Storytelling, Science, and Historical Archaeology,” Teresita Majewski expresses concern that in narrowing down to strict science, some archaelogists lost sight of the human component in studying the past:

I welcome the potential of storytelling, or “interpretive archaeology,” to contribute to both public interpretation and archaeological analysis.

Thinking still of storytelling as archaeological analysis, I started to wonder whether there were courses out there that instruct on archaeological storytelling.  I found a syllabus from 2006 of a course taught at Berkeley titled Anthropology 136i: Archaeology and the Media: Digital Narratives in, for, and about Archaeology.  Here are some bits of information about the course from the syllabus:

This course (and its sequel Anthropology 136j which will be taught in Fall 2006) focuses on the use of digital media to create narratives about the practice and the products of archaeology.

The ultimate aim of the course is to enable students to create their own digital narratives from their own research.

The aim of Anthro 136i is to focus on the history, current state and theory behind the use of digital media to express archaeological narratives. Digital media (including film/video, websites, and 3D games) and presentation/communication (TV, Internet) about the topic are explored and critically evaluated and compared to non-digital sources.

I have no idea how common courses like this one are and I don’t have time to look into it more right now.  For now I’m just taking casual notice.  In an article from June of this year in the Guardian Lucy Worsley suggests that archaeologists consider turning to Hollywood for help with storytelling requirements.  The article is titled, “Judicious razzle-dazzle can bring dry bones to life:  Many in my profession may sneer, but viewing history like Hollywood helps conjure up vivid explanations of the past.”  Worsley writes about encountering the dull and then the delightful:

This morning I was sitting in the curators’ apartment at Hampton Court Palace, reading a report that contained the not-so-gripping words “the stone artefact assemblage contains two whetstones, two slate pencil tips, several fragments of roof slates and some river pebbles”.

On Wednesday we learned from a team of Italian archaeologists who had analysed his bones that Caravaggio – sensational, unstable, the most rock’n’roll of 17th-century artists – may have suffered from lead poisoning from his own paints.

The Caravaggio story read like a treatment for Discovery Channel – and so did this week’s other archaeological news, that a German team have identified the bones of Eadgyth (“Edith”), King Alfred’s granddaughter, in Magdeburg Cathedral. Thrillingly, her teeth have revealed that she came from chalky Wessex, and her bones show she may have suffered from an eating disorder.

I took note of Worsley saying the one story read like “a treatment for the Discover Channel.”  Before coming across her article I came across a page at Discovery Education with a lesson plan for teaching students in grades 6-8 about “Archeology and Storytelling.” ( I noted that the page goes back and forth on the spelling of “archaeology”  sometimes including the “a” and other times not.)  The lesson plan says students should learn that “Not all archaeological finds readily reveal their history to archeologists, ” and goes on to suggest one way that archaeologists fill in the gaps:  “They examine old structures and piece together bones and artifacts and also piece together fragments of oral stories to try to understand what happened in a place a long time ago.”  The emphasis is on oral history as opposed to other storytelling/creating methods that archaeologists may use.

So there you have the fruits of wondering the net for a couple hours.  I didn’t necessarily find what I wanted.  I saw enough to make me want to look more, but I must get back to my regularly scheduled reading.  Perhaps I will take this topic up again in a later post.