Writing Archaeology and Writing Fiction

The title of this post comes from an article written by David Wilkinson, of Oxford Archaeology, published in the Autumn 2007 edition of ‘The Archaeologist’ (the journal of the Institute of Field Archaeologists). Wilkinson is not only a top-flight archaeologist, he is also an accomplished writer of fiction. In his article, he contrasts the writing of fiction with the writing of archaeology. His first example, the description of a clay, is instructive:

Slabs like the squared off clots
Of a blue cream. Sunk
for centuries under grass [Seamus Heany, Door into the Dark 1969]

Until I found Bann clay. Like wet daylight
or viscous satin under the felt and frieze
Of humus layers. The true diatomite

Discovered in a little sucky hole,
Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable –
Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool. [Seamus Heany, To a Dutch Potter in Ireland, 1996]

And now, the archaeological version:

‘Very compact, Blue-ish grey to white, 10YR/8/1, pliable, clay 90% silt 10%, 35-17 cm, probably natural.’

In his paper, Wilkinson discusses how such bloodless, pseudo-objective writing is slowly being replaced by ‘true’ archaeological voices again, and he cites the recent paper by John Barratt concerning Framework Archaeology‘s excavations for Terminal 5 (‘Academic aim and approach, in Framework Archaeology’, Landscape Evolution in the Middle Thames Valley, Heathrow Terminal 5 Excavations Volum 1, Perry Oaks, Framework Archaeology Monograph No.1 pp15-17. 2006.) But he asks, ‘what of characters in archaeological writing?’ Wilkinson’s paper is really making a plea for archaeologists to remember that they themselves are characters in the story of the site or landscape that they are studying, and that they should put themselves into it:

“We all sit in portacavins, in offices, in vans, in pubs or round fires, and we tell stories… we have a great time and drink too much and what do we do the next morning? We get up and go to our offices and we rite, ‘In Phase 1 ditch 761 was recut (794) along part of its length.’ Surely, we can do better”.

A similar argument was made in the SAA Archaeological Record last May, by Cornelius Holtorf , in an article called ‘Learning from Las Vegas: Archaeology in the Experience Economy”. Holtorf argued:

“Learning from Las Vegas means learning to embrace and build upon the amazing fact that archaeologists can connect so well with some of the most widespread fantasies, dreams, and desires that people have today.[…] I am suggesting that the greatest value of archaeology in society lies in providing people with what they most desire from archaeology: great stories both about the past and about archaeological research.”

Archaeology – the doing of archaeology! – is a fantastic experience. You learn so much more about the past when you are at the coal-face itself, when you stand in 35 degree C heat, with the dust on your face so thick you almost choke, debating with the site supervisor the meaning of a complicated series of walls, or sitting at the bar afterwards with a cool beer, still debating the situation, laughing, chatting. Reading ‘Three shards of Vernice-Nera ware found in-situ below 342 indicate…’ sucks the fun out of archaeology. It certainly has no romance which puts the practice of archaeology – as published to the public – far down the list of priorities in this modern Experience Economy. The serious face of archaeology we present to the public is so lifeless : how can we expect government and the public to be excited about our work if we ourselves give every indication of not being excited either?

I’m not arguing that we turn every site monograph into a graphic novel (though that’s an interesting idea, and has been done for teaching archaeology). But with the internet being the way it is these days: couldn’t a project website contain blogs and twitters (‘tweets’, actually) from the people working on it? Can’t we make the stories of the excavation at least as important as the story of the site? The Remixing Çatalhöyük project is a fantastic step in that direction. I hope to see more like it soon. Maybe we should be talking also with the folks at the Centre for Digital Storytelling

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