Everyone has a story to tell and so do artifacts. Unfortunately, archaeology rarely has all the relevant historical facts, and that is where storytelling comes in. I wanted to investigate the role creative writing might play in archaeology and came upon a number of archaeologists who have also been intrigued by this intersection. How does storytelling contribute to scientific research and how can archaeologists strike a balance between fact-based reporting and literary storytelling? How can we use fictional stories with factual archaeological research? Is that “allowed?” These are a few questions that James Deetz, Adrian Praetzellis, Mary Praetzellis, Jim Gibb and other archaeologists have exposed to academic thought and critique.
Tim O’Brien’s fictional novel, The Things They Carried, opened my mind to the fine line between “facts” and “truths.” He writes, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (pg. 158). In other words, writers may base a story on historical events and then make up details to fill in the gaps of the story to help the readers understand some part of the human experience.
Having minored in creative writing I understand that in order to make a story believable, especially in a historical context, writers must research the daily activities and nuances of life during the time in which they set their story. This combination of research and creative interpretation is what Jim Gibb argues can help archaeologists hypothesize in a way they couldn’t do without storytelling. In his essay Imaginary, But By No Means Unimaginable: Storytelling, Science and Historical Archaeology, Gibb writes that “Creating a sustainable story with believable plot and dialogue requires precision and logic no less demanding than would be required in formulating and testing hypotheses.”
To me community archaeology involves linking historic sites and artifacts to the heritage of current residents and their stories. Archaeologists often reference historical documents, letters and other narratives from the past to help identify structures on a piece of land or understand daily life and how artifacts might have been used centuries ago. As long as we recognize what is fact from what is fiction, stories from the community could push archaeologists to ask new questions – questions about heritage that are important to current residents and not just the researchers.
Have you used storytelling as an archaeologist? Leave a comment and continue the discussion.
Written by: Sarah Janesko
Sarah Janesko holds a BS in Cultural Anthropology from Towson University and will begin her Master’s degree in Applied Anthropology with a concentration in archaeology at the University of Maryland this summer. As a rising professional in the field she hopes to learn more about how other disciplines, like literature, can play a role in archaeological theory and practice. She aspires to use archaeology as a tool to help communities connect through their shared history. Get in touch with Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.