Every nine-year-old loves the idea of archaeology—the prospect of digging in the dirt and finding mysterious objects once touched by people from the past. A few of us actually grow up to do this for a living. Along the way we learn the complexities of our craft, and we master its intellectual traditions. We learn to practice anthropology with a material focus, engaging with human lives past and present.
One of the many things we learn along the way is how to present our research as authoritative science. This helps us to get published in respected journals and to compete for grants, but, ironically, it doesn’t often make for compelling literature. Although we study past peoples, our writing too often focuses on quantifying or describing objects. There have always been a few archaeologists, of creative bent, who stray from the technical writing tradition and find ways to present their work in alternative formats—as novels, visual art, drama, and the like. Electronic media have really blown this open, with archaeologists creating interactive web pages and online photo archives, for example.
It can be stimulating and fun to come up with creative and accessible ways to present our research, and it’s gratifying when the nonprofessional public loves it. But when the results of our work aren’t written up as science, do they still carry authority? What separates an archaeologist’s imagined story about the past from a work about archaeology by a card-carrying novelist? Are we blurring the line between fact and fiction and, in the process, doing a disservice to our craft and to the peoples of the past?
As Reinhard Bernbeck and I were debating these issues, we decided to bring together colleagues who were on the same page, as it were, to explore these issues in more depth. We invited archaeologists who are trying out creative, alternative forms of expressing archaeological research findings to participate in this conversation. Subjects and Narratives in Archaeology, a book that both talks the talk and walks the walk, is one result. Several chapters include multimedia elements that can't be reproduced in print, so you can either read the ebook or view the book's multimedia page as you read the print edition. There you can find slideshows, videos, and an audio file of a radio-style dramatization. Our experiments continue!
Ruth M. Van Dyke is professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, SUNY. She is an archaeologist specializing in the North American Southwest, and her research interests include landscape, architecture, power, memory, phenomenology, and visual representation. She directs projects on the Chaco landscape in northwest New Mexico and on historic Alsatian immigration in Texas.