Archaeologists: Lets tell a Human Story.

Posted: April 5, 2014 by extremehistory in Uncategorized

Television shows like Diggers and Nazi War Diggers are created to fill a need that is not The Extreme HIstory Project is an independant, non profit, public history organization that looks for ways of making history relevant for community, society and policy.being met by archaeologists. That need is to tell the human story of who we are. The story that gives context and meaning to our lives. This is a deeply seeded psychological need that we all have. It’s the reason people have always searched the past for answers, thus it’s the reason archaeology exists in the first place. But if archaeologists aren’t serving this need, then others, in this age of rapid information access, will exploit it for personal gain. Rupert Murdoch, who owns Nat Geo, has no interest in serving society by helping people make meaning of their lives. His interest is in exploiting their psychological needs by providing provocative content in order to sell advertising to corporations for profit. So Nazi War Diggers, then exists because archaeologists aren’t meeting this need.

As archaeologists, we take the richness of the human experience as expressed in the material culture left behind by people in the past, and reduce it to data. So very little of that data ever gets translated back into an engaging human story that expresses this experience. In fact, even the data itself rarely makes its way beyond the walls of the institutions for which it was produced. How does this honor our ancestors who lived and died in the past? How does that serve society today? We have focused so heavily on the science that we’ve lost sight of the humanity.

As humans, we understand the world through stories, not data. When we’re asked in conversation about our kids, we don’t speak about their height, weight and shoe size, we share their personal experiences, their challenges, their achievements. When we’re asked about a vacation, we don’t relate the number of miles traveled or the calorie to exertion ratio. We describe a beautiful sunset or share the excitement of an adventure. Can we find such narratives in the material expression of the past? Can we express these narratives alongside the scientific data?

Now is the time for us to tell a human story, to extrapolate humanity from the bits and pieces of cultural remains and the data on the page. If we don’t do it now, someone else with less knowledge and a different agenda, will. In order to do this, we need to see humanity in the materials and data we study. We must see the hands that made the pot or the tool, the labor that built the structure, the minds that organized the society, the mother that bore the next generation and the child in the skeletal remains. If we can’t see humanity in our data, we can’t express that humanity to society who is looking to us for answers. We can’t tell a human story.

We must take the step beyond mere data collection, then, and begin to piece together the story of the past as expressed through the struggles, the joys, the upheavals, the devastation and the labors of human lives that have created our present. Beyond this, we need to share this story with everyone in order for all of us to have a better understanding of the processes that formed our present. Such knowledge creates context which can help us all begin to understand ourselves as humans sharing this mysterious experience of existence.

There is science behind they way stories affect how we view the world and how we behave in it. In the video below, Paul Zak tells the story of two chemicals, how they are affected by a story and how they affect our behavior.

Holly Williams nails it in this article about storytelling in science. “I believe that we, as scientists, have a social responsibility to break this wall and start engaging the public in meaningful ways. As you, dear reader, have undoubtedly guessed by now, I think that one of the most promising approaches to this end lies in the act of storytelling.”

If mathematics can tell a story, archaeology can tell a story.

  1. James Bruggeman says:

    Well said.

    Keep up the good work.

    Jim Bruggeman MCHCE

  2. I certainly agree with this post! But, I think there is a fine line between “telling a human story about the past” and just straight up “storytelling”.
    Also, I think that there are at least a few examples of archaeologists creating books that are specifically tailored for public consumption. I just finished reading a book called the “The Goddess and the Bull” about Catalhoyuk that was certainly geared toward a non-technical audience. It was written by the site’s “biographer”, a person specifically on the staff to record and present the history and on-going excavation of the site to a public audience. But, on the other hand, books aren’t enough anymore. I believe that archaeologists need to take to internet/TV/Netflix/Facebook/Instagram to spread and share what we know about history and cultural preservation. Otherwise a whole generation of kids (and not only kids but adults too) are going to grow up with a twisted view of history and cultural preservation that shows like “Diggers” and “Ancient Aliens” provide for them.
    I know Extreme History (and Project Archaeology) are doing a great job of getting out there and promoting these types of programs , but I believe a much larger effort of the entire archaeological community is necessary to mitigate the negative effects of these History/Nat Geo programs.

    • Well said, Bekah. This needs to be a discipline-wide approach from a variety of different areas and utilizing many different means of accessing the public. Michael Balter’s book and Dr. Ian Hodder’s work at Catal Hoyuk are great examples of public outreach in archaeology. We need to do more of that in American archaeology. We also need to redefine what storytelling means in archaeology. There needs to be an opportunity to get to the humanity of the materials we study.

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