What does it mean to do good archaeological interpretation?
If you’re new to the field of archaeology, still learning the basics of the discipline, the chances are that your experiences of archaeological interpretation are relatively limited. Perhaps you’ve done interpretation via completing a small box at the end of a context sheet while on fieldwork? Perhaps you’ve sat through a series of theory-heavy classes where messy raw field data have been transformed into eloquent, often single-authored tomes, which you’ve then had to read and synthesise for essays or exams? Perhaps you’ve created an information panel or blog post for non-specialist audiences to tell them more about a site? (Note: I’ll return to this non-specialist prejudice below.)
Whether you’re new to the discipline or not, my interest is in how we practice, teach and nurture ‘good’ archaeological interpretation. While we might spend weeks (or years…or more) studying the rote methods of excavation, the methodology for archaeological interpretation itself is arguably much less explored or understood, and creative means for facilitating more engaged interpretative work in the field and beyond can often be bespoke, one-off, optional or non-existent.
What does it look like to have skills in critical, creative forms of interpretation?
How might these skills be applied and honed at the edge of the excavation, during the field survey, or in the lab or archives, in a regular fashion as part of the professional archaeological toolkit?
How are our recording devices (whether digital technologies or paper-based records, etc.) primed to enable such creative criticality?
How might these creativity-generating skills and tools transform the discipline at large?
In this blog post, a companion piece to the recently-published “Why are heritage interpreters voiceless at the trowel’s edge? A plea for rewriting the archaeological workflow”, I broach such questions, suggesting that the interpretative process in archaeology is still sorely underdeveloped, and that crucial agents in this process (including heritage interpreters, and creative methodologies for recording and publishing the archaeological record) are often missing or haphazardly applied. My argument stems from more than a decade of managing short and long-term interpretation projects at sites across the UK, Turkey, Africa, and Europe. Herein myself and my collaborators work in tandem with archaeological teams to develop interpretative resources for a wide variety of specialist and non-specialist audiences (from Antiquities inspectors to local business people to tourists and their tour guides to PhD students to school children – and anyone else who might or could have a relationship to the archaeological record).
As I see it, there is no shortage of exciting interpretative work being conducted today. The problem is that our standard textbooks, our fieldschools and pedagogical programmes, our recording systems and field manuals, our commercial workflows, and all those components of the discipline that tend to set the baseline for archaeological practice, are often mute about creative interpretation skills.
What does good interpretation in the field look like?
With various teams of practitioners, I’ve been exploring these dimensions of the interpretative process at archaeological sites in different parts of the world. Here we seek to better understand the complexities of the process and where we might intervene to ensure that – from the outset – our larger narratives about the past are assembled with the same care and concern as are given to the application of other standard field methods.
We are but one group amongst many who are grappling with deficiencies in archaeological field practices. Hannah Cobb and colleagues (2012:2) speak of how these practices are usually “explicitly designed to divide the world into objects and subjects,” with the context sheet in particular “forc[ing] a separation between what we may think of as being factual, and what can be considered interpretation” (Members of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project 2012:118; also see Yarrow 2008). They go on to highlight the attention that has been paid to negotiating such problems “after the dirty work of excavation has been done” (Cobb et al. 2012:6), via varied postex theoretical explorations. Yet, as they and others like Tessa Poller have highlighted, this is deeply frustrating, leaving a key source of the problems – the methods themselves – untouched. Accordingly, direct outputs of fieldwork (e.g., excavation reports) typically end up, as Rebecca Yamin (2012:137) describes them, “notoriously dull, but even more serious…they so rarely convey anything worth knowing.” In my correspondences with Poller about these issues, she defines the predicament very clearly: we are regularly deprived of training in the field in skills of creating imaginative narratives.
What are field-based (or lab-based or archive-based) imaginative narratives?
By imaginative narratives, I understand Poller to mean more than merely running a social media campaign at the excavation’s edge – or producing a panel to display for visitors. Rather, these narratives are efforts at opening up possibilities for critical thinking amongst both specialists’ and non-specialists’ about what is being studied, about how it’s being recorded, about what stories are being constructed from the moment something is uncovered, about what assumptions are already driving the process before it even begins, about whose voices are included in our accounts, and about how the data are – and can be – turned into richer interpretations of life and experience throughout the full course of the archaeological project.
As described in more depth in this article , my contention is that heritage interpreters (understood broadly as anyone with refined skills in mediating between archaeological ideas, people, and materials—which may include archaeologists themselves, illustrators and other media makers, technologists, curators, community members, and heritage professionals, all trained in interpretative practice) have these skills in ‘artful integration’ (to borrow from Maxwell and Hadley 2011). More specifically:
- Heritage interpreters provide structure, inspiration and prompts for thoughtful, field-based interpretation
- They know the intended audiences (professional and lay), vision and objectives for the work
- They are simultaneously trained in evaluation, communication and creative thinking, enabling them to trace influences and analyse the effects of different interventions
- Most importantly, they have the capacity to foster creativity and imagination in others – even in those who believe they have no talent for storytelling or who might be intimidated, uninterested or ostracised by the interpretative process
However, heritage interpreters’ work is often marginalised or misunderstood – and the discipline of heritage interpretation itself fuels the problem. My article reviews the state of current heritage interpretation practice and its relationship to archaeological interpretation in the primary fieldwork content (i.e., in the excavation units themselves, or on the survey landscape, etc.), proposing that their artificial separation is deeply problematic. Via discussion of various on-site interventions, I offer reflections on how the heritage interpretation skillset and toolkit might be more rigorously deployed to facilitate critical and creative archaeological theorising.
I also reference many practitioners who have been doing such applied work over many years. To add to those I’ve already cited, Tessa Poller and the CLUTHA Archaeology Project are currently deploying creative writing and creative reflection activities in the field. The Ardnamurchan Transitions Project has experimented with elaborating recording forms in their fieldschools (adding ‘intervention’ and ‘participant’ forms alongside their context sheets) in order to challenge traditional archaeological subject/object divides. Francesco Ripanti and Giulia Osti (in press) have recently used ‘fiction-making’, specifically in the form of docudramas and creative writing competitions, to simultaneously facilitate specialist and non-specialist knowledge creation. John Swogger is presently in Yap, Micronesia crafting real-time, field-based excavation comics. The design consultancy Bright White has long been collaborating with both the National Holocaust Centre and Museum and Historic Environment Scotland to develop media and interpretation that simultaneously propel forward research and public education aims.*
My key point is that field-based imaginative narratives are possible, they are transformative, and while the forms of narrative that emerge from such work may differ, the methods for pursuing them are well-established (especially by heritage practitioners) and so there is no excuse for their absence from our standard training and professional structures.
“We did this 20 years ago”: The disturbing disconnect between practitioners
In one of the more perplexing experiences I’ve had in my professional life (and I’ve had many!), prior to submission of my article to the editorial team, I sent a draft version for comment to nearly two dozen colleagues and close friends who work in all sectors of the field. This included excavators, stratigraphic specialists, computer scientists and digital media experts, illustrators, artists, other imaging experts, heritage practitioners, and different archaeological period specialists. These professionals are in different stages of their careers, based in different parts of the world, working at sites from the smallest community digs to the largest infrastructural projects; some work commercially, some academically, some in mixed public-private settings. In other words, they represent a wide swath of the discipline, and they provided me with much critical input which I tried to incorporate into my final submission. The article then went for peer review and for the first time ever I received minimal corrections and genuinely positive feedback from all reviewers. (I consider this a miracle).
However, in a bizarre turn of events linked to UK academia’s problematic REF, my article was separately sent by my university to other anonymous reviewers, one of whom suggested that I have little understanding of “the present scene” because everyone already applies creative interpretation in the field to good effect. Separately, a commentator on Twitter replied with a dismissive, “we did this 20 years ago”, as though it’s something that can be done once and then set aside.
In both cases, where I asked my critics for examples so that I could grow my argument and account for missed evidence, I received no response. As such, I find it impossible to accept this set of criticisms, especially so because I’ve yet to meet a heritage interpreter who agrees that their skillsets are fully and consistently recognised, utilised or valued. The disconnect between what my critics think is already common sense, and what heritage interpreters are actually engaged to do, is vast and deserves a separate analysis. Issues with funding, with bureaucracy, with leadership and training contribute to the divide, but the deepness of this chasm betrays just how confused and lacking our current methodologies are.
I continue to search for examples of:
- field, lab and archive-based creative interpretative methods that are not one-off or specific to certain projects, but rather normal institution-wide policy deployed in all circumstances by the organisation
- national and international bodies that embed the importance of heritage interpretation for research – not just public-facing dissemination – into their missions, objectives, codes of practice, how-to manuals and ethical guidelines
As above, I recognise that models of good practice do exist for more creative interpretation in the field. There are also many examples of initiatives that expressly prioritise and call the discipline to action around art-archaeology or creative archaeology practices. However, my worry is that these calls are often being voiced into a void – or into a relatively small sub-specialist pool – where the wider potentials cannot be realised.
Until our most basic methods and standard structures for knowledge-making in the discipline shift, robustly integrating these creative measures, I fear heritage interpretation will continue to sit marginalised and underused – sometimes mocked, oftentimes misunderstood, regularly viewed only as part of the ‘public impact’ portion of the archaeological workflow.** Not only does heritage interpretation suffer from this predicament, but so too does the pre/historic record and the archaeo-historical disciplines at large. There is no reason why we should be left chained to applied field methods whose dimensions suffocate curiosity, force us into impoverished practices at the field/lab/archive’s edge, and thereafter contaminate the entire interpretative endeavour. A whole professional enterprise – heritage interpretation – already has the tools, skills and craftspeople available to negotiate some of these problems. Let’s now systematically and meaningfully weave this expertise into our work.***
Dr Sara Perry, University of York
Email | firstname.lastname@example.org
Blog | saraperry.wordpress.com
Twitter | @archaeologistsp
*There are many more – I’m sorry I can’t list them all, but I’m happy to update this post with examples if you send them to me!
***Bill Caraher has provided me with much food for thought about the nature of the ‘workflow’ to which I’m referring, and the overall organisation of expertise. I’d urge you to read his take on the topic.
***I’m grateful to Pat Hadley for helping me to think through some of the complexities of expertise in this field of practice, as well as to Tessa Poller, Oliver Harris, John Swogger, Francesco Ripanti, Peter Dunn, James Dixon, Chris Walker, Harald Fredheim and various people on Twitter, who have provided further feedback to me since the publication of my article. As ever, I do not presume they necessarily agree with me, but their generous input has been inspirational.
Cobb, Hannah, Harris, Oliver J.T., Jones, Cara, and Richardson, Philip (2012) Reconsidering fieldwork, an introduction: Confronting tensions in fieldwork and theory. In Hannah Cobb, Oliver T.J. Harris, Cara Jones, and Philip Richardson, eds. Reconsidering archaeological fieldwork: Exploring on-site relationships between theory and practice. New York: Springer. Pp. 1-14.
Maxwell, Mhairi, and Pat Hadley (2011) TAG 2010 Session Review: An Artful Integration? Possible Futures for Archaeology and Creative Work. Archaeolog (blog), February 13. https://web.stanford.edu/dept/archaeology/cgi-bin/archaeolog/?p=325, accessed November 21, 2017.
Members of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project (2012) The struggle within: Challenging the subject/object relationship on a shoestring. In Hannah Cobb, Oliver T.J. Harris, Cara Jones, and Philip Richardson, eds. Reconsidering archaeological fieldwork: Exploring on-site relationships between theory and practice. New York: Springer. Pp. 113-130.
Ripanti, Francesco, and Osti, Giulia (in press) The multiverse of fiction: Exploring interpretation through community archaeology. In D. Van Helden, and R.E. Witcher, eds. A necessary fiction: Researching the archaeological past through imagined narratives. Abingdon: Routledge.
Yamin, Rebecca (2012) Through many eyes: A non-hierarchical approach to interpreting a site in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In Hannah Cobb, Oliver T.J. Harris, Cara Jones, and Philip Richardson, eds. Reconsidering archaeological fieldwork: Exploring on-site relationships between theory and practice. New York: Springer. Pp. 131-146.
Yarrow, Thomas (2008) In context: Meaning, materiality and agency in the process of archaeological recording. In Carl Knappett, and Lambros Malafouris, eds. Material agency: Towards a non-anthropocentric approach. New York: Springer. Pp. 121-137.