And ne’er the two shall meet: archaeological dissemination and the creative human mind.

Really, this is a ridiculous title because archaeologists are by their very nature creative people. We interpret the material record in order to make a connection with the past and, whilst the process of excavation is a very destructive one, when we interpret the data gained through the destruction of the archaeological record we are engaging in a fundamentally constructive activity. We construct pasts for ourselves. Note I use the word ‘construct’, not ‘reconstruct’. Excuse me whilst I digress into semantics for a moment.

I’ve always been wary of the word ‘reconstruction’. I’m sure that it has its place – reconstructions of objects and buildings are of course, completely legitimately named ‘reconstructions’ when we have an original to work from. I don’t like the idea of using the word ‘reconstruction’ in association with the past in general, however.  It suggests that the job of the archaeologist is to simply pick up pieces of the past and put them back together to make an original whole – a picture of the past; the past as a series of social, political, and economic entities. We can’t reconstruct something like that when we have very little idea of what it was like before its physical manifestations became a part of the archaeological record.

That’s really by the by, and whilst something deep within me longs to enter into the semantics of things, I don’t have the time. I can only sit in Starbucks without an Internet connection for so long before I completely lose my mind at the injustice of it all.  My point is that most archaeologists claim to ‘reconstruct’ and to ‘recreate’ the past, yet somehow manage to fundamentally refuse to be truly creative whilst doing it. I’ll return to this in a moment. First, some words on creativity, for it troubles me.

If you asked someone to say a few words on ‘creativity’ you might get responses like ‘creativity can’t be contained’ or ‘no art is truly original’ – these two contrasting ideas are utterly perplexing. Indeed they’re probably better off in a discussion on art history. My reason for bringing them up is that I wish to argue that whilst creativity is popularly seen as free and without confines, we surely must know that this cannot be true, because we all work within the parameters of our puny human minds. What we create is undoubtedly influenced by our own experiences, emotions and ethics.

So can the above be an excuse for archaeologists to sit back in their chairs, crack their knuckles, and heartily set upon writing up a piece of research in the same old fashion, following a set of rules and regulations and using the same old language? My argument is that it cannot, indeed it must not.

Whenever I have had conversations of this type with friends or my poor, long-suffering boyfriend, they have argued, ‘but that’s ridiculous! There must be some sort of peer-reviewing process or standardised practice. Otherwise any old idiot could write and publish any old drivel!’

It’s a very good point, but I just can’t get this pet peeve out of my head. I feel like there’s something wrong, that’s stopping us from moving forwards. I feel like I need to get to the root of the problem, because by finding out what it is that makes us do things the way we do them, and what is stopping us from changing, I can then make recommendations about how to move forward and make our methods of communication better*.

I haven’t yet said plainly what it is that peeves me about the way that archaeology is communicated, and that’s probably because I’m still trying to work it out. Every single heated, ever-so-slightly-tipsy conversation that I have in a higgledy-piggledy York pub brings me closer to it, but I’m not quite there yet. I know that a lot of it has to do with the way that archaeological narratives are approached, produced, and presented. Each and every time that I express my frustration on this matter, it comes out like an attack on proper academic conduct, which is not what I want to do. I am a self-confessed fancier of bibliographies, and I absolutely relish the writing of correctly structured and carefully argued essays, but it all feels far too practiced. I know that we follow an outline for academic writing for a damn good reason, and I am sure that I don’t need to explain it here, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m not sure if this is as much of a problem in other branches of the humanities related to archaeology. The prime concern of archaeologists is the creation of narratives, whereas historians already have narratives with which to work. Similarly, anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists are recounting anecdotal situations that they have experienced first-hand. Their narratives already exist. I think this makes it much easier for historians, anthropologists et al to write narratives rather than structured, analytical pieces of writing. This brings me back around to the topic of my first ever post on this blog: the distinct lack of prehistoric fiction.

Obviously ‘lack’ is not the correct word – that’s just my untamed, melodramatic side rearing her sequin-clad head – there certainly is good fiction set in prehistory out there (again, a topic for another post, or perhaps it’s time for me to construct a bibliography). But there is so much less of it than there are historic novels or novels on contemporary cultures. This has to have meaning somehow, and I wonder if prehistory just seems like too much of a challenge, or too much of a risk. Could being creative and taking leaps of the imagination just pose too much of a threat to the well-established academic? I’ve ranted and raved elsewhere about the inhibitions of archaeologists when it comes to imagination and creativity, but I can’t help repeating my earlier musings on whether it is a certain type of non-deliberate snobbery left over from processualist archaeology that is holding us back.

This post is already 1000 words and it’s been sat on my macbook, waiting to meet its fate for a good 6 hours, so I’m going to wrap it up here and treat it as an untied end to come back to. All I know is that as I think more and more about PhD applications for 2014, this is what I can’t get out of my mind.

Are archaeologists afraid of their imaginations?

This is a subject that has been, in one form or another, plaguing me for a long time. And the fascinating thing is that it is touched upon in so many of my various lectures and seminars, yet there doesn’t seem to be anyone doing much about it. It is steadily driving me more and more insane, and if no one else does something about it, I might be forced to do a PhD about it, and that’s just an appalling idea because. Well, because I’m already an imposter at Master’s level.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve just come out of a couple particularly engaging seminars and it’s times like these, when I’m practically foaming at the mouth because I am so riled up by a subject and the rant that I want to rant is so tantalisingly out of reach, that I realise that this is why I just keep coming back to archaeology. Because archaeologists are SO frustrating at times. No, no no. Let me rephrase that; academics are so frustrating at times. I’m getting my A-words mixed up again.

The first seminar was about the authenticity of experiences and meaningful experiences with archaeology and heritage. One of the main points that came out of our discussions was that, to the lay person, authenticity has little to do with truth and fact, and more to do with the quality of the experience that they are having and the way in which they are engaging with that experience.

The second seminar was about 3D imaging and virtual realities in archaeology. Obviously, conversation quickly turned to gaming. In my previous post I articulated some of my feelings about the potential of games and gaming technology for archaeological dissemination, but now I have even more opinions on the matter.

So the overriding question in both of these seminars was, what is stopping us from moving forward and engaging with the archaeology/heritage in a more emotional, reflexive manner? 

And I think that it’s this huge reluctance in the profession to properly utilise and stretch our imaginations. Which, really, when you think about it, sounds absolutely ridiculous. After all, and especially in prehistoric archaeology, the imagination is key to the process of interpretation.

Scholars seem to be afraid of losing credibility or respect by using imaginative and emotive narratives to communicate the knowledge and theories that they have extracted from their data. I believe this is seriously narrowing the potential for the dissemination of archaeological knowledge.

It’s all well and good for the academics to sit and seek out scholarly articles on the architecture of Florence in the Renaissance, but there’s no chance that the average, intelligent lay person would ever consider doing such a thing (or even be able to access such articles, but that’s another rant). They would, however, be able to access and immerse themselves in the (IMHO) utter glory that is Assassin’s Creed II.

VR and gaming is just one example of an untapped resource with huge scope for the development of new ways of communicating our collective heritage. Those such as Mike Shanks have asked questions like the one I ask in the title of this blog. Clearly the time has come to stop asking is this true? or why is this so? and to start trying to overcome the barrier that is stopping those responsible for knowledge-making from circulating their work into wider circles in an exciting and engaging manner. I hope that soon we’ll be able to move on from this terrible, invisible divide between scholarly pursuit and ‘entertainment’.

Naming names

This blog is turning out to be very useful for networking. It’s surprising the people who’ve found me through this thing. It has also proven (as I suspected would be the case) that I am devastatingly ignorant on the subject of prehistoric fiction and indeed literature in general. But that’s okay; I’m here to learn. I’ve been pointed in the direction of what promise to be some interesting reads, including a graphic novel!

I thought I’d talk a bit about issues surrounding terminology. This is something I touched on briefly in my previous post when I mentioned that it has been argued that “transition” is an inappropriate word to describe the period of change between Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The evidence almost always suggests that the process was much more complex than a quick, clean change brought about by a “Neolithic Frontier” – yet another term that has brought about extensive discussion. Archaeologists often continue to argue that the terms “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic” are unsatisfactory, but I fear that we’re too late to change that. Those particular terms are here to stay.

I’d also like to consider the sorts of terminology and language that authors chose to use in their writing. One of the first problems I’m encountering as I think about starting to write is simply how to go about naming any characters I might come up with! I’ve seen some authors making up their own names. Another popular route seems to be to follow the Native American approach and go for names reminiscent of dear old Jaguar PawPersonally I think that I’d be inclined to make up my own names. I find that although many cultures often give their children names that mean something in their language, I’m distracted by reading English words as names. I often find some of them rather laughable as well, which stops me from truly engaging with the characters and scenarios in which they find themselves.

Then there’s the issue with the names given to roles and positions within society. What do we call the leaders, the husbands and wives, the spiritual leaders? In archaeology it’s important to try and come up with the most impartial and neutral language. Personally I am forever running from westernised ways of thinking and writing. I think the number one rule when attempting to envision our past is to remember that the way we see our world could be infinitely different from the way that our ancient ancestors did.

Of course when writing fiction for a much wider audience than just archaeologists, who sympathise with such agonies, allowances must be made. The characters must be relatable and the situations understandable. I think that plot would not be the main issue here – in some ways humans are very simple, and I think that we have probably been telling stories in a similar fashion from the very beginning – there will always be accounts of “good” versus “evil”, forbidden love, parables and myths with some sort of moral lesson.

But is it really appropriate to call a Neolithic leader a King or  a Lord? Or a Mesolithic spiritual specialist a Shaman? The former, to me, smack of far too feudal a system. The latter is a specialised term that was originally used to refer to the spiritual guides of nomadic groups in the Arctic Circle, who were believed to have had access to the spirit realm through entering states of altered consciousness (by getting high as freaking kites), but has become widely used in anthropology, history and archaeology.

I feel like perhaps the best approach, then, would be to come up with more new names rather than re-using English ones that have hundreds of years of socio-political background and possible connotations.

It’s always very easy to get caught up in these issues. I have fallen victim to such discussions in so many of my previous written assessments. I would start an essay by defining the subject, and then confronting the inevitable issues with terminology in the subject and, without realising it, have wasted half of my word count on a tangent. If we spend too much time discussing the intricacies of terminologies, are we defeating the point of archaeological enquiry? Ultimately we want to find out what the hell people got up to, not what words are most appropriate to describe them! But to make a piece of prose enjoyable it must be written in a way that involves the reader, rather than bringing questions into their minds, so perhaps in fiction these issues remain important.