What is Storytelling? An archaeologist’s view

While preparing resources and contacting people regarding my education outreach project, I’m often asked – what do I mean by storytelling?

It’s a fair question. It definitely conjures up images of sitting around in a huddle listening to the teacher read from an open book, or more poetically, huddled around the fire listening to the latest yarns from a visiting bard. Depends how much folklore and fantasy novels you read on that last one.

Music and fires within roundhouses are optional props for storytelling, but highly recommended! Here prehistoric + historical music experts Kate and Corwen play in the Earthouse, Ancient Technology Centre, Dorset.

Given that this is National Storytelling Week I feel it’s only fair I set out my own stall, and tell what I think storytelling is, from my perspective as an academic, an educator, and a lover of telling tales. For me, it falls into three distinct categories:

1. Telling Tales

This is probably what you’re imagining when you think of storytelling – someone recounting adventures or struggles or triumphs. When I think about telling tales, I’m looking to preserve the skill of telling a story – not just reading from a book, but really getting under the skin of the listeners and telling them a story that sticks.

Tell a few stories around a steaming mug of something – alcoholic or not – on a special day. Make them up, retell ones you know in a new way, or recount old favourites. Storytelling is a treasure of human imagination.

2. Translating Tales

This takes a little more explaining, as what I’m really talking about here is translating what artefacts, landscapes, monuments, human remains and other archaeological features tell me as an archaeologist, and then present it in a story that is engaging, interesting, and relevant to the listener. That might take the form of an academic paper, or an interactive session with school children handling and exploring object stories, or helping develop interpretation for heritage outreach. To me, rather than storyteller, the archaeologist is a translator, bringing the stories of non-human or deceased entities to a new audience. More on the theoretical background to this is to follow in both a paper I’m currently writing and my CAA poster.

3. Presenting the workings of the world as a Tale

Differing slightly from 2, this is the act of taking scientific, academic, philosophical, archaeological, or other “non-fiction” topic and recounting it in such a way that the story it tells has a narrative structure that engages with the audience. It’s a key aspect of successful outreach and relates research that may, at first glance, be dry or uninteresting, and make it relevant and exciting to as many people as possible. This is the kind of work that people like STEM Ambassadors,  BIG Heritage, and other educational organisations strive to achieve. If you saw my TAG presentation on archaeological outreach in education then you’ll know that for me, this kind of storytelling is what helps our reputation as experts and academics be rehabilitated from the current anti-expert rhetoric and engage with the public in a way that lets them see we are working on projects that are not the products of aloof, elitist academics.

So there’s my three branches of storytelling, and what I mean when I say “I’m into archaeological stories”. Examples on the way!


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