Tag Archives: 17th century

Bringing the Past to Life: Archaeology, Storytelling, and Characterisation


As evident from the blog archive, several weeks (often months) tend to elapse between posts, which reflects writing around various projects (and other commitments) that command pretty much all of my time. Over the last few weeks of blog silence, I’ve been conducting research in preparation for a new direction in teaching. So here (and on my other blogs) I’ll bring together a few thoughts and ideas regarding the methods and practices that I’m currently exploring towards this aim. The series of freelance talks, walks, and workshops that I’m developing will prospectively involve costumed presentations in the ‘character’ of (a) ‘lady antiquarian(s)’ set in the 17th – early 19th centuries. They’re also likely to incorporate ‘storytelling’ (a topic to which I may return), alongside more traditional approaches.

Although many have encountered costumed interpretation in the form of historical re-enactment and living history, and museum ‘explainers’, the adoption of costumes and ‘stories’ within archaeological education may be less familiar. The role of storytelling within other areas of Historical studies has gained prominence in recent years,[i] and in subsequent posts I may return to consider in more detail the archaeological theory behind this practice (on which several academics and professionals have written). For now, I’ll outline some of the teaching experiences that have led me to explore these methods, and briefly explain how I intend to apply such methods as an interpretative too, and l within educational sessions. I’m in the process of constructing a website that presents this work-in-progress, which should anyone be interested is here.

The Lifeless Past: Troubles with Teaching

When beginning to teach Archaeology in the Adult Education sector (back in 2000), I soon realised the vast difference between practice and reality. I had received training, but I doubt that any tuition could have prepared me for the experiences of delivering one particular early course. My first mistake was presuming that those who attended actually wanted to be there, and to learn, due to an interest in the topic.[ii]

In fact, from the outset several of my students admitted alternative reasons for attendance, which included having to stay away from a home due to some form of regular meeting held by a spouse; and the need to keep warm between other meetings in the vicinity. Others told me that they had no particular interest in the topic, but thought that, as serial AdEd course attendees, they might as well ‘see what it’s about’. At least one student informed me that they were interested in the topic (hurrah!), but that as he already knew all there was to know about the subject (oh…) – having ‘read up’ on the topic – they were there purely for the ‘sport’ of ‘catching me out’.

For one quite timid and lacking in confidence (as I was at this time), delivering this course was at times painful. The students responded to the course content in various ways – not always positively, including blatant refusal to participate (thus not fulfil institutional and educational obligations), and at times did not cooperate with each other. Very occasionally, material ignited sparks of interest, but I was unable to fan the flames of passion for the subject that then drove me to pursue my research with dedicated fervour. More often, their attention wandered, and few showed the curiosity that I had hoped for (if not expected) when planning and preparing the sessions.

I tried to make the data of relevance (and, so I thought, more interesting) through a syllabus that examined culture and society through a variety of themes, comparing past and present, and where possible integrating the skills and interests of students. Some material would be, I anticipated, less interesting (though necessary to the course): I was well aware that few find grass-tempered pottery particularly appealing![iii] But I strove to stimulate discussion surrounding this content, and other material encountered by students during independent study (which I naively expected students to accomplish), to provoke and extend critical thought. Disappointingly, my efforts were, in general, ineffectual.

Nevertheless, I thought that at least the field trip (planned for the final week of the course) would enthuse, providing opportunities to apply what had been learned in class by exploring the relevant landscapes, sites, and museum archives in person. But this was not to be: at the last minute, they decided to abandon any plans for a trip.[iv] Clearly, in retrospect my management of the class and course left much to be desired; nevertheless, I was left with the dilemma of providing an additional classroom session – which I had insufficient time to prepare, my lack of experience not predicting such a situation.

My students had frequently provided feedback regarding my teaching methods and the course –which I now know is in general rarely forthcoming in detail. However couched in terms of antipathy to participation in either practical or written work, this proved useful. It was apparent that students really wanted TV-style low-content overviews with no participation beyond sitting, watching, and listening – but with the opportunity to ask questions of the ‘expert’ presenter. But from my pedagogical training and research, I was aware that, while the ‘chalk-and-talk’ approach may at times be a suitable teaching method, other approaches – particularly participatory activities – are often more effective (especially within such a ‘hands-on’ subject as Archaeology).

The Passive Past?

I discovered during further teacher training that other AdEd tutors had also often encountered the preference of students for ‘receiving knowledge’ in this seemingly ‘passive’ way. Although the ‘sit-look-and-listen’ ‘learning style’ that dominated schooling until the end of the 20th century evidently influenced the expected educational experiences of AdEd students (many of which were of retirement age, with most aged over 50 years), there was a sense that ‘edutainment’ was increasingly affecting students’ expectations.

Typically associated with a tendency to ‘dumb down’ – i.e. simplify material with the assumption that the ‘audience’ is insufficiently intellectual to critically appraise complex ideas – such an approach was considered out of place in the classroom, constraining the standards and outcomes demanded by professional ethics. While AdEd students usually profess(ed) a desire only to ‘acquire’ (sometime extend) knowledge surrounding a specific subject, educational institutions  require(d) tutors to demonstrate that students also gain transferable analytical, interpretative, communication, and a range of other skills. This may create tensions between student and teacher, the latter having to develop less intimidating (even ‘fun’) ways to assess the achievements of the former – not only  to maintain standards, but also (as I have often been told) necessary in sustaining funding to the educational body. As students must be fully aware when undergoing assessment, tutors may find themselves in a predicament when meeting outright refusal to participate in assessed activities – a situation I have encountered several times.

Educators cannot (and many do not) ignore that the vast majority encounter ‘History’ as ‘edutainment’. And it is clear that such encounters may stimulate individuals to pursue more detailed and challenging studies of the past: as an undergraduate at Nottingham University in the early 1990s, the influence of Time Team upon the influx of new students was clear (and I had been enthused by Channel 4’s less well-know archaeological series, Down to Earth).[v] The value of ‘edutainment’ in archaeological studies can at least be measured thus. But there are other, wider, benefits for both the educator and researcher, and students, as numerous projects of the last two decades have demonstrated. Before (and by way of) elucidating this assertion, I must return to my classroom of chaos.


In considering what my students wanted from me, it became evident that they essentially sought a cohesive narrative that might feed the imagination, as much as the intellect (which of course often work in concert – in the Sciences, as well as the Humanities and Arts). My students wanted a ‘story’; yet (at this time unaware of the recent research on ‘Archaeological Storytelling’),[vi] I had doubts as to whether such a form of presentation was acceptable methodology. I supposed that any degree of ‘storytelling’ would be at best inadequate, allowing all but a cursory, restricted, view – and with ostensibly no involvement by students, precluding opportunities to develop critical skills. There were perhaps insufficient data to present a coherent account: bearing in mind the constraints of the evidence, I could draw only a partial picture. Above all, I was obliged to provide facts, not creative supposition, and had to abide by the syllabus, using the material I presented to guide the students in meeting the proposed learning outcomes (about which they seemed to have not the slightest interest, often refusing to participate in any form of assessed work).

But on reflection, due numerous gaps in the archaeological record, as well as the scope for frequently contesting readings of the evidence, archaeology often involves some level of ‘storytelling’; the important factor is to make clear the differences between scientifically verifiable conclusions, hypotheses, and informed supposition. Also, I might use ‘storytelling’ to bring together the material and ideas that we had covered in the preceding weeks both to refresh the students’ memories, and to demonstrate how the theoretical aspects of the course might be applied – as well as to ‘explore’ (albeit imaginatively) one of the sites that we would have visited on the field trip.

So, with students gathered around the desk on which I perched, I engaged in a rich description of a particularly informative site,[vii] from the perspective of a fictional contemporaneous visitor who was unfamiliar with the locale – essentially, providing a ‘day-in-the-life-of’ account. In the course of extensive research, I had previously considered sensory and emotional engagement at this site (again, before being aware of the research in this field), as suggested by the archaeological remains.[viii] Consequently, I was able to readily incorporate narrative relating the sights, sounds, and smells of the site, and the interactions of people and place, as well as featuring material more commonly encountered within archaeological descriptions, such as data relating to diet, economy, and technology. Conducting research on social and cultural identities (with particular reference to this site), and having explored Phenomenological archaeologies,[ix] for my doctoral studies,[x] I was in a position to integrate more abstract concepts and experiences. The voice of a narrator clarified the aspects of my ‘story’ that were demonstrable scientifically; what was qualitative interpretation; and what was hypothesis and informed conjecture.

The response of my students was highly positive, with comments including ‘that was the best lesson ever’, and ‘why couldn’t it always be like that?’. During and after this session they asked questions, and engaged in discussion, through which they showed that they had attained a satisfactory level of understanding and critical awareness, able to distinguish between fact and fiction. But, despite such reactions and outcomes, I still at the time saw such an approach as an inferior teaching method (if indeed a valid methodology).

Returning to Tale-Telling

Since this first foray into fiction, I’ve gained experience that has widened my horizons in exploring different approaches and methodologies to both research and teaching, and required deep delving into archaeological theory.[xi] I’ve come across several archaeological projects that have successfully used storytelling as a medium for dissemination, and research that rigorously examines the benefits (and shortcomings) of this method during this extended period of learning (which will surely never end while I continue to explore new areas of research).[xii] In conjunction with the results of my previous endeavour, this has encouraged a return to storytelling.

A couple of years ago I experimented with the use of narrative (here, for a community project that I run) in exploring an Early Modern standing (and occupied) building. However, my efforts were to me somewhat gauche and unsatisfactory, as further research – including more prolonged investigation of the house – may have provided a richer data set with which to work. I had written this narrative only as an after-thought, having only briefly visited during an open day. This time, my approach differs – not least through my own ‘performance’ as (a) ‘character(s)’ from the past.

Characters and Characterisation…

I intend to use the character of a ‘lady antiquary’ as a guide when leading public tours, talks, and workshops within my study areas (primarily Derbyshire – especially Derby and district, but also parts of Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and London – and perhaps other locations, for comparison). This character might provide a medium through which to approach various research interests (particularly antiquarianism and history of archaeology; landscape and identity studies; household archaeologies; archaeologies of death and burial, and of ritual and religion; and history of charity and philanthropy).[xiii] Placing such a character within different social and temporal situations (from the 17th – 20th centuries), I may consider themes such as gender; class; age; education; localism, regionalism and nationality; with regard to specific contexts, examining change and continuity over time and space, and considering the interplay between individuals, family, community and nation. In this way – exploring the different ways in which the past was significant in the past, and was variably accessible to and controlled by assorted social groups – I might use the character as an interpretative tool, as well as for the dissemination of research.

Although there will be similarities between my methods and those of ‘historical re-enactors’ and ‘living history’ persona, there are therefore diverse distinctions – not least in my placing the same essential character at different points and places in time (though adjusting the manifestation of this character according to circumstance).[xiv] This approach draws upon the principles of archaeology, i.e. study of historical material remains with regard to chronological and spatial relationships. As with some living history ‘explainers’, I will make use of historically accurate costume and other artefacts in ‘demonstrating’ historical practices, and to discuss social and cultural issues. But my work shall differ in the (occasional) deliberate use of anachronistic material as a means to consider preconceptions, past and present, drawing upon landscape, sites, and monuments in a similar manner. My interpretations will integrate data derived from my own research in conjunction with that from previous archaeological and historical studies, but where possible I shall also aim to encourage the participation of ‘audiences’, and where appropriate the incorporation of ‘alternative’ histories.[xv] In addition, my use of storytelling may be more prominent than the ‘back-stories’ often used by re-enactors and in living history. It will also differ from storytelling performances as intended solely for entertainment. A significant aspect of my sessions (and other resources) will also be to use data-narratives to reflect upon the present – an objective that is gaining greater ground in archaeological studies.[xvi]

I shall conclude this post by very briefly considering the significance of, and potential problems with, characterisation – a major issue being the risk of generalisation. Without sufficient elucidation from the ‘presenter’, ‘audiences’ might easily take a historical persona to (re)present society as a whole; or ‘telescope’ an entire ‘era’ (a complex notion in itself) into the ‘snap-shot’ in time portrayed by the character; the homogenisation of heterogeneous culture is thus a possibility. It will therefore be important to make clear the concept of context (central to archaeological studies); and to emphasise the nature of presentations as ‘snap-shots’ in time – a factor ever-present within the analysis of archaeological sites and assemblages, generating the need to determine the extent to which isolated finds and contexts may be representative. The notion of divergent ‘Histories’ – which after many discussions with students and others interested in history, it is apparent that some find uncomfortable – need also be emphasised. My approach to these issues will be to explain analytical process, and bring a range of (often-conflicting) ‘voices’ into the text of my stories, through existing and new resources. As already mentioned, my ‘character’ will ‘move through’ time, in one session set in the 1710s, in another the 1830s. Much of my research has compared particular topics and locales over the ‘longue durée‘, enabling the affects of social and political structures upon everyday life to be considered through the minutiae of experience, and providing opportunities to hear the shouts and whispers of the hitherto silent. But working at this level of detail, looking across and within diverse societies and cultures take time: this will be a prolonged work-in-progress (my previous study taking almost 11 years to complete!).

Despite such weighty aims, the provision of original and replica artefacts for handling by the public; location of sessions within beautiful landscapes and buildings; presentation in striking costume; and use of (semi-)fictional narratives to explore of aspects of society and culture that though be less often be covered, more meaningful to broader ‘audiences’; I aspire to not only make this form of education engaging, without ‘dumbing-down’, but also fun!


[i] For example, see Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic not only at a Slave Route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); Hartman discusses her integration of fact and fiction in 2008 ‘Venus in Two Acts’, small axe Vol. 26 (Jun.), pp. 1–14. For a discussion of these techniques, see e.g. Markus Nehl 2006 Transnational Black Dialogues: Re-Imagining Slavery in the Twenty-First Century, Belefeld: Deutche Nationbibliothek; Nicole N. Aljoe 2012 Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709-1838, NY: Palgrave MacMillan; Lisa Ze Winters 2016 The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic, Georgia: UGP. While this method is adopted principally in order to elide the potential of archive material to perpetuate violation, and ‘silence’ the subaltern voice, in holding the capacity to explore contesting narratives the techniques used might be extended with effect beyond the fields of identity and postcolonial studies.

[ii] A more light-hearted view of my early teaching experiences is ‘Community Archaeology’, in Sue Carter’s 2014 We Don’t Dig Dinosaurs! : What Archaeologists Really Get Up To (XLIBRIS) pp. 85-91.

[iii] Should anyone be intrigued by this material (unlikely, I know!), the cultural contexts in which this ware has been found (which were of particular relevance to the sites my courses studied) are briefly outlined, e.g. here (a now dated work, though still of some use – and written by one of the lecturers under which I studied for my BA and MA). For a brief technical discussion of this form of ceramic production, see e.g here; and for examples of this ware, on which I worked, see e.g. here.

[iv] In fairness, the organisation of transportation had proved problematic, necessitating car sharing and thus student collaboration – barely seen before this moment of unified opposition! It would also have required additional funds, which some may have found difficult to raise.

[v] For discussions of the tensions between education and entertainment within ‘TV archaeology’, see Mike Corbishley, 2001 Pinning Down the Past: Archaeology, Heritage, and Education Today; Don Henson, Peter G. Stone, Mike Corbishley (eds.) 2004 Education and The Historic Environment.

[vi] For archaeological research on storytelling methods, see for example the 1998 Society of Historical Archaeology collection of articles (Vol. 32, No. 1), Archaeologists as Storytellers, Adrian and Mary Praetzellis (eds.).

[vii] I used a site on which I had been conducting post-ex work for several years – providing  familiarity with tens of thousands of finds, and hundreds of contexts that had been excavated over 25 seasons – and so had a particularly rich source of data on which I might draw.

[viii] For early archaeological studies on sensory and emotional archaeologies, see e.g. Sarah Tarlow 2000 ‘Emotion in Archaeology’, Current Anthropology Vol. 41, No. 5 (Dec.), pp. 713-46; Stephen Houston and  Karl Taube 2000 ‘An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal Vol. 10, No.2, pp. 261–94. Numerous more recent publications critique and develop early work in these fields, with those of the special Archaeological Dialogues 2010 collection (Vol. 17, No. 2 , Dec.) providing particularly interesting and informative discussions on archaeology and emotion: Oliver J.T. Harris and Tim Flohr Sørensen ‘Rethinking emotion and material culture’, pp. 145–163; and Talk about the passion’, pp.186-98; Åsa Berggren ‘Emotional aspects of a fen’, pp. 164-67; Susan Kus ‘The matter with emotions’, pp. 167 172; Adam T. Smith ‘Those obscure objects of desire’, pp. 172–176; Edward Swenson ‘Emotion reified. Lessons from the archaeology of ritual’, pp. 176-83; and Sarah Tarlow ‘Pale reflections’, pp. 183 186. Recent archaeological publications on the senses include e.g. the papers within Jo Day (ed.) 2013 Making Senses of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology, Southern Illinois University; and Yannis Hamilakis 2015 Archaeology and the Senses, Cambridge University Press.

[ix] The principle text on this topic at the time was Christopher Tilley’s (1994) A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments (Oxford: Berg); critiques of this work include, e.g., Joanna Brück (2005) ‘Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory’, Archaeological Dialogues Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 45–72.

[x] My thesis, Ethnic, Social, and Cultural Identity in Roman to Post-Roman Southwest Britain, Dept. of Archaeology, University of Sheffield (2010), is available here.

[xi] Should anyone be interested, this has included further AdEd teaching (Universities of Nottingham, Keele & Oxford, and WEA), and completing my PhD (here); and presenting research at conferences, publishing articles, and producing exhibitions, listed here. I’m grateful to those who have ‘pushed’ me to conduct research and public archaeology surrounding ‘challenging’ topics, which has required the adoption and development of less conventional methods, leading to the establishment of various community and research projects, information on which can be found here, here, and here.

[xii] See note vi.

[xiii] For my previous work in these fields, see note xi.

[xiv] I must emphasise that I am in no way criticising re-enactment and living history; rather, I merely explain how I intend to experiment with the medium of historical (re)production.

[xv] This I see as perhaps the greatest challenge, bearing in mind that most sessions will likely comprise only brief encounters, although there may be more opportunities to do so when working with community groups over the long-term (e.g. through my projects, especially PSP, and LIPCAP).

[xvi] For example, see James Symonds 2011 ‘The Poverty Trap: Or, Why Poverty is Not About the Individual’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology Vol. 15, pp.563–571.