Narrating Archaeology

This week I started on one of my major sabbatical projects. I began the process of editing and writing the volume dedicated to our excavations at Koutsopetria on Cyprus. This volume will be PKAPII or PKAP2 whichever looks cooler.

The largest part of our volume will be a detailed treatment of our excavations on Vigla, a Hellenistic fortified site on a prominent coastal plateau. We will publish a discussion of our excavation practices, their results, the architecture and fortifications, and, of course, the significant assemblage of Hellenistic material from this site. The volume will also include discussions of the excavations by our team and Maria Hadjicosti at the Early Christian basilica associated from the Late Roman coastal site of Koutsopetria. More on Koutsopetria later because now it’s all Vigla, all the time. 

Over the next few weeks, I plan to spend time revising my colleague’s, David Pettegrew, detailed treatment of the stratigraphy and phasing of our excavations on Vigla. To be fair to David, these treatments represent the hard work of interpreting the various contexts excavated over our three seasons of work, but at present they are presented in outline form with bullet points. His work has made it fairly easy to identify the various contexts that represent the archaeological phases at the site, but tough reading for anyone not committed to wading through copious archaeological details. My job is to simplify his detailed outlines while preserving and bolstering the basic arguments that he made concerning the stratigraphic, architectural, and historical relationships at the site.

Trench from above 6f0a55071ePhoto by Ryan Stander from Topos/Chora

So far, this has been tricky, but rewarding work and it got me thinking once again about how we narrate archaeological results. In particular, I thought about three things:

1. History and Archaeology. History and archaeology tend to narrate differently. For example, David’s descriptions of our trenches begin with the plowzone and then go through all the earlier phases to bedrock. This is a typical form of archaeological narration that follows the work of the excavator moving through basic levels. Historians, however, rarely work from the present to the past when they narrate events (although good detective stories sometimes do work this way). After mulling and reading a good, I decided to invert David’s narration and start with the earliest phases of activity on Vigla and then argue for the series of changes that took place in our trenches. I think that this makes it easier for me to integrate our archaeological observations with our historical arguments later. 

2. Archaeological Description and Published Data. Traditionally, one of the roles of the archaeological monograph served was to make descriptive data available to as wide an audience as possible. Today, however, it is becoming increasingly common for projects to make all their data available online including their notebooks, their finds, their inventoried objects, photographs, and drawings. In this situation the archaeological monograph goes from being the primary location for the presentation of “raw” archaeological data and its interpretation to serving as a conduit between archaeological interpretation and a body of evidence that might be available elsewhere. Our volume will still include plenty of primary evidence for our arguments like an artifact catalogue, specific references to stratigraphic units, some section and trench drawings, and short descriptions of complete assemblage from each unit. At the same time, I think that we should place greater emphasis on the interpretation of this data – including narration – since the reader will have access to a far more complete dataset online.

3. Narration and Reflexivity. The trend toward increasingly relfexive archaeological practice and publication habits has had a significant influence on how I think about both field work and publication. In fact, this blog and its effort toward a reflexive transparency in my thoughts about archaeology, my academic career, and my teaching is a direct outgrowth of my commitment to demystify academic work and life. So, it concerns me as I’ve started to narrate “life history” of the site of Vigla over time that my efforts to convey to make our work conform to a historical or even broadly biographical pattern runs the risk of obscuring a reflexive narration of the archaeologists work. I’m not so naive to think that a reflexive critique is somehow independent from the perils of the narrative form (after all I’ve read Hayden White). The old objectivist in me still worries I’ll obscure the myriad small steps that produce our understanding of the past when I invert the traditional archaeological narrative and supplant it with a historical one.

In the end, I’ll have to trust the reader to drill down into our data and to celebrate the possibility of upsetting or challenging our narrative by engaging with the raw data that our project produced. And maybe simply acknowledging this fact and recognizing the limits of our narrative structure is enough? 

One Comment

  1. Thank you for your historical approach. As to the title, PKAPII looks like all letters unless you separate the Roman numerals from PKAP. Besides, PKAP2 is both cooler and more current usage among the computer savvy crowd. Roman numerals are going the way of the apostrophe in my name because computers hate both.

    Reply

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