The Wind in the Willows: Employing the Narrative in Environmental Archaeology

Posted on April 1, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Scientific communication is often presented as logical and empirical (context-free). The facts, however, do not speak for themselves and context serves a very necessary function in providing meaning for data. Honestly, who cares that there were 14 ducks a-dabbling, or that the Wild Wood was bigger at some point? Secretly, even most specialists do not. Yet as specialists, we continue to complain that our reports are consigned to the graveyard of the appendices where they can be safely ignored by non-specialists. Storytelling might appear to be anathema to rigorous scientific approaches to data. Literary theory and psychology research both suggest though that readers better understand narrative writing in comparison with expository writing. It has also recently been demonstrated that climate change science papers which adopt a narrative style are both more likely to be cited by peers and more likely to have a wider impact beyond the specialist audience. Environmental archaeology is in a unique position – able to contribute equally to archaeological debates and to the discourse surrounding climate change. As such, it is especially important that our voice is heard – not just that our data is published but that our interpretations are understood and remembered. We believe that adopting a narrative approach in our writing may be one way in which to achieve these aims.

Organisers: Lee G. Broderick (Oxford Archaeology) and Suzi Richer (University of York)

‘Narrativizing Science’: Ecocriticism and peatland archaeology

The current global environmental crisis impacts on every field of human life and so must be engaged with by every field of academic research. Widespread degradation of every ecosystem on earth means that now, more than ever, we are in urgent need for careful consideration of our place within our ecosystems. Furthermore, the sheer scale and ubiquity of apparent human impacts, and our inability as a species to avoid the consequences of those impacts, calls in to question the very notion of a clear separation between the human and natural spheres. So how should environmental archaeologists respond? What can we do? This paper will argue that we should look to insights from literary criticism and specifically the growing field of ecocriticism for inspiration. Simon C. Estok has pointed out that in some ways science and literature are not all that different – both are ways of explaining how and why we are here – and has highlighted the growing need to ‘narrativize science’ to make tangible the problems we face and to bring about real change. This paper will introduce some key insights from ecocriticism and discuss how these may be applied to environmental archaeology utilising Irish peatlands as a case study: How can we understand both present and past attitudes to peatlands? In what ways can we ‘read’ archaeological and environmental datasets? What stories can we tell, and what narratives do we need to challenge to bring about change?

Phil Statsney (University of Reading)

Things Worth Telling: Considering narrative storytelling in environmental archaeology

With the advent of the Internet, research has never been more accessible by others. As such, science communication has never been more important. In particular, environmental archaeology has often been at the mercy of successfully communicating a project’s importance to others. However, conventional archaeology papers may find difficulty in selling their research to the general public and to peers. In this paper, we propose that environmental archaeology projects may be able to benefit from adapting a narrative structure when publishing material. We argue that a narrative structure is not only more interesting and more accessible to non-specialists, but it may be more effective at illustrating the importance of a project to others. Because a narrative structure relies heavily on the development of empathy between the narrator and their audience in order to develop narrative drive, so too should an archaeology paper seek to engage with and motivate its readers. In order to explore this idea, we have identified key features of the structures for both a standard archaeology paper and a narrative story. An example environmental archaeology paper was written following the identified standard conventions to serve as our basis for this investigation, before being rewritten with a narrative structure. In examining these papers side by side, we will demonstrate the benefits of narrative in archaeology for public outreach, interdisciplinary communication, and research funding. By examining the conventions of the field from an outside perspective, we hope to provide tools with which environmental archaeology can strengthen its outreach. Narrative has proven itself as a vital communication tool, from which any willing archaeologist can benefit.

Alex Fitzpatrick (University of Bradford) and Valerie San Filippo (Stony Brook University)

Climate Change as Human Experience

This talk is based on my PhD research, looking at the narratives used to convey the Mesolithic to the public. Human interaction with the environment is a fundamental aspect of Mesolithic archaeology. The effect of climate change on people is often discussed in abstract and generalised terms. The climate got warmer so the forests grew and people adapted to a new way of hunting and adopted more plant foods. Good narratives are however more specific than this. Narrative theory involves identifying the key constituents of narrative and how they affect readers. There needs to be particular characters in specific settings carrying out defined activities that are affected by happenings imposed from outside. As archaeologists, we seldom think in terms of the specific subjective experiences of people in the past. Some, like Brian Fagan, have advocated this, and a few, like Steve Mithen, have provided examples. More usually, good narratives have been provided by novelists and short story writers. I will offer an example of two novels which show how environmental change can be used as a narrative ‘happening’ and how people’s responses drive a narrative that makes climate change meaningful.

Don Henson (University of York)

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