Writing Archaeology

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Zoë Crossland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Zoë is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works in highland Madagascar and writes on semiotics, and archaeologies of death and the body. Her most recent publication is Ancestral Encounters in Highland Madagascar: Material Signs and Traces of the Dead ( Cambridge University Press, 2014).)

Like fiction, archaeology allows us to visit other worlds and to come back home again. So, it can be a useful exercise to juxtapose archaeological texts with historical novels, poems and other forms of writing. Just as a novelist does, a writer of archaeology has to attend carefully to the conventions that shape the stories we tell. The written past demands some kind of narrative coherence, a consistency in our compositional form, and in the internal logic of the world we bring into being. Like poets, we have to choose our words carefully. In this comparison we can identify the shared techniques used to evoke other worlds and to draw in the reader. We can also consider the narrative possibilities that are excluded from our archaeological writing, and ask what opportunities might be opened up by allowing different forms of voice and language.

Going further than comparison, how might experimenting with different forms help us find new ways to conjure stories from the material traces of the past? There is an intimacy to archaeological excavation that is rarely captured in our narratives. The rasp of a trowel over granular soil; the vegetative odor of damp roots stripped green and white by a spade thrust; or the cold, polished feel of porcelain, smooth beneath the fingers. Much is gained in the translation from earth to text, but what is lost? How might we find narrative space to include some acknowledgement of affect and emotion, as well as the texture and grain of encounters with the stuff of the past?

We’ve been working through these questions in my Writing Archaeology class this semester, exploring how archaeological evidence evokes a particular response, and how novels and poems work to do the same thing. What enlivening techniques might we learn from fictional accounts, and how might they encourage us to think more critically about the role of the reader in bringing a text to life? It’s clear that the practice of archaeology is as much about writing as it is about fieldwork. The texts we compose are fundamental to translating artifacts and sediments into stories about the past, and yet we pay relatively little attention to the craft of writing, preferring to train students in techniques of excavation and field survey. This is not to say that archaeologists have not thought critically about writing. We began the class by reading some of the many experimental texts in archaeology. These include Rosemary Joyce and colleagues’ dynamic Languages of Archaeology, Janet Spector’s pioneering What this Awl Means and Carmel Schrire’s unflinching and evocative Digging Through Darkness. There are a surprising number of archaeological texts that play with form, positioning and language. Many of those who experiment with fiction also take an autobiographical approach, working to situate their experiments within the context of their own frustrations with the limits of conventional archaeological texts. Poetry is rare however. A beautiful new contribution, Stonework, has recently been published by Mark Edmonds working with the artist Rose Ferraby. Given the doubt that lies at the heart of archaeological endeavor – that moment when one must leap from the material signs that lie within our experience to the projected past that we read from and in them – how is archaeological writing approached? Do we attempt to hide or minimize this doubt, to embrace it, or to elaborate upon it? What is noticeable in many texts is the need for a framing device. Archaeologists rarely let a fictionalized or poetic piece stand on its own terms. In order to think about this more closely we’re also reading novelists who write about the past or material traces, such as Raymond Williams and Orhan Pamuk. We’re reading poets too. Seamus Heaney, of course, but also Peter Riley’s Excavations, and Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets.* Riley and Schwerner both play with the boundaries of fact and fiction in ways that are normally forbidden to us archaeologists.

The Writing Archaeology class is designed for students who are working on substantial writing projects – whether a senior thesis or a doctoral dissertation. It’s a small seminar, with ten participants this year. As part of the class the students undertake weekly writing assignments that work to better understand an author’s aims, his or her successes and failures. So, for example, in reading and discussing Janet Spector’s classic text What this Awl Means, I asked the students to write a similar narrative about their own research. Spector’s text has at its heart an imagined relationship between a bone awl and the adolescent girl who made and owned it. This was one of the first attempts to write an archaeological history as a story, as a biographical account centered on a named and historically documented person. I asked the students to write about their own projects in semi-fictionalized form, using a voice that was as close as possible to the one that Spector deployed.

This is an exercise designed to prompt students to think about language with precision. I asked them to consider the language choices that Spector made. For example, what verb tenses does she use, and how do they shift at different moments in the story? I also asked them to think about how Spector’s word choices affected their response to her story as readers. What kind of narrative mood is evoked by the text, and how is this accomplished? What kind of adjectives and verbs are used? Do they give the effect of a story quickly told, words piled up higgledy-piggledy, or does the narrative seem stretched out, slow and languorous? Or perhaps something else is achieved? Finally, what do they each bring to the text as readers – does the account resonate with other stories they’ve heard, and if so, how?

We workshop everyone’s writing in the second half of each class. I ask students to identify one thing they like or are proud of in the piece they’ve submitted, and one thing that didn’t quite work, or that they struggled with. We discuss our responses, make suggestions and note other points that we enjoyed, or that we think perhaps might need a bit more thought. What has been revelatory for me in this exercise, is the very different tone and topics of discussion that this approach elicits. By starting to take sentences apart, word by word, we’ve been finding out more about our own reading and writing practices. The writing exercise also gives students some insight into the terrain that the author was negotiating. Why did she make particular choices, and how might different styles of writing change how they read the text? To write a short piece that attempts to inhabit someone else’s authorial voice encourages close reading, attention to the exact words chosen and to the difficulties of experimental writing. What comes out of this class on writing is a more generous reading experience.

Let me offer some of the responses that the students gave me when I asked them about their thoughts on the class as I was writing this blog.

Michael suggests that the exercise works as “an excavatory tool” into the texts we read. In emulating a writer’s style, he points out that one has to figure out the boundaries between homage, pastiche and parody. As Courtney puts it, in writing such a response to the text you “have to sit with the author” and face the difficulties and challenges that the author faced. Valerie notes that it is an awkward process to force yourself “out of your narrative comfort zone” and into other voices. When imitating an author’s voice the students must make similar decisions about how to characterize the past people that they inhabit in the text. Courtney and the others noted how uncomfortably transgressive this can feel, enhancing their awareness of the ethical issues around representation and the control over narrative. This was felt especially strongly by those students working on the recent past, or who are telling a story about another nation or people’s histories and cultures. To acknowledge this is to recognize that these writing exercises are steps along a pathway. Not an end in themselves, they are meant to make visible the assumptions that we bring to our writing, as well as to open up new ways of thinking about our archaeological evidence, and to hopefully prompt insights that we might not otherwise have had. What’s important here is to create a safe workshop space to engage with each other’s work, and to acknowledge that failure is always possible, but that it is allowable and productive. To channel Seamus Heaney (with apologies):

Beneath my fingers and my thumbs

The keyboard waits.

I’ll dig with it.



Contributions by

Lindsey Bishop

Valerie Bondura

Charles Garceau

Emma Gilheany

Michael Merriam

Maud Reavill

Maura Schlagel

Dianne Scullin

Courtney Singleton


*With thanks to Severin Fowles for bringing Armand Schwerner’s poetry to my attention.

I am happy to share the syllabus with anyone who would like a copy. My email is: zc2149 [at] columbia [dot] edu

Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

One thought on “Writing Archaeology

  1. I’m wondering if any ling anth SMs have any go-tos for teaching ethnographic writing?

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