The Importance of a Narrative

Sources of inspiration come at odd moments.  This quarter has been really neat because a lot of my classes have really been informative towards one another – they worked in conjunction, sort of mirroring each other in subject matter, while varying in content.  One of the things that we discussed was whether or not archaeologists should tell a narrative, a story about an artifact and the people that helped to create, use, deposit, and recover it.

I’ve really come to think that it is a fundamental necessity of what we do.  Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was a surveyor for the Royal Navy, and the written records and drawings from his voyages contain important ethnographic accounts and fantastic pieces of art.  John Webber was the ships artist, and he recorded scenes in great detail.


These works of art at first glance could be used to tell a great deal about how material culture was used, and how space within the home was organized.  A journal entry from one of the men on Captain Cook’s voyage, however, described their interaction with the Arctic Indians upon arrival.  He recounts how the men instantly accost the women of the home, forcing themselves on her.  He even comments on how accommodating they are “refusing no request, even though her father or husband may be standing by.”  He refers to this process as “properly addressing the women”.  It is very clear that this is the standard custom.  It instantly changes the image. It’s sickening.  To know that such an extremely violent and exploitative act took place changes the way that we interpret the picture.  Those people aren’t reflecting their typical spatial patterns.  There are people hiding along the sides of their home while the children are seeking comfort. It’s hard to believe that these men didn’t understand the difference between terrified resignation and willing accommodation.

This is why a narrative, a story is so important.  It can serve to correct the record.  It is not just pictures and data we need, but a means by which to combine these things to get a better understanding of what really occurred in these places.  Drawing and photographs, due to their static nature, have the tendency to be thought of in terms of absolute truth.  It is important to know that we can use words, stories, and recollections to correct and inform our data.  This is the power of a narrative, to reflexively correct and inform archaeological direction.

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