One of the great things that I've learned from working with Steven Ellis's team at Isthmia the Corinthia is the idea of archaeological research as the basis for story telling. Steven used this metaphor a number of times over the first week of our work here as a way to frame the goals of our research. It was absolutely enlightened and almost completely opposite from my growing obsession with archaeological data collecting. Recently, when I have approached archaeological problems, I become consumed by the need to document and gather. This primary stems from an abiding faith that, somehow, data will produce knowledge.
I don't want to suggest that Steven and his team are not interested in data. In fact, they have collected and collated a remarkable amount of detailed information on the East Field Area and organized it carefully in sophisticated databases designed to facilitate their daily analysis. What was striking how little they talk about data as the product of their field work. In contrast, I am ALWAYS thinking about data as the product of archaeological analysis. Data then becomes - at some uncertain time in the future - the basis for interpretation. This is completely and unabashedly positivist.
Steven's team has talked about the stories from the very first day. This reminded me that the archaeological process was about narrating events as much a collecting data. Beginning with the idea that a narrative should be the product of archaeological analysis ensured that data collection worked toward the goal of explicating the site and its history rather than squandering resources on producing data without clear objectives in mind.
Some of this coincides with a recent article by C. Holtorf in World Archaeology, where he discusses the "meta-stories" that so often organize the presentation, analysis, and interpretation of archaeological information. These narratives serve not only to make bits of information understandable, but also provide the basis for comparing various similar narratives across time. These stories inform one another by providing structures which help humanity to approach large scale, complex, and pressing questions about the fundamental nature of society. Holtorf draws in part on the work of Hayden White who looked at the narrative structures present in the work of 19th century scholars like Marx, Burkardt, von Ranke, and Michelet. Holtorf seems to suggest that archaeological story telling might follow 19th century models: "By stories (or narratives) I mean an account of one or more characters acting out plots in a sequence of events that contain a distinctive beginning, middle and end." (383).
While stories of the 19th century, novelistic type are clearly recognizable to a broad audience, they hardly represent the scope of potential story types familiar to even popular audiences. Television shows like Lost, and popular feature films have become increasingly comfortable twisting time, inverting the standard order of narration, and leaving the audience with ambiguous endings. Story telling in the 21st century is open to a much wider range of potential organizations, resolutions, and plots than its 19th century predecessors.
I can even imagine that some of these narrative types will find ways to "narrate" the structure of data rich descriptions and explorations of the archaeological landscape.