Archaeological Visualisation and Storytelling

I’ve mentioned Ben Haggarty and Adam Brockbank’s 2010 graphic novel Mezolith in previous blog posts, but I returned to it again today while referencing the book in a section of my thesis (which is slowly coming together into something of a coherent argument!). I loved comics and graphic novels as a teenager (see my own attempt at the archaeological comics genre…in the form of a jokey narrative I drew after a summer digging at Forteviot), so to be able to legitimately take an hour or so out of my day to sit and read this with a cup of coffee was great – and didn’t even feel like skiving off work! The same can’t be said for the hour I spent googling Adam Brockbank’s artwork after finishing Mezolith…(if you have a spare 20 minutes I’d recommend scrolling through some of the concept art he does for movies like Harry Potter, they’ve got a certain quality to them that make the situations and characters seem even more vivid than they do in the movies). Similarly I’ve been leafing through Margaret Elphinstone’s novel The Gathering Night, which is also set during the Mesolithic period in Britain and focusses on the daily lives, beliefs and social hierarchies of a group of hunter-gatherers. 

Mezolith  and The Gathering Night are examples of what academic types term an ‘informed novel’, simply meaning that although the story itself is creative fiction, the setting, material culture and way of life described and illustrated in these books have been informed by the archaeological record,ethnographic examples and often advised by experts in the field. For example, Elphinstone worked closely with a Mesolithic expert, archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones, who approved and challenged the content of her novel at various stages in the writing process.

“Such leaps are in no way a free fall. Without scholarship any attempt to enter the deep past is pretence, and usually an obvious projection of the author’s present time. Of course no narrative transcends its cultural context. Our context is a post-Enlightenment, post Darwinian world, where rational thinking and science remain the bedrock of understanding. To write imaginatively about the far past means utilising the intellectual tools we have to address the deep silences of prehistory. Therefore, as well as reading all I could, I needed the help of Mesolithic scholars and archaeologists. I needed to participate in a dig myself. This is why I asked Caroline Wickham-Jones for help.”

 Elphinstone and Wickham-Jones (2012, 533)

Working in the field of archaeological visualisation where my work is ultimately research-driven and thus self reflexively judged on it’s interpretive subjectivity, I find it quite liberating to read these ‘informed novels’ whose authors work through a very similar process to my own, but who have the freedom of a creative framework of fiction which does not question their every creative decision. These texts draw upon vivid and rich interpretations of prehistoric life and they deal with many aspects of the more intangible side of heritage which would not usually be feasible within traditional archaeological discourse.

“Where the evidence stops, the archaeologist must say, ‘we don’t know’. But the novelist must give answers to questions like: ‘what were these characters called? What did they eat for breakfast? What were their creation myths? Did they wear sealskin boots in winter?’”

Caroline even notes that working with Margaret made her reflect on her own interpretive process as an archaeologist.

“It occurred to me that I had never tried to make my idea of Mesolithic life actually work. The process of supplying a platform to the novelist made me aware of the weaknesses in my archaeological theory and interpretation.”

 Elphinstone and Wickham-Jones (2012, 536)

What should be taken from these examples is an appreciation of the richness and depth achieved by the authors, who create worlds with such immersive detail and empathy that the reader becomes deeply engaged with the stories. The format of this archaeological themed storytelling is interesting as it subconsciously reaffirms to the reader that this is a fiction and as such it is consumed in a different way to an image or narrative presented in a museum context, for example. Though it is ironic to note that Haggarty, Brockbank and Elphinstone researched their themes and representations more extensively and went to greater lengths than most reconstruction artists commissioned to produce site illustrations would.

Aside from the content and work behind these books, the medium of sequential visual storytelling employed by the likes of Mezolith is compelling in itself. Back in February John Swogger gave a great seminar in York about his work producing archaeological comics and the role of sequential narratives for dissemination of archaeological interpretation. His work addresses an issue I’ve discussed here before regarding our multi-media choices for the Skara Brae film; the fact that traditional means of visualisation in archaeology tends to focus on what he terms “‘snapshot’ images depicting single events or phenomena”. Though it’s true that one image can say a thousand words…sometimes, with something as complex as the interpretation of the archaeological record, that just isn’t enough! Visual storytelling in this way allows for narratives to be developed and detail to be added in a way which isn’t always possible in a still image.

Anyway, that’s enough food for thought for the moment, back to writing my thesis!  Urgh.

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4 comments

  1. Hi Alice

    I loved this! It’s wonderful to see someone expressing the very same feelings that I have about the value of creative narrative for archaeological dissemination. And with such eloquence! 🙂

    1. Thanks Emily! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the link, looks interesting, will give it a read with a cup of tea just now 🙂

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