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Archaeologist as a storyteller

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

The potential of archaeology for storytelling is often omitted in academic circles because we tend to be too focused on exploring scientific facts with little room for fantasy. Caroline Lawrence took her approach to archaeology from the opposite end and became famous for writing detective fantasy books for children set in ancient times. She wrote series as Pinkerton Mysteries, Roman Mysteries, Roman Quest etc. While writing her stories, she goes to great pains to re-create the historically precise setting of her stories. As a speaker on our most recent talk, she shared her unique perception and usage of archaeological evidence.

According to Caroline, archaeologists are detectives in their own sense, looking for clues in the form of artefacts and analysing primary written sources as reports of witnesses from a crime scene. Caroline studied Classical Art and Archaeology herself at Cambridge University. Still, she was put down and disappointed by her experience with her one and only dug around Roman Villa in Wroxeter. However, she remained inspired by books like The Iliad, Jason and the Argonauts and her visit to the Roman site of Ostia Antica, where the story of her first book, Thieves of Ostia, took place and started her career as an “armchair archaeologist”.

Even though Caroline found out that excavation work was not her cup of tea, her work is to a great extent dependent on the discoveries of archaeologists doing “dirty work”. For example, she mentioned how isotopic analysis of bones of a young girl with fair hair, blue eyes, signs of rickets (probably lack of sunshine) from Rome and evidence of her migration between North Africa and London served her as inspiration for The Time Travel Diaries. Moreover, Caroline mentioned how in her search for details, which would make her stories more realistic, she needs to experiment and explore re-enacted world of the past with all five senses. For example, she told us how with a replica of an oil lamp, she could examine the amount of light it emits in the dark, how flexible can a person be with such an object in hand or even the fact that she can get a headache from the smell of the lamp after some time. All these details are then implemented into the adventures of her book characters. Additionally, she frequently visits ancient sites to get a glimpse through these windows of the past or museums where re-enactment displays nourish her creative process.

We can take from Caroline´s talk that imagination is a potent tool that can help us approach facts and evidence in a completely new light, enriching our insights into the daily lives of people we are examining. Nevertheless, we will first need to allow ourselves to use that creativity, daydreaming and introspection and include the right hemisphere of the brain in the process of the evidence analysis as well. On top of that, Caroline is a great example of the fact that a degree in archaeology can be used unconventionally and playfully and have a significant social impact at the same time (you wouldn’t believe how many people from the audience confessed that her books inspired them to become archaeologists).

-Jakub Senesi

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