The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Storycorps, Archaeology, and History

Stick with me, this will get around to archaeology and history.

As I drove out to Porterville this morning, I listened to a BBC radio documentary on the StoryCorps project. for those unfamaliar with it and uninterested in listening to the documentary (though I recommend that you do, it's quite good), StoryCorps is described by it's promoters as an oral history project, people arrive in pairs, sit for 45 minutes in the Storycorps booths, and just talk, usually with one interviewing the other. There is no set agenda or particular topic that Storycorps requires, just that two people have a 45-minute conversation. If both members consent, then the recording goes to the Library of Congress.

Most of the people familiar with StoryCorps have gained their information about it from excerpts of the recordings broadcast on the NPR show Morning Edition. Frankly, I never much cared for these broadcast excerpts, usually finding them uninteresting at best and painfully shmaltzy at worst. In fact, my disinterest in StoryCorps is such that I had thought I'd deleted the BBC documentary from my iPod before heading out this morning. I'm glad I didn't, as the documentary on StoryCorps is far more interesting than the broadcast excerpts.

I had previously been unaware of the fact that the sessions were 45 minutes long and that NPR's broadcasts included only a very small segment (which would explain why they are often so befuddling and annoyingly incomplete). I had also been unaware of the sheer volume of sessions recorded, with multiple permanent booths and several travelling booths.

Which brings me to archaeology and history.

One of our recurring problems is that we miss the full context in which to make our data make sense. For example, my colleagues and I often find ourselves baffled by enigmatic historic artifacts because the people who used them found the artifacts so dull and commonplace that they never bothered to write anything about it down - if you assume it's always going to be there and that its purpose is obvious, why bother to describe it?

But, of course, when technology changes, the use of the old tools is often forgotten. The same is true for minor social customs, settlement patterns, and pretty much any other common, every-day thing that is likely to end up in the archaeological record.

Likewise, historians tend to skew their work towards the people who were able to and/or bothered to write things down. So, historians of Rome or Medieval Europe, for example, will often focus on the wealthy or the rare lower-class rabble-rouser because these are the people who either left their own writings or about whom things were written. Much of the day-to-day minutae, almost all of the lives of the lower classes, and things that might be considered embarrasing to the authors tend to not make it into the historical record.

The value of a project like StoryCorps is, if the recordings are indexed in such a way as to allow proper research, they can provide information on the day-to-day minutae, the common and unremarkable habits, embarrasing incidents, and all other aspects of life that tend to not be written down, but do come out in conversations, and, whether we're aware of it or not, do tend to influence human behavior in some very profound ways. Some of the stories already detail aspects of family history that are of great interest to historians and historic archaeologists. Others are likely to provide a treasure trove to our future colleagues.

So, while I may not be so interested in hearing the schmaltz that tends to get played on the radio, I am rather excited to know that a potential tool such as this is going to be available to future generations of my own profession. It's a wonderful idea.

No comments: