Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Archaeologist as Storyteller; the Storyteller as Archaeologist

A great friend of yours, morphed along from being an editorial client, is an archaeologist who has published at least forty books.  Over the past twenty or so years, your editorial hand has been felt in one way or several others on his cavalcade of intriguing new titles and a few revisions of old ones. 

Two of his books are, in fact, dedicated to you.  A blurb from him appears on the back cover of one of your books.  Not to be outdone, a blurb from you appears on the front cover of one of his books.  In the process--perhaps osmosis, perhaps something altogether other--your thoughts and visions have been exposed to the archaeologist's ways of looking at things and thinking of them.

This had you thinking from time to time how similar some of the archaeologist's process is to the storyteller's craft.  In particular, the most probable similarity for you comes into play with the discovery of some artifact, some form of clue, discovered almost as a surprise.

In a real sense, the archaeologist does not know where to dig for artifacts or traces or clues any more than a storyteller knows for a certainty that a particular detail or item has inherent properties for a story.  True enough, the archaeologist has considered a few clues or clue-like details in order to arrive at the probability that a certain place was once used for something else by persons long gone.  Or animals long extinct.    Of equal truth, the storyteller does not know from the moment of discovery that a stalk of plant or flower in some well-traveled sidewalk is the germ of a story.

Let us say that the discovery of a spear or cutting tool with an obsidian tip or cutting edge, buried in some desert-like or coastal area where there is no nearby source of obsidian, becomes a powerful impetus for story because, how could such a tool or spear tip have come to be here?  

At this point, the archaeologist begins building a scenario.  Perhaps this tool was once owned by a local, but traded for on a venture some great distance away.  Or perhaps the trade cycle worked the other way.  Perhaps someone from an area rich in obsidian ore, brought some to a place where there was none.  

In the manner of utensil and gadget sales persons at county fairs and on television, the trader bearing the obsidian would begin a demonstration to show how superb obsidian is as a cutting edge, perhaps even going so far as to show how easy it is to peel and slice a cucumber.  Of a sudden, you see the causal relationships between curious, interesting details and how they are spun into a circular system.

The best example of what you mean by that circular system comes for a recitation of the Sisyphus and his rock story.  In brief, Sisyphus is doomed throughout eternity to push a large rock up a hill, to the point where the rock crests, then rolls down the other side.  Sisyphus must be at the ready the moment the rock comes to rest, thereupon to resume pushing it up the hill, literally ad infinitum.

This is the cycle or circularity of the story, which may be started at any point within that cycle.  Thus an archaeologist may become involved in a story at any point, whether digging for an artifact, finding one, deciding what the artifact is/was and was used for, whence it came, and who used it.  A skilled archaeologist could even, it turns out, tell from the way the obsidian blade was shaped and sharpened if its user were left- or right-handed.

Sometimes a detail or a place or a custom will so intrigue you that you must create characters and circumstances around it, fit these elements together.  Sometimes an archaeologist will find the shards of a bowl or cup or storage container, then begin piecing them together to replicate the original vessel.  In creating a story, you are in effect gluing broken shards of pottery together, hopeful of constructing a vessel that, if it will not hold water, will hold something such as grain.

Archaeologists notoriously dig for artifacts in places where they suspect humans, animals, or humans and animals combined to have gathered.  You dig for stories when you unearth events and things buried in the past.  The archaeologist is the better scientist, but the archaeologist and the writer, each in their own way, are storytellers.  The science is often interesting, sometimes even dramatic.  If the story is not interesting and dramatic, the writer needs to dig more for the details.

A writer will concoct a romantic episode of a tree or plant, seeming to have appeared in a place as if due to some mysterious agency.  The archaeologist will tell how that tree or plant was first ingested some distance away by an aurochs or woolly mammoth, who brought it all this great distance, only to expel it as waste.  The point here is that there is no telling where the story has come from in the first place.


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