As an archaeological journalist, I long ago learned the value and importance of storytelling. My articles often open anecdotally, with a brief story that I hope will seduce readers into staying with me as I explore the science of a new excavation or find. I love telling stories, and if I have good material to work with, these leads often write themselves.
Story-telling is an immensely powerful medium, perhaps the most direct and intense way of communicating basic truths that we humans have. And yet it is one that archaeologists rarely tap into when they try to communicate their findings to the public. I think this is a great shame, for the artifacts that archaeologists work with often tell immensely compelling stories, stories that allow readers to connect strongly with the past.
I was reminded of this today while listening to a superb online interview with Lonnie Bunch, the director of an important new museum in the planning stages, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Bunch was talking about how Smithsonian curators decide which donations to accept and which to reject, a topical subject for he had just turned down the suit that O.J. Simpson wore to court on the day of his acquittal.
The interviewer asked Bunch about the most surprising donations he had received, and this is where the interview took soaring flight, as Bunch left the tawdry, tabloid story behind. He described a recent acquisition, a humble pillowcase that someone had brought in. It was, he explained, embroidered by an enslaved woman who was about to be sold the next day.
The embroidered inscription was for her daughter. It read: “In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, some biscuits, but what you will [also] find is that it is filled with love, and, though you will never see me again, always know how close you are to my heart.”
For me, this one humble artifact said more about the horrors of slavery than many lengthy archaeological reports I have recently read about excavations in the slave quarters of southern plantations. I felt an instant, direct, immediate connection to that long-ago grieving mother, as one human being to another. Bunch clearly knows how to communicate to the public, and I really look forward to seeing this new museum when it opens five years from now.
Moreover, it seems to me that many archaeologists could learn something important from this museum director. Sometimes all it takes is one well-chosen artifact with a story to bring the past back vividly to life.