By April Beisaw
Another Christmas has passed without a personal visit from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, or Yet to Come? Same here. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, these ghosts provide a grumpy old man with recollections of the past and hope for the future. That is what I want archaeology to do for people, bring the present into focus at a time of action.
Like Bob Cratchit, I have spent years toiling away at my archaeological work and have been rewarded with a level of prosperity somewhere between Cratchit and Scrooge. But while other archaeologists seemed pleased with the work I’ve done, friends and family still thought my work was about dinosaurs or treasure or pirates or pyramids. The fact that I worked in small towns of Maryland, Michigan, New York, and Ohio, and often excavated with local archaeological and historical societies, was deemed irrelevant to my true nature as a scholar of pirate dinosaurs who stored their treasure in pyramids.
The truth is that I spent a decade investigating how local history is embodied in selectively remembered and forgotten places; one-room schools, historic house museums, and unnamed ruins deep in the woods. To historical archaeologists, this is cool stuff. Trust me. To everyone else, I was wasting time because I was not wandering through jungles and deserts in search of treasure. I was a crappy archaeologist.
Let’s summon the Ghost of Archaeology Present to reveal what I was failing to see.
Archaeology has always been where non-archaeologists turn for stories about adventure and the unexplainable. The domain of everyday peoples and places and what happened there is not archaeology but history (or common knowledge). If my community forgot someone or something, or invented a tale to explain something, they did so for a reason. As a colleague once said to me, maybe I should “let them have their stories.”
With Scrooge-like stubbornness, I decided that the answer was to keep doing local archaeology while reorienting my work towards the stories of the unexplainable. No, I have not gone off the deep end. I’ve stepped back from the abyss of irrelevance to see that someone else had cornered the market on the mysteries of local history… ghost hunters.
Think about it—ghost hunting television shows feature people wandering around relatively unknown historic sites in the dark and viewers tune in for episode after episode. Meanwhile, archaeology television shows constantly fall back on the old tropes of aliens, monsters, and treasures to stay afloat. Archaeology TV sits somewhere between ridiculous and boring while ghost hunting TV has dedicated followers despite mainly inconclusive results. Most episodes don’t feature anything clearly paranormal, but they do offer tales of local history.
Beyond television, ghost hunts and ghost tours have become standard fare for major cities, minor historical societies, and various museums and historic sites. People show up for these events to be told about the past and with hopes of experiencing some connection to it. Ghost stories have a lot to offer. They provide a sense of place when they tell about what happened here, right where you stand. They provide a short but suspenseful tale that is as easy to remember as it is entertaining. They allow space for wondering about the truthfulness of the storyteller as well as considering how the past is relevant to the present and the future.
Archaeologists can learn a lot from ghost hunters about how to speak about the past. Ghost hunters don’t go into a new community and explain their past to them—they listen to what the community has to say about a place and then explore their stories. Ghost hunters bring others along to participate at every level of that exploration. They show their methods and their results and ask the audience to help draw conclusions. Ghost hunters leave questions unanswered so that wondering can continue.
Onto the Ghost of Archaeology Yet to Come, for it shows us what may be.
Archaeology must acknowledge that ours is a misunderstood field because we are failing to capture an audience in ways that seem relevant to their lives. We can continue to toil away in relative obscurity, seeking out validation from others like us or simply enjoying what prosperity our work brings us. Or archaeologists can learn how to become more relevant to the wider public. Fling open the windows of our stale yet comfortable houses. Open our ears to the criticism inherent in misunderstanding of who we are and what we do. Spend time with those we think our work is relevant to. Find their mysteries but don’t spoil them. Encourage participatory exploration of the past but leave room for continued speculation.
I have now spent almost a decade studying ghost hunting and ghost stories. These endeavors have not replaced my academic research but rather enhanced it. As I investigate how the creation and maintenance of the New York City water system erased communities from landscapes up to 100-miles from the City-center, I create space for local narratives about church steeples visible when reservoir water levels drop. In the physical sense, there are no church steeples in the water. But they are there in the symbolic sense. Stories of what lies beneath the water represents a form of remembering that does not need to be debunked. Maybe one day the archaeological data I have compiled about these places will replace mythical church steeples as a way to remember what has been lost, but only if I have created an archaeological story that is easy to remember and fun to retell.
Head Image via Ines Vuckovic/Dose.
April M. Beisaw is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY. You can read more about her ghost hunting approach to archaeology in the book Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeology Pseudoscientific Practices, which is edited by Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson. Or you can listen to episode 41 of the Archy Fantasies podcast. For more on her archaeology of the New York City water system, see volume 20 of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology or the book Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski.