Interpretation is the task of taking physical evidence, documentary evidence and contextual knowledge and using it to tell a story. It’s the process by which we seek to give meaning to archaeological remains, the process by which we seek to learn from our past. Interpretation is, by it’s nature, supposition. It’s not ‘truth’, but rather an interpretation of the evidence, presented for examination.
The other day, i was in a barn in Norfolk, an ancient Tithe barn. One of the largest in the country in fact. Whilst it really was the most provincial of exhibits, probably only getting thirty visitors a day, it did something different from almost every other piece of interpretation that i saw. It presented the evidence as ‘what happened’ and ‘imagine something extra’. Whilst i’ve made these words up to describe what they did, this was the essential path. They presented the primary evidence and interpretation based on that, they they deliberately set a context whereby they made up some extra stories. It was a conscious and explicit acceptance that much interpretation is, indeed, a made up story.
For example. there was interpretation around the defences that had stood on the site of the manor next door. We learnt about the gate towers and weapons. We learnt the historical context, with regular raids from Norway and France. We learnt a lot of fact. But then there was a little audio play, which was a version of ‘Dads Army’, set in the fifteenth century. For those of you who don’t know it, Dad’s Army was a wildly popular TV comedy about the British Home Guard, lots of innuendo and camp fun. Not your typical historical interpretation.
The story was therefore positioned in two parts: what we know to have been, and what might have been. It’s an interesting distinction, with the ‘what might have been’ part presented in a story type narrative.
The same took place around the subject of local legends and myths. The story of Black Shuck is a well known East Anglian story, of the hound from Hell who roams the coastline (you can even see the claw marks he left in Happisburgh church). So first we learnt the oral history and documentary stories, the interpretation based in primary evidence. Then we heard a story about Arthur Conan Doyle, who used to holiday in the area. The mini play had him learn of the myth, and then incorporate it into his own story ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Was this what happened? Who knows, but it was certainly an interesting take on events.
In real terms, this dual layered approach was rather fun. It enlivened what could have been a rather flat experience, although it does run the risk of presenting fiction as fact. The question of ‘what is the truth’ is one that permeates many learning experiences. The notion that we can present ‘fact’ and ‘presumption’, or straight forward ‘fiction’ (albeit informed fiction) alongside each other is a novel idea, and one that i rather like. Maybe room for experimentation here.