NASTA conference – 29 April 2021

NASTA: Narrative and Storytelling in Archaeology

Date: 29 April 2021

Location: Online

Credits: 1 ECT

The first NASTA conference will be hosted by graduate students from ACASA at the University of Amsterdam. The one-day conference will explore the role of narrative and storytelling in archaeology. Storytelling is sometimes seen as being controversial in scientific publishing, but it is also increasingly seen as an important way to present archaeological research and to convey information to non-specialist audiences. In this era of fake news where expert knowledge is often challenged or misappropriated we therefore invite contributors to consider the relationships between narratives, nations, knowledge, and (fake) news. What is the best way to give voice to our discoveries, and how can different forms of narrative shape understandings of the past in the present. 

Main Speakers:

Examining Archaeological Stories: Understanding The Science and Impact of Storytelling
– Tera Pruitt

This paper combines archaeological interpretation and research into the fundamental structure of storytelling, presenting key scientific research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and literary criticism, as well as archaeology, to help us understand why stories are so effective. By understanding the impact of stories on the human brain, we can better organise our own stories to be far more powerful and memorable. We will examine what kind of underlying story structure archaeologists and museum professionals can use to make our communication better and have more impact on both academic and public audiences.

Remember that time when you rolled a six? Playful experiences and fun stories from the past in the present.
– Aris Politopoulos

Do you remember that time when you rolled a six? It was that six that you really needed to turn the game around, find victory in the midst of defeat. Telling stories about our times of play is a common social practice between people. We have all played, at one point or another, and we all have memories and stories associated with these playful experiences. Play, as argued by historian Johan Huizinga, is essential to human civilization. At the same time, as has been argued by some philosophers (and less so by archaeologists), humans are a storytelling animal, and human experience and history unfolds in and through narratives. In this presentation, I will argue that stories and play are intrinsically connected. That stories emerge through play, and that the study of these times of play and their associated narratives creates a rich locus for examining the human past.

To do this I will explore two types of playful pasts: i) the stories that arise through historical video games; and ii) the stories of play through ancient board games. For the first part, I will discuss narratives experienced in video games, through our work with the VALUE Foundation, focusing on the autoethnographic research I conducted together with dr. Angus Mol on Sid Meier’s Civilization 6. For the second part I will present the Past-at-Play Lab, an experimental space at Leiden University where we study ancient board games through participatory playful research. Through these, I will explore how contemporary play allows us to create stories of the past, as well as our own stories about the past.

Tale as Old as Time: The logic and necessity of open, honest storytelling in archaeology
– Daniël van Helden

Storytelling is treated with some suspicion in academic archaeological publishing. Some fear it dilutes the ‘pure’ scholarly pursuit of archaeology, making it difficult to judge competing claims. Others claim that storytelling can have an important role in communicating the results of archaeological research to non-specialist audiences. I would go further still. I would argue that stories are indispensable, even in academic archaeology, and have always been. Anything we communicate in archaeology beyond bare factual statements of grid locations or chemical make-up of materials is a story. All our interpretations about the humans we seek to study are suffused with stories.

This is because the story is the tool humans use to make sense of reality. Reality is too big, too complex, for finite humans to comprehend in its totality. So we weave elements of reality into stories we tell to make sense of it and communicate this sense to others. When we ignore this fundamental role that stories play in human understanding we risk serious misrepresentation of what actually goes on when we interpret archaeological material. Conversely, when we acknowledge the role that stories play, we can examine ways in which we make sense of the reality of the past and the ways in which our interpretations are always political. Furthermore, it can show us how we can simultaneously demystify archaeological expert knowledge and counteract harmful fringe narratives or fake news.


Narrative in archaeology: some reflections
– Gavin Lucas

In this talk, I will offer some general reflections on the nature of narrative and storytelling in archaeology. In particular, I will ask two questions: first, what kind of narratives do archaeologists produce and second, what function do they serve? With the first question, my interest will focus on the variability of archaeological narratives in relation to more general aspects of narrative theory and narratology. With the second question, my emphasis will be on how the use of narrative relates to the broader goals of archaeology and the nature of archaeological data. My concern with both these questions is to try and map diversity rather than offer an over-arching framework. Ultimately, I hope these reflections will simply stimulate further discussion on a topic of great importance to our discipline.

For more information see:

Credits: ARCHON members can receive 1 ECT for attending the conference and handing in a reflection report afterwards. ARCHON members can also receive 1 ECT for presenting at the conference, by handing in their (powerpoint)presentation.

Registration: Please send an email to and let the organisation know that you are an ARCHON member if you want to obtain credits.