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An Archeologist tackles the challenge of interpretive writing

Barbara Little here describes the process she undertook to develop as an interpretive writer.

(photo) Ceramic artifact.

Ceramic artifact found during excavations in Washington, D.C.

I took on the challenge of interpretive writing when I accepted an invitation from one of our partners to produce a walking guide to archeology in Washington, DC. The archeologist for the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office and I identified the audience as visitors to the city and the distribution point as the new City Museum of Washington, which would include a working archeology laboratory as one of its educational programs.

I’ve written dozens of articles and book chapters for various audiences, but these were informational pieces rather than interpretive. The good news is that different writing styles are learnable skills. The more difficult news is that it requires both genuine effort and flexibility to learn. If that sounds like a recipe for a workout, it is. We often learn our writing styles without being conscious of our influences. We do that well and, unfortunately, almost without thinking as we learn what style memos and letters are acceptable in our bureaucracies and businesses. We learn to write academically in an academic setting and bureaucratically in an agency setting. To learn interpretive writing, I found that I had to free myself of those confines and accept only the boundaries of my own passionate interest in the archeological stories.

I had the good fortune to attend an Interpretive Writing workshop with Legacy editor Alan Leftridge prior to the 2002 NAI meetings in Virginia Beach. Part of the success of the workshops was due to practice (yes, you get to write while you’re there) and instant critical response from peers. The Interpretive Development Program’s Module 230 also will lead you through the necessary skills. It is important to get a lot of honest feedback from others who understand the interpretive process, including tangibles, intangibles, universals and the need to provide audience opportunities to connect intellectually and/or emotionally with the resource.

(photo) .


So, what is the hook? What sparks interest? What makes a reader continue? In an academic article or a site report, the hook is the reader’s own need for the information. Every archeologist has sloughed through some miserably convoluted writing to find information crucial for current research. Specialized academic writing is important and it has its place, but we cannot expect non-specialists to care enough to struggle through it.

To write “Washington Underground: Archaeology in Downtown Washington DC, a walking and metro guide to the past” I had to read a lot of site reports. It was a struggle to find the hooks that would lead me to good stories. Frustrated, I found myself railing at my absent colleagues: Why couldn’t they just tell me something interesting? Why were the important findings buried deep within the commonplace?

I set several goals for this walking guide. At one level, I just want to inform readers that there is indeed archeology in the downtown of this major urban area. At another level, I want the reader to see that archeology can contribute to major historical and contemporary issues, like public health, immigration and racism. At the next level, I want the reader to come up with the opinion that it is worth pursuing archeology in the city and that preservation laws that support it are worthwhile.

To illustrate the “before” and “after” of learning interpretive writing techniques, I offer the example of written descriptions of the same site. This one happens to be the only NPS site on the map. You can find the whole guide on another partner's web site at <http://www.heritage.umd.edu/DCArchaeologyTour.htm>.

I wrote this informational version first.

The Petersen House

In 1849 a German immigrant family purchased some land and erected a house on this property at 516 10th Street, NW. William and Anna Petersen had six children and took in boarders as well. The archaeological remains of domestic life contain such objects as a bone domino piece and clay marbles. Straight pins and buttons of bone, shell, metal and glass may be associated with William Petersen’s trade as a tailor. Some other materials may be related to boarders at the house. Henry and Julius Ulke were brothers who boarded with the Petersens in the 1860s. Their trade was photography but they were also amateur entomologists. A microscope slide amid the remains may have been associated with their study of insects. In April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was carried to this house after being shot at Ford’s Theatre, which is directly across the street. He died in the bedroom of the upstairs portion of the addition.

Here is the interpretive revision.

In the Path of History

If you were Louisa Petersen, perhaps you would remember moving to this neighborhood with your parents to the house they built here in 1849. Perhaps you heard stories of the old country and dreams about the future and realized that you were joining other families who had come from Germany to make a new life in the United States.

If you looked through the remains that archaeologists have recovered lifetimes later, you’d finger the straight pins and buttons of bone, shell, metal and glass and be reminded of your father William’s trade as a tailor. How much would you remember about the brothers Henry and Julius Ulke, among all the boarders who lived with your family? They were photographers but they were also amateur entomologists. Would you associate the microscope slide in the archaeological collection with their study of insects?

Whatever else you might remember of life at 516 10th Street, you would never forget April 14, 1865. The night that President Abraham Lincoln was carried to your home after being shot at Ford’s Theatre life changed forever for your family. You wrote in your diary about the immense sadness and grief felt by the family and the way that people tore up carpets and other items from your home as grim souvenirs of the House Where Lincoln Died.

(photo) Excavation site near Federal Triangle.

Archeologists excavate a site near Federal Triangle.

For each of the sites on the map, I needed to identify elements for interpretation. The tangibles were different for each and included features such as cisterns and wells, and artifacts such as the sewing implements and microscope slides mentioned above. The intangibles included struggle, suffering, and unexpected change of the sort that confronted the Petersens. The idea of change, used above, is a universal is one with which archeologists often work. Although some of us may have a difficult time with the concept of “universals,” there is enough common ground to make this idea useful.

Interpretive products provide opportunities for the audience to form intellectual and emotional connections. Readers who are academically-inclined, please note, the focus is on opportunities, not assignments. In my opinion, intellectual connections are under-rated by many interpretive professionals, while emotional connections are under-rated by resource specialists. Emotional connections are essential but sometimes subdued. Archeologists shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that strict objectivity should surround all aspects of resource interpretation. In the above example, I focused on the opportunity for an emotional, empathetic connection more than an intellectual one, but several other stops on the map offer the reverse.

After learning the basics and practicing, I can offer the following points about interpretive writing.

  • It is different from writing for scholarly peers.
  • It is not a substitute for scholarly reports or other academic writing but it can enliven that sort of writing.
  • It can be learned.
  • Take the idea of the ‘universal’ with a grain of salt but don’t underestimate its power as a hook.
  • It comes with no guarantees that your audience will form the connections you expect.
  • Ask for criticism and take it both seriously and lightly.
  • Don’t neglect the richness of detail of place and time in pursuit of the universal.
  • Intellectual connections are valid but may not be sufficient for many audiences.
  • Emotional connections are valid and may be necessary for most audiences.
  • People will grapple with difficult concepts if they care, but difficult or opaque language forms a barrier to those concepts and stifles the desire to care.

I encourage my archeological colleagues to take the challenge of learning the basics of the interpretive process. Explore the "Effective Interpretation of Archeological Resources: The Archeology-Interpreter Shared Competency Course of Study." You can find the course on the web at <https://www.nps.gov/idp/interp/440/module.htm> and supporting resources at <https://www.nps.gov/archeology/AFORI/index.htm>. And don't forget to submit your products to the Interpretive Development Program. I was thrilled when the DC archeology map was judged to demonstrate the certification standards for Module 230 on Interpretive Writing.

Barbara Little, Archeologist, National Center for Cultural Resources, Archeology Program, National Park Service

A version of this essay appeared in:

2004 The Arrowhead, The Newsletter of the Employees and Alumni Association of the National Park Service, Winter 2004, Volume 1, No. 1.