Interpretation for Archeologists   5. Personal and Professional Responsibilities   Distance Learning

Interpreting "Untold Stories"

One strength of archeology is to interpret "untold stories." Untold stories describe people or events that were underrepresented in traditional history, capture idiosyncrasies in human behavior, or reveal a moment in time. Archeology evidences these stories, while providing opportunities to contextualize the patterns and processes that left them untold.

Archeologists are responsible for ensuring that untold stories are interpreted. Untold stories can challenge a park's overarching narrative. It can deepen the ways that visitors connect with resources, potentially making the narrative more relatable personally, emotionally and intellectually. In turn, by forming these connections, visitors gain an appreciation for the unique and important ability of archeological resources to capture these stories.

Archeology provides opportunities to interpret untold stories such as:

  • Enslaved people's traditional African practices in the 17th-century colonies
  • Women who traveled with and lived among soldiers during the Civil War
  • Native Americans displaced from their homelands during U.S. western expansion
  • Consumption of alcoholic patent medicines by temperance movement leaders
  • Children's play and learning activities
  • Immigrant workers' living conditions during 19th-century construction of railroads
  • Recreational activities at Japanese internment camps during World War II
  • Rural people's engagement with pop culture.

Interpreting untold stories is an opportunity for archeology to shine, because the stories tend to pull back the curtain on life in the past and detail stories of human interest. For these reasons, too, archeologists should ensure that untold stories are responsibly and sensitively interpreted. The stories may touch on emotional topics for some visitors, or be contrary to what they hold to be true.

Refer to Section 6. Issues of Sensitivity for more in-depth guidance about interpreting sensitive topics.

Case Studies

Sand Creek Massacre, Sand Creek National Historic Site

On November 29, 1864, the U.S. Army carried out a surprise attack on a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The unprovoked attack took the lives of about 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members, two-thirds of whom were women, children, and others elderly or infirmed. Although the U.S. government condemned the attack, no one was punished. What transpired at Sand Creek became one of the most controversial and emotionally charged events in American history. Although oral history and archeology placed the massacre in different locations, their evidence established the boundaries for the park. Archeology confirmed the tribes' account of the events.

The Workers Who Built the C&O Canal, Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park

Wage laborers built the C&O Canal over 22 years. While the engineering and construction of the canal was well-documented, evidence of the laborers' camps, which would detail the off-hours conditions for the workers, had not been located. Archeologists inferred that the worker’s shanties were constructed with limited and easily-degradable resources. Since every human settlement generates trash, but archeologists found little-to-none, archeologists concluded that the trash was carefully collected and disposed of in privy pits or other defined spots. Without archeology, we would not know these details about the canal workers' camps.

Archeology of the Displaced, Shenandoah National Park

In the 1930s, Shenandoah National Park was created from over 3,000 tracts of land which were purchased or condemned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and presented to the Federal Government. Sociologists and anthropologists had deemed the mountain people backwards and out of touch with current American life, in order to justify the displacement of at least 500 families. Archeological research refutes the 1930s scholars' claims, showing instead that the mountain people were in fact quite engaged in modern life, material culture and pop culture. The 20th-century residents owned farms and businesses, went to church and school, listened to the radio, visited with neighbors, and journeyed afield in their own automobiles.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#5 of 10)

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How can archeology contribute to interpreting an untold story at your park?

MJB/EJL