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The Writing Remains Symposium

25 January 2017

The Writing Remains symposium took place on Friday 20th January, the same day as the inauguration of the new President of the United States Donald Trump, so it was perhaps inevitable that our discussions of the relationship between literature and archaeology turned toward the potential pitfalls of blurring fiction and fact.

Archaeologist Dr Robert Witcher questioned the place of fictional techniques in archaeological research in a “post-truth world”, but noted that anxieties around the use of narrative in archaeology were nothing new and outlined the many different ways in which literary approaches have shaped archaeological writing and practice.

Dr Jerome de Groot, a literary scholar, suggested that scientific archaeology, and its well-publicised usage in studies of human remains including those of Richard III, is changing popular conceptions of history as well as historiography itself; he argued DNA evidence and scientific ‘reading’ has become a new form of historical practice. His talk explored how we can read and comprehend this data as humanities scholars, and offered examples of models of reading from contemporary literature including Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.  These keynotes were complemented by a range of papers from archaeologists, poets, and literary scholars, which explored an array of geographical and temporal contexts in which archaeology and literature have intersected.

While there was not always agreement about the extent to which archaeology and literary methods might shape each other, what emerged was a common recognition that both disciplines are engaged in reflecting on the inherent difficulties of imagining the life of a person long dead, and that it is this concern with the process of attempting to understand the past that might provide a productive starting point for future conversations.

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