Archaeology is Telling Ghost Stories

Telling stories is ostensibly what archaeology is about.

When archaeologists tell a story, though, it’s a little different than average. Our stories are anchored to the past via evidence recovered by scientific excavation. From there, we try to deductively interpret what the evidence tells us about the past and past peoples.

But what about the ghosts?

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Since the late 90’s, there’s been a call in academic archaeology to revitalize the way we talk to the public about what we do and what we find. A call to action to make archaeology less inaccessible and more entraining to the public.

In the same time span we’ve seen the rise in popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures and online, with the rise in publicly made videos and social media about investigating haunted locations.

April Beisaw (2016) and Michelle Hanks (2015) suggest that ghost hunting and its overall rise in popularity is a way for the “nonelite” public to become “Knowledge Producers” of the past. By interacting with the past in a way that others have argued is a pantomime of science (ie, using ‘equipment’ doing ‘research’ and ‘investigating’ locations), Ghost hunters create a version of the past that they can interact with, and more importantly, share with others. Even if it does take the form of breathless reveals of blurry images and garbled audio, it creates a story, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than the last four archaeology reports I read.

That said, does archaeology need to become this same sensationalized storytelling machine?

No, and Yes.

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Beisaw mentions archaeology as ghost hunting in her 2016 article and highlights the storytelling aspect of it. She pulls on Michael Bell’s (1997) idea of the ‘Ghosts of Place’ and says that a compelling tale about the history of and what happed (the Ghost) at a given location (the Place) allows for better interaction and understanding with said location by the public.

We can tell history through story, and we can make that story even more real with the use of our archaeological evidence to create a bridge between the living and the dead.

In my humble opinion, this is what we should be doing anyway, and what we try to do when it comes to museums. Unfortunately, the usually sterile conditions of museums and the complete removal of context from artifacts in museums strips the humanity from objects in museums (and creates other supernatural issues with hauntings we’ll discuss later). House museums and Living Museums do a much better job of fostering that bridge between the past and the present, but they are often small museums with little-to-no funding or suffer the inclusion of fantasy elements (think Renfairs).

Ghost stories have the same issues of course, with the added benefit of the telephone-game-effect, where one person tells the story, and the next person changes it slightly, and so on down the line till details have changed, the story has become a new version of itself. This is the tradition of such stories, I think, and part of the fun of them. Ghost stories often have a moral to them or a lesson to be learned. “Don’t go to the old dark bridge at night,” or “Don’t anger strangers in the dark,” or some variation on those themes.
These stories-as-warnings can be traced back all through human history. Every culture has them, and every culture still uses them. We here in our vaulted modern world might call them superstitions, especially when we’re trying to seem superior to others, but every group has its folklore, even modern ones.

Archaeology can build on this and use the examples of these are a modern blueprint for better public outreach.

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Beisaw teaches classes on Ghost Hunting at her university. She uses the modern ghost hunters’ kit to create engagement between her students and the locations they study. But most importantly, she uses the story as a history to teach about the site.

“Ghost hunting always begins with a back-story (Beisaw 2016),”

The back-story is where archaeology can, and should, come in. Prime the pump if you will prepare the observer for what they are about to observe. People go ghost hunting to interact with the Ghosts of Place, the memories of a location. Archaeology is precisely the same. There’s no reason not to share.


Beisaw, April M.
2016 Historical Archaeology as Ghost Hunting. DRAFT Paper prepared for “Haunted Landscapes” session of SHA 2016. Organized by Julia A. King and Alena Pirok

Bell, Michael Mayerfeld
1997 The Ghosts of Place. Theory and Society 26(6):813-836.

Deetz, James
1998 Discussion: Archaeologists as Storytellers. Historical Archaeology 32(1):94-96.

Hanks, Michelle
2015 Haunted Heritage: The Cultural Politics of Ghost Tourism, Populism, and the Past. Left Coast Press.

Published by ArchyFantasies

An active Archaeologist myself, I've gotten a bit tired of the use of bad science and archaeology to defend and "prove" made up claims. In this vein my videos should help others who are are not familiar with how Archaeology actually works understand the truth and see through the misleading lies of others

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