Talking Bones

One factual, one fiction, but both based on the facts.

One evening, in a Northumbrian village pub, I had just finished telling a homespun story inspired by a gravestone when a bearded man took me to one side and made me a proposition. The man was Paul Frodsham, an archaeologist, and his idea was that we tell two stories side-by-side: an archaeologist’s and a storyteller’s, created from the same evidence. One factual, one fiction, but both based on the facts. This gravestone story, which had been requested by the North Pennies AONB, was the latest in a long line of commissions of this nature, and so I found the idea of a working collaboration with an archaeologist exciting, if a little daunting. 'Cajoling' an entertaining oral tale from remnants of a forgotten past had not been easy. But the process of diving into the shadows of another world had been a very rich and fulfilling experience. Inspired by that encounter, A Bit Crack Storytellers managed to secure an Arts Council grant in 2009 for the "Talking Bones Project". Our proposal was to create stories from 7 different archaeological sites in Northumberland and the North Pennies in collaboration with an archaeologist and members of the local community. We would then perform these stories in various locations in the area. The National Trust, the North Pennies AONB and the Haydon Bridge Development Trust also offered various degrees of support. Our plan was to explore the sites under the guiding eye of the archaeologist, run a series of workshops in which we dreamed up fictional narratives in response to the evidence, and then shape these ideas into an oral story. The sites were divided up between 3 members of A Bit Crack: Pat Renton, Chris Bostock and myself. There was quite a lot of nervousness for all of us as we were entering uncharted territory. Retelling folktales is one thing. Telling our own imagined stories was quite another! The intriguing variety of sites meant there wasn’t too much bickering about who got what: Chris got a Celtic carved stone head found in a wall near an unexcavated Roman fort; Pat got a bronze age girl's burial urn found in the Cheviot Hills; and I got an early mediaeval boat-shaped tree-trunk coffin found in a meander in the River Tyne. Hare-brained... Of the workshops we ran, those for school groups posed the greatest challenge – but also the most rewarding outcome. Interesting the children in the archaeology on site was not immediately easy. A few stones sticking out of the ground near Hadrian's Wall do not necessarily get the pulse racing for the average 10 year old – particularly if they have no previous relationship with the place. What got their attention on this particular trip was the dead rabbit I pulled out of my bag and began to skin ready for cooking in what might have been a medieval kitchen. They gathered a few herbs and, despite the initial cries of disgust, nearly all of them ate at least a taste of the white bunny flesh – and even those that didn’t were immediately engaged in the story of the place that followed. On day one, we told the children stories that had some relationship with the area, the theme or the archaeological period we were investigating (I was pretty flexible with my interpretation of this). We then work shopped around the stories to help them enter the world of imagination and understand the nature of oral story. We did mapping, moving, debating and retelling exercises. The next day we returned to the site with an archaeologist, hearing the known facts of the site. The children were then set the task of being detectives, gathering evidence for the future story-making. Items were photographed and some were brought back with us. The children were asked to go away and research the appropriate period in history, either at home or in following lessons. Later, the children offered their knowledge of the period so we could begin to create a moment in a forgotten past by imagining a setting, a character, an incident and a resolution. Sometimes we worked toward a single class story; sometimes the children created a number of stories in small groups. Finally, on day four, we created a performance of the story(ies). We used different approaches for the storytelling, including shadow puppet plays. These stories were an end in themselves, but also became the starting point for our own narratives. The Final Stories The next phase of the project was for us to create a convincing story that both did justice to the archaeology and worked as a tale to be told to an adult audience. We intended these stories to be recorded both orally and in written form so that they could be used by future interpreters. We began unearthing folklore from the areas, gleaning insights into the forgotten past. The further back we went, the less information there was to find – but the more creative we could be with our interpretations. The problem then was, what should be done with all the information? Folktales traditionally have very little description in them. All of us had enough information to produce mini historical novels – stories that took around an hour to tell. Our enthusiasm helped us hold our audience – but these were unlikely to be tales that anyone else could tell, or that even we could tell in another context. So the task then was to strip out all but the essential information, leaving us with story durations of around 20 minutes. We did this by passing the story on to another member of the group, who was less attached to the information and could reduce its telling to its essential heart. What I found difficult in this kind of storymaking was to recreate anything in the idiom of the wonder-tale. Essentially psychological and existential, wonder-tales contain truths about our relationship with ourselves, each other, and nature. They let us know something of the period, but it is not about transmitting information. I struggled long and hard to bring metaphorical elements into my stories. Chris managed to achieve this by including a fairy-tale type story within a more prosaic main narrative. We look forward to exploring this area more in future projects Fact and Fiction Come the final event, there was a real energy in bringing together the contrasting enthusiasms of the scientist and the artist. The public very much enjoyed the juxtaposition of fact and fiction. It was a fantastic project for helping us to get to know our land more deeply. This knowledge and understanding has informed my understanding of stories and storytelling in all its aspects. It offered a new way for our audiences to connect with the land, whether they were local to the sites or from distant cities – and many of them told us so. We are planning to continue and deepen this work over the coming years, and hope to make a particular link with the Green Canterbury Tales initiative. For more information on A Bit Crack Storytelling and Green Canterbury Tales please visit the following websites:


Paul Jackson's picture

What a fabulously rich project. And what gold has been unearthed to teach us how stories work and don't work. Why fact can be powerful yet can also be seperflous and has to give way to the magical eliments of the oral tradition.