Festivals offering historical reconstructions are finding favour with both the public and academics.
These days, popular culture draws heavily on the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, or the Viking era to come up with work that will create a buzz around the world. You only have to think of Gladiator, the Game of Thrones saga, or The Lord of the Rings. And on the back of this craze for all things historical, festivals involving ultra-realistic reconstructions are attracting more attention all the time. According to Karine Meylan, those which claim to bring history to life range ‘from blockbusters with no academic basis to genuine attempts to further the debate and showcase the latest in research.’ As part of her archaeology thesis, the doctoral student is particularly interested in this method’s potential as a tool for communication.
For many years, museums concentrated on collecting and preserving objects. And exhibitions made little or no effort to explain the context behind the relevant discovery or the history of exhibits. ‘There is a real awareness these days, particularly among archaeologists, that we need to communicate with and guide the public. This also means encouraging people to reflect and to build on their own experience.’
In this age of online encyclopaedias, everyone can find the information they need to know about any subject of their choice. This means that academics need to add another kind of value in order to satisfy an increasingly well-informed public. ‘And this involves dialogue,’ confirms the doctoral student. ‘The key to bringing history to life is to engage in debate.’ The kind of intercourse that helps people to fill gaps in their knowledge.
Because with the proliferation of cultural objects, as well as history festivals and theme parks, many errors are going unnoticed. For example, while the houses in Asterix’s village are round in the cartoon, the real houses the Gauls lived in were actually square. And the Celts did not walk about covered in tattoos or animal skins either. ‘The biggest disparities we see relate to the Medieval period. Events portraying the Middle Ages often take the form of big festivals for the wider public or tourists combining folklore with elements of fantasy. The problem is less evident with festivals dedicated to the Roman period, which are often organised by museums and archaeologists.’
Watching out for historical absurdities
So it is a case of not going too far and letting the odd historical absurdity creep in. Or even just making things up. ‘The public are asking more and more questions at events, often based on what they know or think they know. Depending on what we get asked, we owe it to ourselves to reply that certain elements are really just hypotheses rather than facts. Archaeology is not an exact science. Much of the progress made in the field involves a degree of interpretation.’
When it comes to setting up workshops or suggesting reconstructions, academics draw on material such as written sources or individual objects. But these cannot tell us everything. ‘It is very difficult or even impossible to interpret ways of thinking or reactions, for example. Which is why we always make sure we say there is a degree of interpretation based on the most likely hypotheses.’
While living history events have certainly gained in prominence in many countries, Switzerland is rather lagging behind. The doctoral student feels that improving communication with regard to archaeology would lend legitimacy to a discipline which desperately needs it. And this applies to both the public and potential financial backers. ‘I feel our discipline lacks a certain theoretical reflection, especially in Switzerland, about what it can do for the wider population, whereas this particular branch – known as public archaeology – is highly developed in countries like England.’