Archeology professor unearths a novel way to reach the public

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 22, 2010 

  • If you go

    Kelli Carmean will read from and discuss Creekside

    When: 4 p.m. Sept. 23, EKU's Crabbe Library grand reading room

    ■ 4 p.m. Sept. 24, UK's Lafferty Hall, Room 108

    ■ 2 p.m. Oct. 9, the Morris book shop, 408 Southland Dr.

    ■ 7 p.m. Nov. 2, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green

    ■ Nov. 11, Kentucky Book Fair, Frankfort

Consider the archaeologist's challenge: Figure out how people lived and their societies worked centuries ago, based on little more than what remains of their bones, their buildings and a few timeworn artifacts.

And then there is the unknowable: What were their joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams?

"There are so many bigger questions out there," said Kelli Carmean, an archaeologist, anthropology professor and chair of Eastern Kentucky University's Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work.

Carmean, 50, wrote a conventional archaeology book, Spider Woman Walks This Land: Traditional Cultural Properties and the Navajo Nation, in 2002 that drew on her research into Native American cultural anthropology.

But she wanted to do more, and she needed another vehicle to do it. So she recently published Creekside: An Archaeolog ical Novel (University of Alabama Press, $27.50)

"The tools of archaeology are really good, but they can't re-create individual lives," Carmean said. "So I decided to use fiction to try to imagine some of these things and tell people more about archaeology and why this is important."

Creekside weaves together two fictional stories, separated by two centuries.

The first story is about Virgil and Estelle Mullins, a young 18th-century couple who leave family in Virginia to cross the mountains and settle in the wilderness of Central Kentucky. Over three generations, the family experiences joys, hardships and tragedies common to people in those times. Before the Civil War, descendants abandon the farmstead for urban life.

The second story is about Meg Harrington, a 21st-century archaeologist who is working with students to excavate that pioneer farmstead. They must work quickly because bulldozers will soon turn it into a subdivision called Creekside.

Carmean faced the usual challenges of writing historical fiction: creating characters with whom readers can identify and rich, interesting plots grounded in historic accuracy. But with a twist.

As chapters go back and forth in time, the reader learns details of the pioneer family's life that the archaeologist can only speculate about: the violence and accidents that left disfigured bodies in graves; deeply personal stories behind bits of ceramic and jewelry found buried in the soil.

Carmean wanted to explain something about archaeological excavation techniques and artifact analysis. "It's an effort to bring the public into archaeological thinking and processes," she said, adding that it bears little resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie.

Although Carmean's research has focused on Native American cultures, she decided that her first novel should tell the story of white settlers because readers could more easily identify with them. She is working on a second novel about Native Americans who populated Kentucky long before it was "discovered." That novel's working title is The Village at Muddy Creek.

Creekside explores the tension between preservation and development. Carmean is passionate about preventing destruction of archaeological sites so they can be studied into the future. The more we know about the past, she said, the better we can understand the present and gain insight for the future.

Preservation is problematic because it often comes down to money. Archaeologists usually have few resources to work with, and ancient and historic sites are usually destroyed to make way for well-financed development.

The academic culture of archaeology, which is focused on data collection rather than storytelling, often hurts archaeologists' ability to communicate their values. "We're not providing the general public with what they hunger for," which is the humanity of our ancestors, Carmean said. "We have the tools, but we just haven't done it."

Carmean hopes Creekside will help change that. "You have to write about it in such a way that people will pay attention to it," she said. "You have to make them want to take a more active role ... and educate themselves about the scale of the destruction around us, the destruction that accompanies modern life.

"We lose something with each site destruction," she said. "The past and vestiges of the past are important because they enrich our communities. They help us understand more about the human condition."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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