Creativity and Archaeology

This post is part of Blogging Carnival put forth by Doug Rocks-Macqueen of Doug’s Archaeology. What is a blogging carnival? To quote Doug, “…it is when a host blog chooses a topic and then puts out a call for submission to other bloggers asking them to participate in the carnival.” Participants will then send the link to their post to the host and after the deadline, the host will compile a list of all the participants and, perhaps, comment on some of the pieces. The topic for this Blogging Carnival, “What are the grand challenges facing YOUR archaeology?”

What are the grand challenges facing MY archaeology? Well, a lot come to mind, but the issue I want to discuss might be a topic that many of us can relate to, which is being creative

Before we dive in, let me step back for a moment. Part of the impetus behind creating this website was to provide a platform in which I could provide interested readers an inside look into the life of an archaeologist. My life, probably like yours, has a number of moving parts and the ‘habits’ I set forth are my attempt to keep many of those parts moving and growing for the better. Here is a quick refresher of what those habits are:

  1. Travel Smartly:  Travelling can be exciting, overwhelming, chaotic, life-changing, and a whole host of other adjectives at the same time. Still, we can be smart about it.
  2. Keep Learning: As archaeologists, we are trying to figure out what was going on in the past. Trust me, there was a lot happening and in order to attempt to figure out what was going on, we need to know a bit about everything. Since most of us don’t know it all, we need to keep the learning going
  3. Get and Stay Organized: Getting organized is one thing, but staying organized is another. Both are important and we all could use some new ideas and refreshers.
  4. Build a Great Network: Networks have been important in the success of many ancient civilizations and leaders. This still holds true today.
  5. Fuel Creativity: We all know creativity is an important skill  and sometimes we need some strategies to keep the creative process going.
  6. Make Contributions: Whether it’s publishing your own research or forwarding on a job opportunity, contributions come in many forms and it’s important to make them. Sharing is caring so let’s spread the information.
  7. Rest and Relax: Between work and travel, we need to make time for R&R. While we don’t do this enough, we should make a habit out of it.
  8. Have a Personal Life: Archaeology and travel are great; however, they can be challenging at times. What keeps me sane is making time for my family and friends. No matter who or what makes up your personal life, it’s important to have one.
  9.  Experience the World: Part of the reason I got into archaeology was not just to see the world, but experience it in a way that most tourists don’t get to. It’s not all whips and snakes (thank goodness!), it’s actually so much more.

While this blog is fairly young, I have definitely neglected one habit in particular. Apologies to Habits #5: Fuel Creativity. This habit is important, but before I explain more, let’s define creativity so all of us are on the same page:

Creativity: the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships,or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination

So why is creativity important for archaeologists? Well, we’re trying to figure out aspects of human life in the past. It’s like a massive puzzle that has lost most of its pieces forever. We are trying to figure out what’s going on based on only a handful of pieces. Over the years, we’ve refined loads of techniques, methods, and theories to aid in this process. Still, we often have to exercise a good deal of creativity during many parts of the process, some of which include the following:

  • Figuring out compelling questions that we could investigate based on the potential data that is available.
  • Determining the methods to explore those questions
  • Piecing together data to say something useful (Michael E. Smith discusses this issue in his response.)

We also need to exercise creativity in areas that impact our research, such as:

  • Convincing various parties to fund our work
  • Finding ways to engage local communities where archaeological work occurs
  • Communicating the importance of archaeology to the general public

Creativity is an important skill; however, the creative process can challenging. Why? I can’t plan to sit and be creative for an hour. Sure I can plan to do activities that could spark creativity, but it doesn’t guarantee any deliverables, i.e. that I will come up with a creative idea, solution, insight, etc. Archaeology, like many other fields, might not be able to wait until inspiration strikes.

So why bother with creativity? In my experience, it’s the only way the I’ve been able to keep moving forward with my archaeological endeavors. Now, not all my ideas, solutions, insights, etc. are 100% creative, but any grant proposal, project idea, or research question, that has gained traction and was successful, has had some ounce of creativity in it. This shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s worth pointing out.

So what does my creative process look like? When I’m stuck, I try to do a number of things to get out of my ‘lack-of-creativity-rut’. Here are a few:

  • Write Everything Down:  I write everything down that’s in my head on a fresh piece of paper. Sometimes this helps in visualizing connections and grouping things together.
  • Exercise: I go for a run (or pace around at home) or to the gym and try to clear my head.
  • Phone a Friend: I call someone and talk this issue out. Sometimes I might have thought of the answer already, but I just didn’t realize it. It happens more than you think.
  • Shower: This is probably not great for environment, but a hot shower has been a go-to solution for me since high school.
  • Sleep: No matter how late I stay up working on something, it’s better to call it a night and tackle it with fresh eyes in the morning.
  • Eat: Sometimes making food and eating it helps. Sometimes…

After reading the above list, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s not particularly ground-breaking or super insightful.” and you would be correct! The issue with my creative process is that I only tackle things when there is a problem. For example, I think reading fiction can be a great way to fuel creativity. However, I would be delusional to think I can pick up a novel, read a couple of pages, and get inspired. No matter how many life hacks you read, it’s not that easy.

Fortunately, creativity is something that can be cultivated. Many writers have compared creativity to a muscle that needs to be worked out and built up. I like this metaphor because it 1) implies that creativity is something that we all have and 2) we can work to do it better. Creative exercises are something that I’m not great at doing consistently; thus, making it one of my current grand challenges.

I want to change this!

Over the next months, I’m going to explore different ways to fuel creativity and write about them. I’ll share strategies that I’ve tried out and discuss whether or not they helped me. I hope this will help you too. If you have any suggestions as I tackle my grand challenge of fuelling creativity, please share them in the comment section below.

*Special thanks to Brooke Norton and Christian Staudt for helping me out with this post. Yes, I was stuck and talking it out helped!



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  • I’m over from the blog carnival. Enjoyed your post! I WILL be checking back to see what you come up with as far as fueling creativity.

    I find that I’m wildly creative – but get stuck on implementation sometimes…

    • Hi Libby! Thanks for your comment. Implementation is challenging and I will definitely make an active effort to consider that aspect when I share strategies that I’m trying out. I will have something to share by the end of week if my internet holds up (I’m in the field!). I’m looking forward to following your website!

  • Love this post. This addresses a lot of the subconscious concerns I’ve had in transitioning from a student to a researcher (I’m in the proposal phase).

    Looking forward to following your ideas over the next couple months!

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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