Summer Road Trip: Puzzlin’ Evidence

I have been thinking about the intersection of history, storytelling, and science, ever since my visit to the Sasquatch Outpost in Bailey, Colorado, a small but enthusiastically curated museum dedicated to information about Colorado sightings of Bigfoot. I could not help but compare it to two other recent visits here, one to the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita, Colorado and the US Olympic & Paralympic Archives in Colorado Springs.

What I grasped is that history, science, and storytelling all use parts that are native to each other. Scientists start with evidence, but must construct a narrative that uses deductive reasoning to explain results. This happens whether they are aiming particle beams at cuprite samples or reconstructing fossil skeletons from a riverbed. They need to tell a clear story. Historians also need to fill in the details on the timeline, starting with whatever sources (evidence) exist from the time period. Deductive reasoning and inferences play a part.

Storytelling, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. If it has a little deductive reasoning–a little science behind it–the story might might have more power. Think about the explanation of constellations, for example. Humans are also naturally adept at “What If…? Tales don’t need evidence, although it helps if the story resembles the familiar. Imagination, however, should not let us replace evidence with anecdote. There are different kinds of evidence. Brief examples from my visits should help clarify the roles played. I can’t quite figure out the Venn diagram, but perhaps the following might help:

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Y is for Yersinia pestis

Burying Black Death Victims in Tournai, Belgium. Gilles Li Muisis, on

We aren’t sure When or Who or Where or How Much. We used to guess about What, although now we seem to be sure. And, when I say we, I do mean scientists and people who study facts and sometimes historians who pay attention to them, instead of making up malarkey.

I’m talking about the Black Death, which I already covered last year in the Renaissance and the letter “B.” And I talked about it in a post on “How do they know?” so why cover it again? Because the key truth about the 14th century plague, the one which devastated Europe and is thought to have come across the Silk Road, is that there are so many unanswered questions.

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V is for Vikings

The Oseberg ship, a symbol of a different kind of trader. Wikipedia.

When you visualize “medieval traders of Persian textiles,” Vikings may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Yet the Scandinavians were masterful travelers who, despite their reputation for looting, were also supreme world traders. They had access to their own products from the Silk Road and navigated their own pathways into the heart of the world exchange that took place on the central Asian steppes. As much as some would like to debunk the idea, you can’t argue when the evidence is dug up a Norwegian back yard.

Where the Bodies Were Buried

The Viking ship above, called a karve, was discovered near a farm in Southeastern Norway at the beginning of the 20th century. (Discovered near a farm … hmm … perhaps that means a plow hit an immovable object one fine Osebergian spring morn?) A Swedish archaeologist took charge of unearthing the site in 1904-05. While precious metal items were missing, they did find two female skeletons and a big stash of goods still remained.

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