The Personal Histories Project: encounters with archaeologists and natural scientists of the twentieth century

Bianca Carpeneti

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Personal Histories Project team with Professor Richard Wrangham and Dame Jane Goodall after the Primatology discussion at the University of Cambridge on 28 April 2012. Professors Robert Hinde and William McGrew were also panellists. Student volunteers pictured. Project Director Pamela Jane Smith stands next to Richard Wrangham (photograph courtesy of S.E. Pilaar Birch).
Click to enlarge.

Bringing together some 30 high-profile archaeologists for an afternoon seminar to share their recollections and past experiences can be a tall order: organising such an event demands deft negotiation and complex logistics, and can be beset by pitfalls and paradoxes. Yet, this is what the Personal Histories Project tackles. The Project invites senior scientists to share their life histories in order to recreate the complexity of the contexts that shaped their research. It is an oral history project, initiated by Pamela Jane Smith, based at the University of Cambridge and in the past six years it has featured such personalities in archaeology, anthropology, primatology and the natural sciences as Colin Renfrew, Michael Schiffer, Meg Conkey, Henrietta Moore, Richard Bradley, Chris Stringer, Meave Leakey, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall (Figure 1). A link to a series of videos documenting the encounters with these personalities can be found at

The Project seeks to illuminate the development of twentieth-century archaeology. This approach to understanding knowledge production has been remarkably well received and is briefly presented here; it includes a description of the enterprise and an analysis of its challenges and contradictions.


The project provides a forum, with the substantive part of the programme generated by its participants: each event is unique, highly situated and dependent on the panellists featured. There are two crucial elements in each event. The first is the power of narrative: really good stories resonate with people, enabling them to experience a sense of belonging. The second is sharing experience: the emphasis is on personal recollections, remembering the seemingly trivial details that bring genuine insight into these accounts.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Left to right: Professor Charles Higham, Dr. Annie Grant, Professor Tony Legge and Professor Ruth Whitehouse, participants in The Bone Room's past: revolution in paleoeconomic studies, Cambridge, 2 November 2011 (photograph courtesy of S.E. Pilaar Birch).
Click to enlarge.

Each event involves three participant groups: the narrators (Figure 2), the organisers and the audience, each of which plays a distinct role. Separately, these groups derive different benefits from the encounter: affirmation, reunion and 'confrontations' for the narrators; engagement, illumination and temporary membership for the organisers; communion, the insider's view and a humanising perspective on the field for the audience. Communally, these groups engage in etiological exploration of the field through personal narrative and mutual exchange.


The nature of the project obviously has pitfalls: we are not dealing with a neatly packaged, linear narrative. A Personal Histories event requires preliminary knowledge of the subject's history so as to understand how the various narrative strands might fit together. Bringing these strands together involves people with emotions and agendas. As Pamela Jane Smith explains, "you engage in a sort of dance with your panellists, following their lead, a process that builds upon itself to create a pattern."

This becomes clear when organising a panel. A lack of understanding of the group dynamics and politics—agendas, relationships and personal histories in the most basic sense—renders one ill-equipped to recognise the pattern and anticipate the panellists' needs. These dynamics are rarely, if ever, as fixed or static as they are presented in history or archaeology books. In fact, the narrative and relationships are often still being defined, an element that strengthens rather than weakens the project as a whole.

By design, the Personal Histories Project is about human accounts, interactions and perspectives—regardless of discipline. Bringing together a group of people, asking them to encounter, acknowledge and confront each other is a fundamental aspect of the project. This design demands trust, encourages candour and a degree of vulnerability in the participants. Understandably, this may be resisted in some instances.


Oral history projects have the potential to bring together people from different social classes and age groups, transporting education from the "institutional retreats into the world" (Thompson 2000: 12) and questioning traditional boundaries. Consequently, the Personal Histories model seeks to present specialists in informal, conversational settings in order to humanise the academic process and make it accessible to the non-specialist. Yet the Project interviews towering figures from their respective fields, often those individuals whose work is taught in the university cannon. Personal Histories inadvertently reaffirms these boundaries even as it seeks to cross them.

This situation arises in part due to the way the panel, the organisers and the audience participate, generally around a communal narrative. The process is self-reflective and iterative, leading to complex and evolving group 'formation'. It is the individual accounts and perspectives that contribute to this core narrative. But what becomes the dominant narrative of the day is not necessarily the only account. During the event the core 'story' congeals and emerges. Inevitably, this leads to suppressed and marginalised accounts and the question arises: what becomes of them?


Fundamentally, this project provides a laboratory where knowledge construction, legitimation and dissemination, both within and outside academic research can be scrutinised. Individual events do not solely—or even primarily—benefit the panellists. The audience members, along with the other participants are negotiating individual and disciplinary identity within the context of the communal event. The Personal Histories Project, working from individual narratives to create a collective identity, provides an entry into the discipline of history and philosophy of science. It offers a workable approach to elaborate on the large-scale narratives that give coherence to disciplinary histories.


Many thanks to Pamela Jane Smith and Kathleen Sheppard for their help in editing and producing this piece. If interested in the Personal Histories Project, please contact Pamela Jane Smith at Also, visit To contact Histories of Archaeology Research Network: and


  • THOMPSON, P. 2000. The voice of the past: oral history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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  • Bianca Carpeneti
    Division of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ, UK (Email:, email: