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Storying the Past: Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying

Bringing History to Life with Storytelling

This blog is the fourth of a series of five on the topic of storytelling and history. While I am not a historian, I have had a life-long love of history and have been privileged to work as a storytelling consultant to national museums. Writing this blog provides me with a way of working out and articulating my method when telling historical stories.

This series of blogs is structured as follows:

Part 1 - Storytelling

Why Stories Stick: Narration and the Organisation of Ideas

Structuring Story

Part 2 - Character-Focused Storying (using the example of the story of the Suffragettes)

Part 3 - Event-Focused Storying (using the example of the Battle of Hastings)

Part 4 - Artefact-Focused Storying (using the example of a wooden Spindle) Memorising and Telling

Part 5 - History and The Tales That We Tell Summary

If you are interested in more of my thinking on using storytelling to teach history, I have an article, 'Storytelling the Past' in the Historical Association's magazine Primary History (Issue 86, Autumn 2020) CLICK HERE - please note that this article is behind a 'pay wall'.

Artefact-Focused Storying – a Spindle

Developing historical understanding from artefacts is a common feature of the history classroom. Narrative is often used to contextualise and explain the significance of objects from the small and domestic to the large-scale or architectural, whether the learning is taking place in the classroom or on a visit to a museum or historic site. As with the previous sections, we are going to work with a storying sequence that takes us through the stages of creating a coherent narrative (see Figure 1), this time focussed on an artefact. To do this, we are going to use the example of a facsimile of an ancient Greek spindle (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 - Artefact-Focused Storying

Figure 2 - Spindle

When creating narratives around artefacts, our aim is to make sense of the object, but we do this by relating the object to human endeavour. In an approach that echoes that taken in the two previous blogs about developing character and event focussed narratives, we will look for the narrative function[1] that the artefact serves; once we have determined this, we can be specific about the character(s) whose story we are going to tell. With reference to the storying sequence in Figure 1, the spindle can serve one of five functions in the narrative:

  • Context for action – the spindle could provide a physical prompt for the myth of Athene and Arachne (specific individuals), both of whom were renowned for spinning and weaving, and who went on to compete against each other in weaving - an event which directly led to Arachne’s transformation into a spider.

  • Provocation to action - a spindle like that in Figure 2 (which is similar to others found around the Mediterranean and beyond) is a very effective means of spinning raw material into yarn. Although it is still used for traditional spinning today, it requires intensive labour. If the limited efficiency of the drop spindle is treated as the problem, our narrative could be about those who improved spinning technology (representative individual(s)), for whom the motivation is to create a more efficient process. The climax and resolution to such a narrative could track the process of industrialisation followed by the greater affordability of textiles.

  • Obstruction to action – ancient Greek culture expected all women to be able to spin and weave. As a way of exploring women’s status in ancient Greek culture, the story could be told of a girl (representative individual) who sees learning how to spin (an action focused around the artefact) as an obstruction to her freedom, preferring the lives of the Amazons as models for the kind of woman she wants to be.

  • Means to act – the spindle provided the Greek family with the means to create their own fabric from the sheep that they kept. A story could be created in which the need to survive is the problem for a family (a representative group) who need to make the most out of their resources. The spindle provides the tool by which raw wool becomes a commodity and a usable fibre.

  • A record of action – although the spindle shown in Figure 6 is a modern recreation, it remains a record of how someone made it, as would an ancient original. In creating narratives such as this, the problem(s) can be identified as issues of design, availability of materials, and the forming of those materials. While there are unlikely to be dramatic moments in such an account, a narrative could be created for a representative individual from a normal household:

- Introduction – the daughter and the mother spin together; - Problem – the daughter breaks her spindle and needs to make a new one in order to be able to spin the family’s wool; - Rising action - she goes to a place where she knows there is clay in the ground; she takes some home and shapes a small piece into a disk. She finds a suitable piece of wood and smooths it with her knife. She uses the wood to make a hole in the clay disk and the then bakes the clay in the oven; - Climax – she is able to fit the whorl to the shaft - Falling action - she takes wool and sits with her mother - Resolution and ending - the daughter is spinning with her mother again, and the family’s wool is turned into yarn

A narrative such as this could last under one minute as part of a classroom exploration of the artefact, but the application of story structure means that the information about how the spindle is made is contextualised and related to human needs.

Memorising and telling

A story schema, of the sort that I have modelled in this series of blogs, in which identifiable characters have goals (and who struggle to achieve those goals) may seem more complex than the kind of schema where related events are simply put in chronological order, but the converse is actually true. Not only does an audience respond to stories because of their human interest, but this same quality means that using stories to contextualise information makes it easier to remember than isolated facts.

In Part 1 of this blog, I suggested that there is no need to learn a story word-for-word, but that we should apply the skills that we exercise in everyday conversation to curriculum content. However, historical narratives will often include dates as well as names of historical figures, places and artefacts. Details such as these are fixed, but few busy classroom teachers could afford the time to commit such information to memory, but simple strategies such as having a prompt sheet with key words visible, or giving children pieces of paper on which facts can be written to be fed into the story - storytelling is about making meaningful connections between people, their desires and events, rather than a feat of memory. In the following section, I will provide the procedure for story memorisation that I use (based around the storying sequences):

  1. Decide the focus for the story (character, event or artefact);

  2. Follow the appropriate storying sequence to identify how a story can be built around the focus - if necessary, refer to the character-focussed storying sequence to ensure that the story will follow an individual (or group) and their struggles to achieve a goal;

  3. Plot the events of the narrative against the simple narrative structure - a visual representation with key words may help with memorising prior to telling, or serve as an aide memoire during the storytelling itself;

  4. Either commit to memory or have a written reminder of important names, dates and places – there may also be quotes that you want to include[2];

  5. Practise the story (bearing in mind that the aim is to learn how to join events together coherently, not to commit a specific script to memory).

In the final part of this blog series I will discuss some of the issues around a storied approach to history, and consider the question, ‘Whose stories are worth telling?’


[1] ‘function’ is used here to refer to the relationship between an element of the story (such as an event or artefact) and the role they play in the story.

[2] There may be sections where you want to use rhetorical or poetic devices to make them stand out, and then you will need to learn the exact words that you want to use. However, whether or not you memorise sections of text, once you have told a story a few times, you will find that you fall into particular patterns of language as you realise that some sections work better than others.