Tag Archives: archaeology

Books on the theme of Archaeology

I am lucky enough to live within a mile of an important archaeological dig that the University of Exeter has been exploring for several years. Detectorists discovered Roman coins and the dig began. The received wisdom – that the Romans did not establish themselves west of Exeter – was overturned. There is evidence of iron age living, of a Roman road (where was it going from and to?) and of occupation up to the early middle ages. And then the settlement moved. The village was abandoned and a new settlement established where our village now stands. 

Every year I go and visit the dig site, peer at the variations in soil colours, notice the markers, sometimes orange buckets, sometimes slips of paper, and try to picture people living on the site.

Sutton Hoo

Occasionally I read about archaeology. Next to our own dig I think the Anglo Saxon finds at Sutton Hoo ship burial (Suffolk) are the most engaging. A long time ago, before the National Curriculum, I used to teach my school students about Sutton Hoo, not least for its links with Beowulf. The finds are spectacular and the shadow of the ship in the mound is compelling. I have visited the displays at the British Museum more times than I can recall and plan to revisit the site of the curious mounds next to the river Deben next summer.

Here are two books related to Sutton Hoo, the first of which is a novel.

The Dig by John Preston 

The story follows the progress of the dig at Sutton Hoo in 1939. It is told in the first person by several key players: Mrs Pretty who owned the site, the first archaeologist Basil Brown, one of the professional archaeologists Mrs Piggott, and the boy Robert Pretty.

This structure of the novel mirrors a dig, as we slice through the incomplete telling of the stories of all their lives and find clues, some of which are never followed up. The gradual uncovering of the finds is well told through Basil Brown, an amateur employed by Mrs Pretty who is shoved aside by men with more class and education.

The novel reminds us that knowledge is always mediated through the time of its uncovering, in this case an Anglo Saxon king’s burial is seen in the context of the imminent outbreak of war. And we see how everyone’s story is partial, incomplete and above all unknown to others – especially the women’s. Mrs Pretty is mourning her husband, attending a medium for consultation, and Peggy Piggott is on her unsatisfactory honeymoon (sexless one imagines) and attracted to the photographer who happens to be Mrs Pretty’s nephew.

I enjoyed this book, but I wonder if I would have got so much out of it if I hadn’t known the story of the discovery and wasn’t so familiar with the artefacts.

The Dig by John Preston, published in 2007 by Penguin 230pp.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver

This is the account of the evidence and research into the site by the man who directed the most recent dig, published in 2017. All the mounds have been explored, all the evidence described, and all the theories examined. The context for the finds in England, but also in relation to Europe, is laid out. The author reminds us that no account can be final as archaeology is a dynamic study.

The Sutton Hoo Story: encounters with early England by Martin Carver, published by Boydell Press in 2017. 240pp

Essays

Archaeology has inspired creative non-fiction and none more exhilarating than this poet’s view. I was very pleased to come across this book earlier in the year. You can find the full review on Bookword (October 2019), here.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This is a collection of essays by a Scottish poet. Her themes include time and archaeology. Among other meditations she takes us on two digs, first in Alaska where a 500 year old village is being washed into the ocean. The Yup’iq people live in the village and still live off the land and sea. The dig links the people with their history and the finds extend beyond mere knowledge to influence young people in the village, and the villagers’ understanding of themselves and their past.

A second dig on Orkney also features a site under threat. At the Links of Noltland a large community created in stone is being uncovered, but funds will run out before they are able to  explore the full extent of the remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the earlier settlements but the elements will take anything that the archaeologists cannot recover.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie, published by Sort of books in 2019. 247pp

Archaeology and more fiction

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss 

Set in the 1980s, Silvie’s self-taught father has dragged his family on a holiday to re-enact an iron age camp. The possibility of authentically living as our ancestors did is challenged, not just because living off the land proves difficult and is food supplemented by crisps and cola from the local garage. The beliefs and attitudes of the enthusiasts take on a very threatening aspect reminding the reader of our primitive origins. 

It is a short book, but written powerfully, and the prose develops a momentum, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. There is a full post about this novel on Bookword (June 2019): here.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp

Agatha Christie

And of course the famous crime writer Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his digs in Nineveh and Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Wikipedia refers to these novels, influenced by her archaeological experiences:

  • Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
  • Death on the Nile (1937)
  • Appointment with Death (set in Jerusalem) (1938)
  • They came to Baghdad (1951)

Can you add any other books, fiction or nonfiction, that link to the theme of archaeology? 

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The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

The orthodox version was that Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals, and wiped them out as a result. But this interpretation is now being challenged, not least because modern humans have DNA that can be traced back to Neanderthals. The presence of this DNA can only have happened through sexual encounters, consensual or forced. The view of aggressive encounters between Homo sapiens and other human subspecies must be reviewed. Claire Cameron takes up this issue, imagines the lived experiences of Neanderthal people and suggests a way in which the DNA became mixed.

I declare a connection here: I knew Claire’s husband when he was a PhD student in London. I believe their older child heard him read his thesis aloud as a newborn baby. And later I was fortunate to meet Claire in Toronto.

The story

There are two strands to this novel. In the present day Rose, an archaeologist, is working in some caves in the South of France where she has discovered in the same strata a skeleton of Homo sapiens alongside, even in an embrace with, a Neanderthal skeleton. Rose is developing a new theory about the relations between the last of the Neanderthals and the prehistory of modern humans. Her discovery will help shape her theory. But there is a problem, Rose is pregnant and fiercely protective of the dig. Time is running out.

The other thread of this novel follows Girl, the last Neanderthal of the title. Time is running out for Girl too. Her family are wiped out by circumstances, despite their intimate knowledge of their world and their skills, tools and craft that have helped them survive in the past.

Above all they have had their family relationship to sustain them. This is what Girl thinks of as ‘warm’ and she will miss it later.

It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.

When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle, the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm. (9)

Girl’s family is already small, when her brother Bent is killed in a hunting accident and then she is banished by Big Mother for her sexual relationship with Him, who is at least her half brother. The weakened family, Him, Runt and Big Mother are attacked by a wild animal and the two adults are killed. Girl rescues Runt, and takes over as Big Mother of this much reduced family, keeping the two of them alive during the winter, travelling to the annual meet of the tribes – the Big Fish. Attendance has been reducing over the years and this year they find that they are alone. Runt discovers some signs on a tree and becomes excited and runs off. On her own, Girl gives birth but the baby does not survive. She emerges in spring, very weakened, as likely to be preyed upon as to catch any meat.

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

She finds Runt again and their reunion is the start of a new life for Girl.

Rose meanwhile gives birth, despite assuming it will hardly put her off her professional stride, and faces the difficulties of being a new mother. She must learn some of the visceral lessons of the Neanderthal’s lives and learn how to depend upon others.

The traditional view of Neanderthals as primitive and violent and of modern humans as sophisticated and able to overcome all physical limitations is challenged by this novel.

Reading this book

I already knew that Claire writes tense and frightening stories. The Last Neanderthal is Claire’s third published novel. Both her previous books are almost unbearable to read. Her second, The Bear, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in 2014. The reader follows two small children whose parents have been killed by a bear in the wild areas of Canada. I found it almost impossible to read and thought it was great. You can read my review here.

In The Last Neanderthal, Claire has imagined the world according to Girl: her relationships, how she learns from her family, and especially from Big Mother; how she and her family communicate with limited language and other forms of communication; how she and her family make and use tools and every bit they can of the animals they kill. How she can read her environment, through smell, through feeling the air and through noticing other signs in her area.

One function of literature is to take us to worlds we would not otherwise experience. The reader is immersed in this brilliant and imaginative recreation of the lives of the last Neanderthal peoples.

And especially …

I particularly like the revision of the history of ‘man’ which traditionally suggests that the males of the species fought each other and the superior brains of the modern human succeeded in obliterating the brawn of the more primitive Neanderthal. Here is an alternative, with as much going for it as Elaine Morgan had in The Descent of Woman (1972).

Perhaps the extinction of Neanderthals was not due to aggression, but circumstances that did not favour the small family groups. Perhaps there were friendly relations between the different groups, even intimate relations, partnerships. Perhaps the skills and knowledge of the Neanderthals proved essential to the less hairy hominids. Perhaps we should honour the Big Mothers of our shared past.

The Last Neanderthal is an exhilarating read and an imaginative tour de force.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017) Little, Brown & Co 277pp

Footnote: when I searched for illustrations for this review apart from the many skulls, the pictures of reconstructed Neanderthal people were overwhelmingly of men.

Drawing credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

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