Tag Archives: British Museum

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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Filed under Books, Essays, Learning, Reading

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You wont understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.

I had never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over then under the waves. (1)

He is an ordinary man. The purpose of Carmine Menna’s work as an optician is to help people to see better. He lives and works on the little Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. One day in October 2013 he is on a sailing trip with his friends and he wakes up to the most appalling experience; hundreds of people are drowning in the sea around them, refugees whose boat has sunk as it crossed the Mediterranean.

The book

The book was written by journalist Emma Jane Kirby, not written in the first person as the Prologue quoted above is. Rather, she gives us some distance and tells the story from his point of view. But it is a harrowing account none the less.

The friends on the small boat managed to rescue 47 drowning migrants from the sea. Only one of the saved people was a woman. The reactions of the friends on that day, and the following days when they take stock of what they have witnessed, what they have been forced to confront, as the world takes passing notice, these are the subject of this book. On that dreadful day they were forced to stop picking up drowning people as their boat was overloading. They found that 360 people died. They are shocked, feel that there has to be a better way to deal with the migration issues. But they also have new friends with whom they are reunited at an anniversary event.

It’s journalism. It is meant to move you. It is meant to get you to understand better the risks and danger of the boats that cross the Mediterranean. It faces you with the desperation of the people who are trying to complete the dangerous voyage. The story is well told, compelling and vivid. And it raises immense and complex questions about the movement of desperate people.

Humane responses

The optician believes that what he and his friends did is what every one would do. That is despite the knowledge that a passing boat ignored the plight of the drowning people. Nevertheless we hear countless stories of selfless and generous behaviour, especially in relation to the migrants as they land or are rescued from the sea around the islands of the Mediterranean.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

The Lampedusa Cross

Here’s another story of one person doing what he can. In the British Museum, but not currently on display, there is a cross made from the wrecked timbers of a boat. The carpenter Mr Tuccio, wanted to do something to help the survivors. He made crosses for the Eritrean Christians as a reflection on their salvation from the sea and hope for the future. One was also given to the Pope who visited the island in July 2013 and another was donated to the British Museum by Mr Tuccio, and

stands witness to the kindness of the people of the small island Lampedusa who have done what they can for the refugees and migrants who arrive on their shores. (BM website)

The Lampedusa Cross, with permission from the British Museum.

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fourth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

 

Please help me reach halfway to my target by making a donation.

December walk

Walking home, in Devon.

My fourth walk began, unpromisingly, in an Esso forecourt and after picking up the path in the Asda car park became a delightful walk home, along the River Lemon with many many dog walkers, and then up through East Ogwell, and then walking through farmland and rain back to my home.

The walk was about 9km (5+ miles) and took place on Thursday 15th December.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The fifth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in early January

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Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, Reading, Reviews