Tag Archives: Surfacing

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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Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Sometimes you just know that you must own a copy of a certain book. I heard an extract and a strong recommendation on a recent Backlisted podcast and thought – that’s a book for me. I went as far as Waterloo Station to find it. And I bought it in hardback as it is the only edition currently available. I was setting myself up for disappointment. 

But I was not disappointed. The book contains a series of essays by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie. It is a beautifully produced book, attractive cover, rich tactile paper and it contains some grainy but appropriate B&W photos. And the text is special too.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

This was not a random shot in the dark attraction. I am interested in archaeology and history. There’s an annual dig a mile from where I live which is rewriting Roman history in the South West. The site appears to have been in occupation for decades, perhaps centuries, before and after the Romans came and went. It is still unclear why the village relocated in the early medieval period. But this is not what I want to write about.

And good writing is always attractive. As an esteemed poet Kathleen Jamie has brought her skill and craft to the natural world for some time.

What attracted me most to these essays was that she connected archaeological finds with the indigenous peoples who live next to the site today. She travels to Alaska to visit a site of an abandoned Yup’iq village which is being gradually washed away by the Pacific Ocean as a result of rising sea levels. The artefacts are in danger of being lost. 

At the end of the dig the archaeologists display their finds, everyday objects, to the villagers. She reveals that archaeology is a force to connect communities and affirm a community’s history. In this case the dig has exposed finds from 500 years ago, before Europeans ‘discovered’ America.

[…] I wandered round from table to table, eavesdropping.

‘And you’d pull the bow like this …’

‘A lamp! My mother had one.’

‘Nowadays we use synthetic sinew, ballistic nylon.’

I saw George, the water man. The last time I had spoken to him he had a map in his hands. Here he was again, but he’d swapped the map for his seal-hunting harpoon, which stood taller than he did. He was showing the students how his modern harpoon toggle compared to those of his Yup’iq forbears at Nunallaq [the dig site]. His was the same shape, same mechanism, but made of brass.

A lady came with a basket she had woven from beach grass. She was plump and wore a bright floral kuspuk and tracksuit bottoms. Her basket was bow-shape, a foot deep and decorated with stylised flowers in what looked like torn strips from an old polythene bag, but no, she said, it’s seal-gut, dyed. I saw her in earnest conversation with a PhD student who was studying the grass-work. (86-88)

Kathleen Jamie visits another archaeological site, this one in danger from lack of funding. On Orkney a large community, built over centuries from stone, is being uncovered, but funds will run out and the elements will destroy what remains. Successive generations built on the foundations of the settlement of others.

Similar themes are approached in different ways in other essays. The Reindeer Cave puts the reader by the poet’s side in a cave in the West Highlands.

You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age. (1)

Her reflections on the aeons of time and our own world are thoughtful and lyrical. A short observation of an eagle in a landscape is another gem. For a longer meditation she takes us to her past in a Chinese village during difficult times. Her observations of the people in the guest house, the place they find themselves in, and the people whose world they are visiting, these are a delight. Like no writer I know, she links time and the land in ways that provide insight into the current environmental and archaeological crises. 

You can find admiration from another book blogger, who was already familiar with the work of this Scottish poet: dovegreyreader scribbles in September.

Surfacing Kathleen Jamie  (2019) Published by Sort of books. 247pp

And another thing: podcasts

Mentioned that my source for this book was a podcast. I have recently become more enthusiastic about these, finding them excellent companions for the washing up. This was largely a matter of working out how to access them from my ipad, which turned out to be very simple. 

The podcast I mentioned in the opening of this post featured Elizabeth Taylor and specifically her novel The Soul of Kindness. So my discovering of Surfacing was serendipitous. How lovely. You can find a link to the Backlisted website here: https://www.backlisted.fm.

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