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.
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
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
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?