Tag Archives: The Dig

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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Four Good Reads

Here are some recommended reads from the last six months. There are so many books around at the moment that deserve to be read I’ve put together four for today’s post (and will recommend another four very soon).

  1. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

193 ALl my puny cover This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her?

Elfreda is a famous pianist and the sister of Yolande, the narrator. She tells us how Elfreda wants to commit suicide, and the novel begins as she is hospitalised after her most recent attempt. We find out that their father also found death in front of a train. The novel concerns the attempts by Yolande and other close to Elf, to keep her alive. But then Yolande has to consider the request ‘to take me to Switzerland’, to Dignitas, because she sees her sister’s unhappiness.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist, who draws from her Menonite background. She knows how to create sparky characters, with lives full of the stuff of living. And she knows how to portray sisters and adult relationships. Yolande is sparky and flawed. The emotional content of the novel is crafted so that the reader cares what happens to both sisters, and yet the material never becomes mawkish. It’s very moving and very challenging.

The novel explores a person’s right to die; whether another person should help them; the pain of knowing your loved one wants to die; the pain when loved ones do die; and how families support each other. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in which Will’s disability made the questions less tricky than for Efl, the successful concert pianist and in which the theme of assisted suicide notched up the tension rather than encouraging reflection on the dilemmas of assisted suicide.

Miriam Toews (2014) All my Puny Sorrows, published by faber 321 pp

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull

193 Bees coverThis novel was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is certainly a sustained tour de force. The main character, Flora 717, is a bee and the action of this novel takes place in a hive.

Laline Paull has done her research, and the mysterious and rather alien functions of the hive, in particular its hierarchies and the brutal way in which these hierarchies are enforced, is reimagined in a story of the triumph of the humble bee. It is the author’s challenge to present a great deal of close observation of bee behaviour in a convincing way: how bees communicate, the function of smell in their lives, group communication through humming, dancing and chemical means. The world of bees is sustained to the end.

Flora attracts attention by being a little different at birth. She is taken to the nursery, and later to the Queen. Fiercely loyal to the Queen – as are all bees – she learns the geography and culture of the hive as she takes on the roles of nurse, sanitation worker, forager and finally a definitive role in the hives future after it disintegrates through internal conflict.

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), published by 4th Estate 344 pp

  1. The Dig by Cynan Jones

193 Dig coverThis novel featured as a book of the year for several people in Guardian Review of 2014. I mentioned it in brief post because one character, an older woman, seemed to me to be so beautifully portrayed, albeit very briefly. You can find my comments about her here. There is more to this novel than that one character, of course.

The dig refers to digging badgers out of their setts, and so the novel is about cruelty and loss. The big man is a loner, who hunts badgers for sport, but must evade the law to do so. The practice seems rooted in the traditions of the countryside, in this case in Wales. It may be traditional but the badger dig is gruesome, and the baiting that follows worse. Dennis is also a loner, a sheep farmer grieving for his wife, recently killed by the kick of a horse. The paths of the two men cross with tragic consequences.

The story unfolds in the Welsh countryside, and Cynan Jones has a great feel for place, evoked especially through sound, but also through the taciturn communications of the people in the rural communities, and of the skill and knowledge that both men develop of their crafts. The two main characters, and the others, such as the boy who goes on a dig, and Dennis’s mother, all are evoked through a sparse but powerful style. It’s short, brutal and difficult to read.

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta 156 pp

  1. This Boy by Alan Johnson

193 This Boy coverOur book group decided to read this autobiography. We enjoyed it, partly because Johnson has such respect for women, and especially for his mother and sister. He was brought up by them in post-war London slums, where poverty was shockingly present. Deserted by his father, much of his story details the family’s struggle with money, ill-health and the expectations of their neighbours. Told with humour as well as shocking detail, we read because we know our boy came good.

It’s as much a social history, including a reminder of the role of popular music in a boy’s life in the late 50s and early 60s. (This Boy is the title of a Beatles song). It is written with passion, humour and generosity.

This Boy by Alan Johnson (2013), published by Corgi Books 284pp

 

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The Dig by Cynan Jones

Here’s a jewel that appears in the short novel, The Dig. It is an excellent book, much recommended in those lists of good reads of the year in 2014. But this is not a review of the novel. I only want to draw attention to one sharply observed character, the mother of the farmer. It is a miniature addition to the older women in fiction series.

155 The DigDaniel’s mother, according to Cynan Jones, has a ‘staid farmhouse traditionalism’, found everywhere in the countryside. He refers to such women as ‘charged for generations with keeping their men working, by feeding them and repairing them, and there is no room for sentimentalism in that’.

But this sureness of purpose can only come from having a defined role and from not questioning it. It was certain to him that his mother had never questioned the role, but with that same conviction – age being a role in itself – she had adopted oldness when she had assumed she should, rather than when her body told her to.

She had seemed to prematurely age, to adopt some strange outwardly witnessed notion of old people in the way teenagers put on some adulthood. There was no adjustment to the fact that eighty was not a rare age any more, and that sixty was what forty used to be. She started to order elasticated trousers and strange shoes that made her look incongruously aged like teenagers look in grown-up clothes, and seemed to choose a stock phrasebook of senior comments which she took to saying with a wistful acceptance; again, like a teenager trying to sound grown up.

He didn’t know exactly what to do about this, but it was wearing. And then suddenly she was old, and the incongruity was not there. (48-9)

I know several people who enact being old. This woman doesn’t so much age as adopt oldness, before coming to be old.

But don’t read The Dig for Daniel’s mother alone. This novel justifies its recommendations. It is a brutal, harsh story of two men in the Welsh countryside. It reminds me of the differences between Welsh and English culture. The title refers to illegal hunting for badgers.

European Badger by Kallerna via wikicommons

European Badger by Kallerna via wikicommons

The writer has a great feel for place, and for the deep history of the Welsh rural landscape. Rural life is evoked most effectively through the skill and knowledge of their crafts that the men have developed, through the taciturn nature of much communication, and the sounds of the countryside.

For a moment he listened to the rattle of the corrugated iron as one of the cows scratched inside the barn, and to a tractor clanging as it changed loaders on the next farm (148).

155 pbk The Dig

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta (156 pp)

 

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