Childhood books, prehistory and place

I have been trying to say something very tangled up and personal about archaeology for a long time. On Saturday I woke to discover tweets from David McKeen and Neil Gaiman letting the world know Diana Wynne Jones had passed away, and I decided it was about time to stop trying to write it in my head, and write it here instead.

What follows is personal musing only. I am not attempting some grand academic conceit. Nor am I saying I am the only person to have thought about this, or even to have written about it. Last summer when I was writing my PhD corrections, I wrote a clumsy post about how I would be a better archaeologist if I was a better poet. I was trying to say, I think, that poets are (uniquely?) able to tie together words with rich allusions and place them in context with one-another. This is hard to explain, so bear with me. Poets seem, in a way that other artists do not, to be able to grasp the many layers and essences of a thing, and leave them there for us to delve into. It might be that I have been vicariously enjoying my Dad’s love of deeply complex and inherently difficult poetry too much and it has perhaps coloured my perceptions.

But I think that to do this, and do it well, poets have to be well read, they have to understand the many layers of meaning, the possible readings of a word, the way it was used in the past as opposed to now. They draw on great reserves of cultural knowledge, embedded in the people that have read enough to feel what it is they write about. I remember reading the opening stanzas of a Matthias poem in ‘A Gathering of Ways’ about routes and roads in the Pays d‘Oc and pilgrim routes into Spain, and it catching something deep inside me that resonated with it, because I knew the deep history he was writing about. I wonder if it would speak to someone who didn’t know of Roland, of the pilgrim routes and the reconquista and all that went before and after in the same way. And it got me thinking- that if I were more widely read, that if I were a better poet, that if I saw and understood these deep cultural connections, that I’d be a better archaeologist. And perhaps, if I was better at both I could explain this less hesitantly.

And then I got to thinking, as you do, when writing job applications last year, and answering the inevitable ‘tell us why you want this job’. I got to thinking about why archaeology had become my passion, where and when I had fallen in love with prehistory. Bear with me, we’ll get to Diana Wynne Jones, I promise. I’ve written before about how and why I choose to be involved in a particular act of archaeology, what it meant to me personally and politically and professionally. I’ve tried to explain why here on the blog too. But that’s not the heart of it. The heart of it goes even deeper.

I grew up reading fantasy books. Books that foregrounded British myths and legends, and the landscape. I can’t remember my Dad reading me the Narnia stories for the first time, but I can remember my outrage at being told they were Christian allegories (I was a fierce atheist at six; I’ve mellowed a bit since). T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King’ was another bedtime favourite. When I was a bit older I read the Hobbit by myself, and then The Lord of The Rings. I devoured Alan Garner books and they still have a unique hold over my imagination- I remember being terribly annoyed that Gollum appeared to be a rip-off of a svart, not realising, at ten or so that they had been published the other way round. Red Shift remains one of my favourite books of all time, and it is one reason I find polished stone axes so beautiful. Rosemary Sutcliffe was another author I adored, Sun Horse Moon Horse being a particular favourite. Susan CoopersThe Dark Is Rising sequence was another obsession, chock full with Arthurian myths. I longed to go to Wales and Cornwall, hunting for Grails. Castle Tioram was my Cair Paravel. Entire sections of the downs above my home on the Isle of Wight became places from Middle Earth; we had our own Helms’ Deep, our own Galadriels Tree, and plenty of barrows, and even a dew-pond to be the pool at the entrance to Moria. We scared ourselves silly, more than once, camping up there on warm summer nights and telling stories with ourselves as heroes. I’ve not read all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but the Dalemark quartet was very special to me. My best friend Cat gave them all to me for Christmas, and I cried, quite a lot, because I hadn’t realised they were in print again (because of JK Rowling), and never thought I would get to read them again. They stand the test of time. They have their own myths and landscapes, but they resonate nonetheless, and have in their heart something about rebirth and souls that keep returning to finish their stories. Katherine Kerr’s books are special to me for the same reason, that and their pseudo celtic setting. When I was older it became the Saga of the Exiles and Julian May’s sci-fi re imagining mythical-age Europe; Aiken Drum as a non-born trouble maker gone back in time; elves and goblins as alien protagonists. Threaded through this were walks with my parents in the mountains, moors and hills. Looking for deserted villages, finding cairns and talking about coffin routes. I was always keenly aware of places, not just landscapes and empty space, but places that had histories and meanings.

I think all of this is why I fell in love with prehistory. I grew up soaked in stories that come from prehistory after all; or very near to it. I grew up knowing that kings are buried in barrows and that wet places are gateways to other worlds. That stone circles are powerful and that the landscapes of these islands are magical indeed, if you are able to see it. Dragons sleep under mountains, monsters in lakes with their mothers; mysterious strangers are never what they seem and somewhere Arthur and his knights are sleeping against our time of greatest need. Stone circles are places you can cross between the worlds, and springs and rivers have their own gods and goddesses. Kids stories, but stories that have been with us for two thousand years, or more. Lugh and his spear, the Morrigan. Norse Gods too, Loki and Odin and Freya. The hanged man, the wounded God, the sacrifice to make the winter end; the old Gods and their places and curses. All out there, lurking and waiting to be found and have stories told about them again. Though it’s not really a kids book, I think this is one of the reasons I love ‘American Gods’ so much too, and the way old Gods keep popping up in the Sandman/Endless Graphic Novels. Simon Schama has written about how landscape is enculturated; how and why British forests are oak dappled glades with the Green Knight on his endless and pure quest, whereas German forests are dark and full of witches, evil spirits and death. I can’t find a good scholarly review to link to, but I am talking about ‘Landscape and Memory‘, which my dad maintains is the only good thing he’s written apart from his stuff on the Dutch. This I suppose is what I am getting at; my encultured experience of landscape is what led me to prehistory.

I knew from very young that I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I didn’t really understand prehistory as something you could study until I went to University. At eighteen, I will admit, I still thought it had more to do with Roman Temples, Medieval Castles and Indiana Jones types of adventures, or perhaps the Paleolithic, and thinking about how we became what we are. Still, I had seen Time Team, and it got me thinking, and interested. So I took units on prehistory where I could, and somewhere by the end of my second year, it had stuck. I had fallen in love with prehistory, but in particular the Mesolithic to Bronze Age, a time in our past when my Dad delights in telling me ‘people were really strange’. And now I am wondering which came first. Did I fall in love with prehistory because it spoke to bits of my heart that had been raised on this rich diet of myth? Or am I just predisposed to both? My other half reads just as much fantasy as me, but the kids stories haven’t stayed with him into adulthood, and he much prefers the Romans. I’m certain that most of the people I know that love fantasy novels are interested in archaeology, but not all of them in prehistory, and I know a good deal of archaeologists who scoff at fantasy and think the Lord of the Rings was boring (even the movies!).

So I’m none the wiser, but I do think it has something to do with how I experience the landscape, and the way my imagination reacts. I look at Silbury Hill and I do wonder how it was built and why, with my archaeology head on, but I also wonder what stories they told themselves about it, once they had built it. I wonder if the Roman Road that dog-legs around it and helped to date it did so out of grudging respect. I wonder if they told stories on their marches at night around the camp fire, about the native Gods- kings that slept within it. I walk into West Kennet long barrow, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that the old axe polishing grooves on the entrance-stone are at eye height, and easy to reach out and touch. I walk up the hollow way to the Longstone on the Isle of Wight, and I think about how long this path must have been a boundary to have become deeper that I am tall. I think about the manor it borders, and about ‘beating the bounds’ in medieval times to keep away devils. I wonder if the stone was kept out, or kept in. And this draws me to Susan Cooper, talking about the Hunting of the Wren, which I think is a Spenserian allusion from the Faerie Queen, but I am probably wrong. I think about how the stone became a hundred-moot, and what it was before all that, when it was in all likelihood a community grave; a tomb, of sorts, but not how we would understand one. I wonder if, even then, their feet brought their loved ones and ancestors up the same path to the monument, and if people have been following this route for five thousand years.

I find these places inherently beautiful, and slightly unnerving; I feel like pre-history is breathing down my neck. I do this sort of archaeology because I want to understand, I want to breach the gap between me and them, and see the world the way they did. I think I see the world quite differently to a lot of my generation; it’s not just a lumpy field, it’s a barrow. It was built in the Bronze Age because someone died, and then people came back later, and built more, and added things to the ones that were already here. This place meant something. It’s not just another lumpy field as we rush past in the car, or on the train. For me, the landscape is alive with ghosts and stories, and I wish I could tell them better.

6 thoughts on “Childhood books, prehistory and place

  1. Thank you for putting that more eloquently than I ever could. I hadn’t yet made the link between *my* love of prehistory and the fantasy I read (and still read when I get a chance). But it’s so obvious now. I share the same interest in the stories behind the remains; the how and why things are as they are.
    Thank you also for the reading list – there’s a lot there I’ve missed but would enjoy!

  2. Hello sweetness. I loved your post. I remember when we first met … a sudden bonding over Clan Of The Cave Bear and the word Goddess. You’ll be pleased to know that my girl goes onto the Downs and has played Middle Earth there, is reading the trilogy for the second time and has asked to have her middle name changed to Arwen! Thanks for writing so beautifully and eloquently expressing your deep self and for reminding me of all the sacred places that echo the past. X

  3. Hi Kathy! Thanks, it matters to me that another archaeologist has read this and doesn’t think I am completely bonkers 😉 Hunt down the books, they are really really good. Kids books are awesome in all sorts of ways; they are so wonderfully immediate, and use some of the same tricks as poets in making allusions and saying a lot with very few words that I wish some ‘adult’ authors would learn to do too.

    Bethan, your girl could only possible be an amazing creature; she’s your daughter. You should let her her add the Arwen! It is a beautiful name, like her others x Say hi to the Longstone for me this summer?

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