Archaeology and Fiction

Article excerpt

A collaboration

In the summer of 2006 author Margaret Elphinstone, embarking on a novel ser in the prehistoric period (Elphinstone 2009), sought out archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones to discover more about Mesolithic Scotland. The resulting process proved to be more than a simple question and answer session: over three years, the two of us, novelist and archaeologist, each renegotiated the boundaries of our perceptual frameworks. This paper is intended to examine the learning process that most students of archaeology unconsciously experience, and it goes on to champion a respected role for fiction. As the status of history is reduced in the school syllabus, the number of people learning about their past from fiction will increase. Very few people learn much about the Mesolithic through formal education; indeed we are both astonished at how many well-educated people have no idea when or what the Mesolithic was. As representatives of our professions, we here demonstrate the special and timely benefits of what we term the informed novel.

Reflections by the novelist (ME)

We're sitting around the fire in a Saami summer house: a tepee-like structure made of stitched hides stretched over a frame of hazel wands. Someone has brought trout, and Lisa's mother has stuck each fish on a twig to grill. The fish is delicious and burns my fingers. A haunch of dried reindeer meat goes round. Each person hacks off a slice and passes the meat on. Lasso produces home brew--potato brandy. A sip nearly blows my head off. We drink it with Mars bars from our expedition stores. Our Saami hosts and we--students on the 1970 Durham University Expedition to Lapland--have no common language, bur all know their part in the ancient rituals of host and guest, and we pass a merry evening.

That summer 40 years ago shaped my outlook and my future. I learned that parallel worlds exist alongside one another on the same planet. The life-way in which I grew up was merely a historical moment--brief, strange and unsustainable--one which will probably pass even more quickly than it came. Other, more self-effacing ways have existed since the deep past. We came from that past just as much as the Saami do: it shaped our minds and bodies over millennia, and we still recognise it in our bones.

The imaginative leap into our own past is not as huge as people seem to think. The experience of time, even in our own short lives, is aspiral rather than a straight line. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors aren't wholly separated from us by the intervening millennia. We still embody their forms of thought and experience. We live in the places they knew so well. Working on a Mesolithic dig, I've picked up a microlith that has lain in the soil for 8000 years. The last hand that touched that point was the hand that dropped it. Holding that tool, I'm almost touching the hand ... our ancestors are not so far away.

When I started thinking of a novel set in prehistory, I found that most books briefly mentioned hunter-gatherers before dealing at length with the Neolithic. But the Mesolithic, so summarily dismissed, covered about seven millennia. Who were these people who left so little evidence of their presence, even though they were around for eons, between the end of the last Ice Age and the introduction of farming? And why was there apparently so little to say about there? The more closely one looks into the silence the more evidence there is. The best stories tend to hide in the silences between the words on the page. I decided I'd write about Scotland's hunter-gatherers.

I'd previously written about historical peoples who had left written records. Now I was trying to enter a world that has not only left no texts and no stories, but not even the vestige of a language. I was trying to know people who had no names. Early on I recognised the importance of ethnographic parallels. The silence of the far past could be broken by other encounters and experiences. …