Ancient Muses: Archaeology and the Arts

By John H. Jameson; John E. Ehrenhard et al. | Go to book overview

7 Poetry and
Archaeology
The Transformative Process

Christine A. Finn

The object is inexhaustible, but it is this inexhaustibility which forces the
viewer to new decisions.

—Pearce 1994

Poets are editors of the inspirational world. They observe and choose seemingly disparate people, places, and things, essentialize them, and pare and trim and hone the words in the heart, in the head, and on the page. This consideration of poetry as a process is at the center of this chapter. I could have taken a straightforward approach to poetry as it relates to archaeology and, within this scope, considered the many poems inspired by such things as artifacts, sites, and the peopling of the past (see, for example, Henig 2001). But I have been fascinated by this material for nearly ten years, and returning to it after an absence, I find an alternative presentation: the idea has morphed into a text that considers the “how” of poetry as it relates to archaeology, an approach that places the poet in hand with the archaeologist.

This chapter brings together ideas relating to the transformative process. It gathers artifacts, places, and bodies seen in a particular context, that is, the work of the northern Irish, and Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney. I have written elsewhere about Heaney's use of the curious northern European finds known as “bog bodies,” and I used the material as a basis for a doctoral thesis that considered how Heaney and W. B. Yeats made use of antiquity and archaeological tropes over a period spanning the late nineteenth to late twentieth century (Finn 1999a, 1999b, 2000, 2003). It was a period in which archaeology can be said to have emerged as a discipline. But neither Yeats nor Heaney was an archaeologist; they ingested their sense of the past from other places, such as books and museums, and from being among archaeologists.

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