Sunday, 18 December 2011

Islands and the Historical Imagination

Having grown up on a small island (Jersey), and lived there for almost half of my life, I have often had occasion to pause and reflect on what it is that makes island life “special” and “different,” what it is that gives islands a particular character. My book. Islands in Time ( was an attempt to explore these questions through archaeological evidence. The book focussed on a range of issues including the development of human communities in island ecosystems; the establishment of exchange networks linking islands with one another, and with adjacent mainlands; and the flourishing of unique monumental traditions in isolated communities. It was a fascinating exercise, but it always seemed to me that something was missing. That something, I now realise, was the emotional dimension of island life.

With the Autumn Term now finished, I have started on my holiday reading, discovering, in the process, three works of fiction which illuminate this dimension of island societies, rather as Italo Calvino shone a light on urban cultures with Invisible Cities.

From the Mouth of the Whale, by the Icelandic writer, Sjon (Telegram, 2011) is a work of “pure” historical fiction, set in 17th Century Iceland. Accused of sorcery and necromancy, the poet, naturalist and healer, Jónas Palmason, is exiled to the remote Gullbjorn’s Island. Ancient myths mingle with beautifully observed evocations of the natural world as Jónas struggles to save his family, dreams of leaving his island prison, and finally takes solace in nature as he comes to see the solitary life of the sandpiper as a metaphor for his own predicament.

Darrell Kastin’s The Undiscovered Island (University of Massachussetts Dartmouth, 2009) is set in the Azores, and begins with a mystery set in the present day. Julia Castro, a naturalised American, returns to the islands in search of her father, a local historian who has disappeared without trace. She is soon caught up in a surreal kaleidoscope of past and present; myth and reality; with tales of an enchanted island that appears periodically from the depths of the sea; ghostly sirens emerging from the mist; talking skulls; and threads of ancestry and tradition that bind the people of the present to the murderous intrigues of the royal courts of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Hy Brasil, by Margaret Elphinstone (Canongate, 2002) is set entirely in the present, and on an imaginary mid-Atlantic island. Sidony Redruth, a young Englishwoman, has been commissioned to write a tourist guide to the island. Her researches uncover a number of mysteries, behind which lie dark truths about the island’s recent past and the 20th Century revolution in which the island won its independence. Elphinstone has the political and social intrigues of a small island community spot-on (uncannily so for this reader) but she also draws on the connections between the present and the past, with modern institutions rooted in the Age of Piracy and the island’s identity forged in relation to its ever-shifting volcanic landscape.

The themes that unite these three books all relate to the nature of human communities in environments that are geographically (and perhaps also genetically) circumscribed: the ways in which this “boundedness” draws people into a closer relationship with the rocks, plants and animals that make up their miniature universe; and draws the present into a more intimate relationship with both the recent and the more distant past. Myth, likewise, enters into a more enduring compact with reality in a setting with fixed and tightly drawn boundaries.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

We are the resurrectionists!

Last week’s conference at the Institute of Historical Research explored the links between academic history and historical fiction, in the light of the fact that a significant number of people who have written academic history have gone on to turn their minds to fiction (Alison Weir, Ian Mortimer and Rebecca Stott, who were present at the conference; Harry Sidebottom and Hallie Rubenhold, who were not).

As someone embarked on this path (though starting out as an archaeologist rather than a historian), this held a natural fascination for me. Rebecca Stott (who I hadn’t met, but whose path must have crossed mine on many occasions when she was researching Charles Darwin and I was researching his friend and neighbour, John Lubbock) spoke of the historian “coming to the end of the archive, the limits of what is footnote-able.” This is what led her to write her fascinating novels, Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief (, and it is what has led me to my interest in writing fiction. Certainly in relation to the Neolithic of the Channel Islands (on which I have published one coffee-table book, three academic monographs and 29 journal articles) I felt that I had reached that point, the point at which, in Stott’s words, “you know something to be true, but cannot prove it.”

So what is missing? In a word, people. Real people who had names and emotions, and faced moral dilemmas. Archaeology can’t give you that, yet these are the people who built the monuments and made the pots and the stone tools that I have spent three decades studying. The search for these people, the desire to conjure them out of the past, is not new: the American archaeologist, Robert Braidwood, was engaged in a search to find “the Indian behind the artefact” long before I was born, but it is perhaps only in fiction that this desire can be fully realised. As Hilary Mantel said on Friday evening, our vocation is as “resurrectionists”!   

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Hilary Mantel on History and Fiction

To my mind, Hilary Mantel is one of the finest living writers of historical fiction, combining an exhilarating sense of immediacy with a remarkable fidelity to the reality of history. I have just had the pleasure of hearing her speak on her published novels, A Place of Greater Safety (set during the French Revolution) and Wolf Hall (set in the court of Henry VIII), and its forthcoming sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. She described “the alchemical process through which fact metamorphoses into fiction.”

“I will make up the content of a man’s heart,” she told us, “but I will not make up the colour of his drawing room wall – I would rather move the discussion to his study, where I do know the colour of the wall.”

She went on to talk about the ways in which the novelist, unlike the historian, can explore those conversations that happened “on the back stair,” the conversations which, for very good reasons, were never recorded. Historical novelists, she insisted, are “allowed to be partial.” Wolf Hall is narrated from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, and the picture it paints, for example, of Thomas More, is not intended to be an objective depiction of the historical figure, but rather an imaginative reconstruction of the way he might have seemed to Cromwell. This, I think, takes us a little further than Marguerite Yourcenar’s attempt to develop a historical voice. It certainly inspired me.

This is part of a conference at the Institute of Historical Research, which continues tomorrow (and I will doubtless have more to say about it). The conference is fully booked, but has a virtual component, accessible at It would be great if you could join me there!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Two Little Ducks From Stonehenge (well, almost...)

The Mail Online ( today ran a headline “How two little ducks could transform our understanding of Stonehenge.”

Gavin Allen’s article refers to discoveries made by my Open University colleague, David Jacques, at a site near Stonehenge (actually closer to the Iron Age hillfort known as Vespasian’s Camp – not “Vesper’s Camp” as stated in the article). I would have been delighted if the two stone figures dated to the same period as Stonehenge, since it would fit uncannily well with the plot of my short story, “The Raft and the Waterfall,” available from Ether Books ( The ducks appear, however, to be around 1700 years later than the first stone circle at Stonehenge.

The article goes on to talk about animal bones from the same site, which go back to the Mesolithic period (c6250 BC, around 3850 years before Stonehenge). Since Jacques’s previous finds from the site include Roman artefacts, this suggests activity on the site over a period of at least 6500 years.

The site itself is centred on the bed of a spring in which objects were formally, perhaps ritually, deposited. There is nothing new in the idea that prehistoric people in Britain deposited objects in this way (Richard Bradley and Francis Pryor, to name but two, have written extensively on the subject), nor even in the suggestion that such practices persisted over a very long time period (Bradley points to the tradition of Excalibur being returned to the Lady of the Lake as evidence that they may have survived into post-Roman times), but there are very few individual sites that provide such clear evidence for continuity down the millennia as this one appears to do.

The two little ducks, therefore, may not transform our understanding of Stonehenge, but they do form part of a bigger story which may transform our understanding of the complex ways in which prehistoric communities, over long time periods, established symbolic links between the present and the past, and between themselves and the landscapes they inhabited.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Of Druids, Bones and Historical Fiction

The High Court today rejected the demand from druid, King Arthur Pendragon, for the immediate reburial of human remains excavated at Stonehenge in 2008 ( That they will, eventually, have to be reburied strikes me as a massive and unacceptable blow against science (I remember writing my PhD more than 20 years ago, bemoaning the fact that a Victorian excavator had reburied human remains that could have informed the chapter that I never got to write), but at least they will first be thoroughly studied.

Archaeologist Mike Pitts said in a BBC interview this afternoon that such study makes it possible to “recreate and retell” the stories of these people who lived 4400 years ago, “to bring them into the present,” and thereby "show them respect."

Of these particular people, as yet we know little. That’s why it’s so important that archaeologists have the chance to complete their research. But Pendragon has been arguing for years that other remains should be reburied. The “Amesbury Archer” is a case in point. We know rather more about him: that he lived around 2400 BC (broadly speaking, the period during which the bluestone circle at Stonehenge was built) and was an immigrant from central Europe; that he was one of the first users of copper and gold in Britain; and that he was sufficiently important to merit one of the most elaborate burials of his age.

Coincidentally, I am just reading J.S. Dunn’s debut novel, Bending the Boyne (Seriously Good Books, 2011), in which he features. A character based loosely on him features, also, as a character in my short story, “The Raft and the Waterfall,” available from Ether Books ( I say “based loosely on” because I think that for a writer to tie him/herself to the specific details of the archaeological record would make it hard to write good fiction. My character gets to live rather longer than the real “archer” did, for example, because this suits my narrative purpose. I wouldn’t do this, of course, with a fully historical figure, such as Julius Caesar or Henry V, but somehow it seems more acceptable to do so in the case of a man whose name and full life-story we can never know, to use him as the inspiration for a character rather than turning him directly into one.

In doing so, I hope to recreate, on an imaginary plane, a society and a way of life which the real man would recognise, a world in which people did travel between central Europe and southern England, pioneer the use of technologies that we now take for granted and build some of our most iconic monuments. And yes, in doing so, I believe that I show more respect than disrespect for our distant ancestors, none of which would be possible if we found excuses to discard their remains.

The remains of the “Amesbury Archer,” together with the objects buried with him, are displayed in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. The photograph is reproduced courtesy of Wessex Archaeology.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 4)

A prior training as a scientist (or a historian) neither qualifies nor disqualifies a person from writing fiction. Great fiction has been written by people from almost every imaginable background. To my mind, however, the writer who has, after Golding, been most successful in bringing these remote periods to vivid, irrepressible life, is the American social anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

In Reindeer Moon, Marshall Thomas’s first parson narrator, Yanan, unlike Golding’s viewpoint character, Lok, is a fully modern human and, as such, has no structural limitations in her use of language. Because she is narrating in the first person, however, Marshall Thomas denies herself the opportunity, which Golding and Auel both take, of stepping out of character to explain things from the perspective of the reader’s world. All of her metaphors, similes, jokes and figures of speech must be drawn from the lived reality of Yanan’s world, and it is precisely this which makes that world come alive for the reader.

The rest of the people fed the fire and got ready to cook the meat...everyone waited for me to divide the carcass. Timu helped me, since making a division was something new to me. I had to be sure that my in-laws got the best parts – the hind-parts – while making sure that my kin got even shares of the front parts. And Timu didn’t act as though the carcass was his...he nicely covered the only real mistake I made – treating White Fox as Meri’s betrothed and Swift merely as my co-wife’s kinsman – by apologising as if he had made the mistake himself” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

One might, perhaps, question the use of the term “in-laws,” with its modern legalistic connotations, but it is difficult to know what one would put in its place, other than an invented word which would make the text less readable. One might question, also, Marshall Thomas’s use of Latin-derived medical/anatomical terms to describe bodily functions (her characters have “coitus” rather than sex, and they “defecate” and “urinate” rather than shitting and pissing). Perhaps Marshall Thomas (or her editors) had in mind the sensitivities of her readership, but it is difficult to respect these sensitivities whilst taking the reader into a world as visceral as Yanan’s.

These, however, are minor quibbles in relation to a novel that really does take the reader into a long-vanished world:

Yoi...began to sing. Meri and I joined – it was Yoi’s fire-river song, to be sung by at least two people, since the idea for this song came from wolves’ songs with two parts. Yoi began, and Meri and I followed, singing strongly, although the song seemed to be drawn away from us by the huge sky...When the sun was low, we got hungry...Yoi took from her bag a long strip of meat from the dead mammoth, lightly cooked and bad smelling. A small piece of it was enough” (Reindeer Moon, Chapter 11).

Friday, 5 August 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 3)

The theme of conflict between groups provides a fast-moving plot for Bjorn Kurten’s The Dance of the Tiger, but this otherwise convincing storyline is undermined by the use of modern military terminologies that can surely have had no place in the thought processes of hunter-gatherers living 35,000 years ago:

Wolf...described the situation. Shelk had put garrisons at Big Lake, Blue Lake, Swidden Moor, and doubtless other places too...’We have divided into three groups, and we harass Shelk’s lines of communication...He’s sent many troops against us, but we always avoid them. Meanwhile, we’re gathering strength to assault his headquarters at Caribou Lake...There will be an enemy patrol before long’” (The Dance of the Tiger, Part 3).

Kurten also has a lake described as “...a festive mirror for the sun,” the laughter of hyenas described as a “...shrill falsetto,” and a drunken character emptying his “wine-cellar.” We don’t know what language was spoken in Palaeolithic Scandinavia, but it seems unlikely that it would have included words for “mirror,” “falsetto” or “cellar,” let alone “troops,” “headquarters” or “patrols.”

Kurten was a palaeontologist, an expert on fossil bears, and his novel was published to great acclaim by his fellow scientists, Richard Leakey and Stephen Jay Gould. Jean Auel may have had this in mind when she criticised the attempts of scientists to write fiction about their subject material.

“When I have read fiction written by scientists,” she wrote recently, in the Historical Novels Review, “I am often disappointed. Although it is assumed that they do, they don’t always research their fiction as well as they research their own science. After all, it’s only fiction.”

Friday, 29 July 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 2)

If Golding’s Nobel Prize winning masterpiece is the literary “form” of the genre, it is Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series (starting with The Clan of the Cave Bear and culminating, more than thirty years later, with The Land of Painted Caves) that has set the tone in commercial terms, selling more than 45 million copies.

Language, in Auel’s text, is less prominent than plot and characterisation, both of which are a good deal more complex than they are in Golding’s. Auel’s central character, Ayla, is a fully modern human, separated from her parents at an early stage and raised by Neanderthals. The language that she learns from them (described in some detail in The Clan of the Cave Bear) is more nuanced than that of Golding’s Neanderthals, a mixture of words and an elaborate system of signs. Ayla is eventually forced to leave her adopted family, and it is only after she encounters an injured man, Jondalar, and nurses him back to health, that she learns from him a language that more closely resembles our own. Later, in The Mammoth Hunters, she travels with Jondalar among peoples whose languages he can speak, but she cannot. Here, the distinction between her rudimentary dialogue, as she struggles to master a strange language, contrasts with the sophisticated verbal reasoning of her internal thoughts (presumably, though not explicitly, in the language she has only recently learned from Jondalar).

You like touch horse?” Ayla asks a child, amazed by the fact that she (Ayla) has a tame animal.

Yet only a few pages later, Ayla is musing about the relationship between sex and reproduction:

Ayla was puzzled again about a question that had bothered her since Durc was born. How did life begin?...Jondalar thought the Great Earth Mother mixed the spirits of a man and a woman together and put them inside the woman when she became pregnant. But Ayla had formed her own opinion. When she noticed that her son had some of her characteristics, and some of the Clan’s, she realised that no life started to grow inside her until after Broud forced his penetration into her...” (The Mammoth Hunters, Chapter 1).

There is little attempt here to imagine the language in which Ayla and Jondalar speak and think. It would surely be difficult to sustain such a linguistic experiment through all the twists and turns of a plot that fills eighteen times as many pages (taking the six volumes of Earth’s Children as a whole) as Golding’s short novel. Instead, Ayla and Jondalar speak, and think, much as we do. A novel succeeds, perhaps, as much because of what it does not attempt to do as of what it does. A novel that tries to do too many things at the same time will place too heavy a burden on the reader.

Auel’s story is not told from a single viewpoint. Instead, the third person narration alternates between Ayla’s and Jondalar’s perspective (a device introduced in The Valley of the Horses,” in which Ayla’s and Jondalar’s stories are told separately up until the point at which they meet), but takes in, also, the viewpoints of the strangers that they encounter along the way. The reader is shown Ayla’s world in quite some detail, but never really enters it. Then again, we never truly enter Lok’s world, either, because the dialogue passages are interspersed with Golding’s third person narration, very much in the literary register of the mid-twentieth century.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tone and Language in Fictionalised Prehistory (Part 1)

In her Essay, Tone and Language in Historical Fiction, Marguerite Yourcenar comments on the difficulties of fictionalising the conversation of past epochs, arguing that the representation of speech, “ all its spontaneity, its disjointed logic, its complex byways, its lacunae, and its unarticulated implications” was, in any case, not attempted by writers before the 19th Century (Tolstoy, Ibsen), “...without passing through tragic or comic stylisation or lyric outburst.” From an Anglophone perspective, I might object that both Shakespeare and Chaucer provide some notable examples, even though both of them (like Tolstoy & Ibsen) were also capable of literary stylisation.

In Memoirs of  Hadrian, Yourcenar deploys her considerable scholarship in an attempt to recreate the oratio togata that would have been used at the Emperor’s Second Century court. When it comes to the fictionalisation of prehistoric periods, however, we have, by definition, no contemporary documents to rely on. The writer can only imagine the metaphors and similes, the jokes, the “verbal exchange and voice” of people living in remote periods, and on the quality of these imagined voices rests the credibility of a large part of his or her narrative.

William Golding, in The Inheritors, goes further than most writers in his attempt to imagine the speech patterns of our early European ancestors (as they now, as once before, appear to have been), the Neanderthals.

“’I shall bring back food in my arms’ – he gestured hugely – ‘so much food that I stagger –so!’

Fa grinned at him.

‘There is not as much food as that in the world.’

He squatted.

‘Now I have a picture in my head. Lok is coming back to the fall. He runs along the side of the mountain. He carries a deer. A cat has killed the deer and sucked its blood, so there is no blame. So. Under this left arm. And under this right one’ – he held it out – ‘the quarters of a cow...’” (The Inheritors, Chapter 2).

The language of the dialogue (the third person narration is another matter) has only simple present, past and future tenses (no conditional, pluperfect, imperfect etc.) and few words of more than two syllables. “I have a picture of...” is used to indicate conditional statements about the past and future. Golding’s Neaderthals clearly have a strong visual imagination.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Top Ten Historical Novels

In The Guardian’s online book discussion last week (www.Guardian/co/uk/Books), novelist Andrew Miller produced a “top ten” list of historical novels. His list, for those who missed it, was:

The Eagle of the Ninth           Rosemary Sutcliff
I, Claudius                             Robert Graves
Kepler                                   John Banville
The Baron in the Trees           Italo Calvino
The Blue Flower                    Penelope Fitzgerald
The Leopard                          Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Memoirs of Hadrian               Marguerite Yourcenar
Rites of Passage                     William Golding

A Place
of Greater Safety      Hilary Mantel
The Siege of Rathnapur          J.G. Farrell.

Some commentators thought it “predictable,” others described it as “Anglo-centric,” although the latter criticism doesn’t really hold, given that two of the titles are translated from other languages (Euro-centric, perhaps).

Such lists are always subjective, of course, so here is mine (in no particular order).

The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff.

Predictable, perhaps, but it was actually the first work of historical fiction I ever read, when I was still in primary school, and it left me with a hunger to read more. If there’s a better reason than that for celebrating a book and its author, I have yet to think of it. I haven’t included Michelle Paver in my list, but I have a feeling that the next generation may include her works with as much predictability as Miller and I include Sutcliff’s.

Claudius the God, Robert Graves.

Here I’m being deliberately perverse, since most people would no doubt follow Miller in listing I, Claudius. For me the two books come as an item, and the second has sometimes been neglected in favour of the first. I Claudius explores how a basically decent man, as disinterested in the pursuit of power as he is ill-equipped for it, becomes, by accident, Rome’s fourth Emperor. It is only in the sequel that we see how even he is compromised and corrupted by power; how, in the process of becoming a god, he sets aside his humanity.

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar (translated by Grace Frick).

Yourcenar may not be a household name as Graves and Sutcliff are, but those who write as well as read historical fiction greatly value her work. In her French original, Yourcenar went to great lengths to capture the cadences of the elaborate Latin speech that would have been used at Hadrian’s court. It is extraordinarily difficult to render this into English, but the labour of love that is Grace Frick’s translation comes as close as it is possible to come. It is worth pausing to celebrate the translator’s art as well as the writer’s.

The Inheritors, William Golding.

The best historical fiction, like the best science fiction and fantasy writing, has the potential to take the reader into a world that is utterly unfamiliar. Here Golding does precisely this, going further back in time (around 30,000 years) than any of the other titles in my list or in Miller’s. His subject is the encounter between fully modern humans and the last of the Neanderthals, but the breathtaking boldness of his approach is that he shows us this encounter, and the world in which it takes place, from the perspective of the Neanderthals, imagining (since, unlike Yourcenar, he had no means of reconstructing) the rhythm of their lives and language.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.

We tend to think of Dickens as a chronicler of his own times, but he set this book, arguably one of his greatest works, almost a hundred years in the past. It has one of the most memorable opening lines in the whole canon of English literature (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”) and Dickens goes on, at the end of the first paragraph (“ short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for ill, in the superlative degree of comparison only...”) to address, more directly than many other writers have done, the most fundamental relationship in historical fiction: that between the past he is writing about and the present in which he is writing.

Shipwrecks, Akira Yoshimura (translated by Mark Ealey).

This is another book that takes the reader into an entirely unfamiliar world, not only because it is set in Medieval Japan, but also because its protaganist, Isaku, lives in an impoverished coastal village, far from the heroic world of shoguns and samurai which other writers have taken as their milieu. Its theme is the struggle for survival as Isaku comes of age, learning not only to fish, but also to take part in the other source of income for the villagers, o-fune-sama, the deliberate wrecking and plundering of ships.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.

The court of Henry VIII and, specifically, “the King’s Great Matter,” has generated so much fiction that one might have thought it had been done to death. Hilary Mantel, however, manages to offer something entirely new, both through her choice of protaganist (Thomas Cromwell) and, most particularly, through her extraordinary use of the present tense throughout the book. Lesser (or less experienced) writers should not try this at home!

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louise & Aylmer Maude).

It would be difficult to leave this out of a top ten list, although the fact that it was published in the 19th Century makes it easy to forget that it was, even then, a work of historical fiction. Like Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, but to an even greater extent, Tolstoy uses multiple viewpoints to show the reader both the broad sweep of history and the lives of those caught up in it, princes and princesses but also soldiers and peasants. Like Dickens, also, he consciously used historical drama to explore themes of relevance to the present in which he was writing. The thoroughness of Tolstoy’s research for the novel stands as an example to historical fiction writers today (he sought out people who had lived through the events he was writing about, and read hundreds of letters and journals).

The Night Watch, Sarah Waters.

The Second World War, like the reign of Henry VIII, has inspired plenty of fiction but Waters, like Mantel, manages to bring a fresh perspective to bear on it, focussing on the home front, and on the lives of women caught up in it. Interestingly, for a historical novel, it is written “back to front,” with three parts, the first set in 1947, the second in 1944 and the third in 1941. The same characters appear in the three parts, but their relationships shift and change, so that the process of reading the novel is almost akin to following the progress of an archaeological excavation, peeling back first one layer, then another, to reveal what lies underneath.

The Sea Road, Margaret Elphinstone.

I wanted to include one “wild card,” a book that might not appear on other peoples’ lists, written by a contemporary author who has not yet received the acclaim that I think she may deserve. It didn’t take me long to settle on Elphinstone as the author, but I did have to think quite seriously about which of her books to list here. The Sea Road tells the story of the Norse settlement of Greenland and Newfoundland through the eyes of a historical woman (Gudrid Thorbjornsdottir), as recounted to an Icelandic monk at the culmination of a pilgrimage to Rome. It deals with big historical themes (the role of women in Viking society, the relationship between paganism and Christianity, the interactions between Europeans and Amerindians) without seeming remotely didactic, and is a triumph of both characterisation and the lyrical evocation of place.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Forgotten dreams in a land of painted caves

Werner Herzog's latest documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered in the UK last night, provides a fascinating window on an archaeological site that few of us will ever have the chance to see "for real." The Chauvet Cave, in France's Ardeche Valley, contains humanity's oldest dated art-works, going back around 32,000 years but, to protect the art-works themselves, it is necessary that the cave remains closed to all but a handful of scholars. Herzog and his small team were given only 24 hours of access to the site, making this masterpiece (his first and, he has hinted, his last, in 3D) all the more remarkable.

Herzog's interest in prehistory is long-standing, but has not always been obvious. In his short autobiographical film, Portrait Werner Herzog (1986) he did say that the great project of moving a ship over a hill in Fitzcarraldo (1982) was inspired by his fascination with the prehistoric transportation of large stones.

Here he gives full expression to this life-time interest, but he deliberately eschews interpretation, allowing the art to speak for itself. The art of the cave walls, together with the footprints left by the painters and the charcoal from the torches with which they lit their way, constitute what Herzog poetically describes as "frozen fragments of a moment in time."

Except, of course, that there is not one moment, but a mosaic or palimpset of many different ones. In some cases, the paintings begun by the artists of one generation have been completed, or added to, by artists up to five thousand years later (roughly the same time period as separates us from the builders of Stonehenge).

A woolly rhinoceros painted on a cave wall appears to be charging, its horn depicted several times in a manner reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge's photographic sequences of galloping horses. On a stalactite, a being with the head of a bull and the body of a man, like a Picasso minotaur, appears to embrace a naked woman. It is easy to make comparisons with better known sites, such as Lascaux in the Dordogne, yet most of the paintings at Lascaux date to around 17,300 years ago, making its artists almost equidistant in time between Picasso and the painter of the Chauvet "minotaur."

On the floor of the cave, the footprint of a boy sits alongside that of a wolf. Was the wolf pursuing the boy, Herzog asks, or did they enter the cave together as "friends," or were they in the cave at entirely different times? "We will never know," he insists.

By coincidence, next week will see the launch of Jean M. Auel's novel, The Land of Painted Caves (Crown), the final installment in her six-part narrative of one woman, Ayla, and her epic journey from her birthplace near the Black Sea to the painted caves of the Dordogne, around 25,000 years ago. Auel's journey as an author (beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980) has, if anything, taken longer than her character's physical journey through the landscape and it must have felt, at times, as though she was walking on shifting sands.

If Auel were planning the storyline today, knowing what we now know, she might well have chosen to conclude Ayla's journey in the Ardeche rather than the Dordogne, and specifically at the Chauvet Cave where, not only do the paintings better fit her chronology but, in an uncanny echo of her first book, the skull of a cave bear seems to have been placed deliberately on a rock, "somewhat like an altar," Herzog helpfully suggests.

In his response to questions at last night's premiere, Herzog emphasised the similarities, at least in his work, between documentary and drama. Clearly he is a master of both, just as Michelangelo was a master of both the "frozen moment" of sculpture and the narrative drama of painting, but different genres make different demands of both the artist and the viewer or reader.

Faced with the footprints of the boy and the wolf, the novelist or dramatist, unlike the documentary maker or the archaeologist, cannot simply accept the real ambiguity of the evidence at face value. The wolf and the boy must be portrayed, perhaps even given names, and they must either stalk each other through the alien environment of the cave, or face it together as companions, as Ayla and her tamed wolf do. This leaves the historical novelist or dramatist uniquely vulnerable to changes of interpretation and understanding after they have committed words to print, and requires of the reader or viewer a "suspension of disbelief" when aspects of the narrative seem to conflict with the latest "scientific" interpretations. Authors, in their turn, must suffuse their work with general themes (in Auel's case, the communication between different "intelligences," reflected in Ayla's interactions both with Neanderthals, and with horses, wolves and lions) so as to give their work a relevance that goes beyond simply explaining evidence, or recreating a past society and its forgotten hopes and dreams.

Nevertheless, the similarities between these two artistic projects, arising from the same inspiration, is brought home in the final scene of Herzog's film, in which he reports on the escape of albino crocodiles from a nearby wildlife park into the Ardeche River. For these crocodiles, as for Ayla's ancestors (and ours), the landscape and environment are alien, yet they seem remarkably capable of adapting to it and, of course, they have their own perceptions of their new world (even, potentially, of us), an understanding that we can only guess at.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

La Hougue Bie: an equinoctial mystery

Today is the Spring Equinox, a date that people have been marking for at least five or six millennia, and the most spectacular manifestation of which was revealed when, following our excavations at La Hougue Bie, Jersey (1991-1995), the concrete access tunnel that had been built in the 1920's was demolished, allowing the suns rays once again to shine into the passage as its builders had intended. It was my colleague, Olga Finch, with her partner, Peter Bohea, who were the first to witness this in more than four thousand years.

Most archaeological excavations seem to leave at least some enduring mysteries in their wake, but the one that troubles me here relates not to the orientation of the megalithic structure itself, built by people whose names we will never know, but to a much more recent structure on top of the mound built by a man whose name we do know, the 16th Century Catholic priest, Richard Mabon.

The general sequence at La Hougue Bie is detailed on my website: The megalithic monument was deliberately sealed and abandoned, as were most of the larger European passage graves, in the 3rd Millennium BC. Although the mound would always have been a conspicuous feature of the landscape, there is no evidence for any further activity on the site until the 12th Century AD, when a chapel was built on the summit, dedicated to Notre Dame de la Clarté (Our Lady of Light). Although some authors have commented on the similar proportions of the chapel and the chamber of the underlying passage grave, the two structures are not on the same alignment and the dimensions of the chapel are largely determined by the available space on the summit of the mound (which seems not to have been levelled to any significant extent by the Medieval builders, to judge from the material found in the various rubble layers that overlay the prehistoric structures on the flanks of the mound). There is no evidence, therefore, to suggest that the builders of the chapel had any direct knowledge of the structure underneath.

At some time between 1515 and 1520, Richard Mabon, who had been Dean of the island since 1509, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The chapel at La Hougue Bie had, by this stage, fallen into disrepair, and Mabon resolved to restore it. In fact, he divided the existing chapel into two with an internal wall, and removed most of the eastern wall, inserting a circular oratory, styled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It would later be claimed that he contrived dubious miracles here (candles that seemed to float in mid-air and a statue of the Virgin who raised her hand in benediction) in order to extract money from the credulous, but this may simply be propaganda put about as the Protestant Reformation swept over the island in the 1550's.
Of particular interest here is the small window that Mabon included as part of his oratory since, unlike the chapel itself, this is on the same alignment as the underlying megalithic passage. The crucial question is this: can we believe this alignment to be coincidental, or must we assume that Mabon somehow had knowledge of the megalithic structure? When I discussed this question some years ago with my colleague, the medievalist, Dr Warwick Rodwell, I was of the former opinion and he was of the latter. We agreed to differ, but now I am less sure.
It is possible that the contours of the mound as it existed in the 16th Century gave a clue as to the position of the passage entrance. It is also possible that Mabon, aware of the legend which held the mound to be the burial place of a murdered knight, conducted a small excavation of his own. Our excavations found no evidence for this, but any such evidence could have been destroyed by the excavation trench of the 1920's, which led to the discovery of the passage grave. The megalithic chamber of the passage grave showed no convincing evidence of having been disturbed since prehistory, but it is not necessary to assume that Mabon actually reached the chamber. The excavators of the 1920's found their way along the passage blocked by two broken capstones. We don't know when this damage occured, but if Mabon encountered it he may have been forced to abandon his quest. He may, nonetheless, have aligned his window on what he assumed to be the passage leading to the grave beneath the chapel.
It is hardly likely that Mabon independently decided to align his window towards the equinox. Apart from anything else, it is on the wrong alignment, given its elevation. In any case, the date would have had no real significance for him, his construction pre-dating by some decades the debates within the church that led, in 1582, to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.
The alignment could, of course, have been pure coincidence but, with each year that passes, this seems less likely to me.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

"The Raft and the Waterfall"

My short story, "The Raft and the Waterfall," is now available at, giving a foretaste of my novel, Twilight of the Ancestors. It is listed under "New Authors," and downloadable for 59 pence.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

I, Claudius and Claudius the God

I was so enjoying the Radio 4 adaptation of one of my favourite English novels, I, Claudius, thinking that Derek Jacobi was magnificent as Augustus and Tom Goodman-Hill brilliant as Claudius. Perhaps it should have ended, however, as the book effectively does, with episode 5 when, in fulfilment of the sibyl's prophecy, Claudius gains the "gift that all desire but he."

To tack on to the end of it the entire subject matter of Claudius the God (to my mind, a masterpiece in its own right), summarising it in a single episode, is rather akin to staging an abridged version of Henry V (minus its greatest speech) as Act 6 of Henry IV, Part 2. Missing is all the wonderful humour of the correspondence between Claudius and Herod Agrippa, under the pseudonyms of "Marmoset" and "Brigand." Missing, too, is Claudius's insistence, in his later life, on playing the role of "King Log" and, with it, the true significance of the murder (covered all too briefly in the adaptation) of the prostitute, Calpurnia, who has been Claudius's most loyal friend throughout his adult life. For me, his failure (as the most powerful man on Earth) to lift a little finger to protect her marks the moment at which the loss of his humanity becomes manifest. Perhaps that's the whole point: the gods are inhuman, and he is now one of them. But all of this is lost in the adaptation.

But perhaps it's unfair to blame Radio 4 (certainly I don't blame Robin Brooks): somehow these two great books seem to have become elided in the popular understanding, and this has been very much at the expense of the second, unfairly so, I think.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Highlights of 2010

Happy New Year!

I've acted on my first New Year's Resolution by moving my blog from my website ( to here, in order to allow for more interaction.

Naturally, I've been thinking about some of the highlights of the year that has just passed. It's been a great year for archaeology, for historical biography and for historical fiction.

Archaeologically, we have seen both a major new published study of Silbury Hill (by Jim Leary & David Field) and new research on the later (Roman) landscape around the monument. The possible discovery of an ancient timber circle close to Stonehenge remains somewhat uncertain, but an exciting prospect, nonetheless. Excavations at Fonteviot in Scotland have revealed an important Early Bronze Age tomb, whilst at Frome, in Somerset, the largest hoard of Roman coins ever recorded in the UK has been found.

In historical biography, Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra and Helen Castor's She Wolves; The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth both stand out, as does Bettany Hughes's The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. All three make fantastic use of quite limited and ambiguous evidence to weave vivid tapestries of much misunderstood times. With only a few days to go, however, before the winners of the Costa Prize are announced, I'm rooting for Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne, which goes some considerable way to redefining what historical biography can achieve, combining, as it does, a biography of Montaigne himself with a stunningly accessible analysis of his contemporary relevance.

In historical fiction, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won the Walter Scott Prize, having previously taken the Man Booker Prize in 2009. It's a groundbreaking work, which uses the present tense in a way that I don't think any writer of historical fiction has ever quite used it before, creating an unprecedented sense of immediacy in the tryst between the present and the past. Michelle Paver won the Guardian Prize for Childrens' Fiction for her Chronicles of Ancient Darkess series, set in the Mesolithic of Finland; a worthy successor to Rosemary Sutcliff, whose works inspired me as a child.

Neil MacGregor's Radio 4 Series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, certainly broke new ground in terms of showcasing the way in which physical objects, whether breathtaking works of art or humble functional tools, can illustrate a broad narrative of human change and development. Standing in the tradition of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, it is all the more remarkable for its astute and skilful use of an old, rather than a new, medium.

Who knows what 2011 has in store for us? Plenty, I am sure!