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 (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14629536). 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 (http://www.etherbooks.com/). 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.

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