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”!   

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