On the lack of good prehistoric fiction

This is the first entry I will make in my shiny new blog, created on an impulse because of the huge amount of stuff banging about in my skull, which I think might be useful (if only to myself) when put into some sort of coherent prose.

Originally – all of about 30 minutes ago – my intentions were entirely academic, but I have a feeling that it would make for tedious reading and prompt abandonment on both my part and the parts of any potential readers. So here I will talk about my ventures into the world of academia and my currently unarticulated convictions about interpretation and representation in archaeology.

Perhaps the main reason that I suddenly feel the need to jot down thoughts and feelings on the subject is that I’ve decided I must write a book. It all started because of my never-ending and futile search for good prehistoric fiction. I can’t let go of this interest in Prehistory and, for all that I’ve enjoyed the past three years of reading scholarly papers on the subject, I just wish I could relax into a good bit of well researched and well written fiction that caters to my most passionate interest. My searches, thus far confined to Google and sites like goodreads.com and fantasticfiction.com, have turned up English and mainly French works written in the first half of the 20th century, and the odd, rather flimsy attempt at an empowering feminist saga.  Of course Jean M. Auel’s best-selling Earth’s Children books have been a huge inspiration to me and no doubt numerous others who have delved into prehistoric fiction. As yet they are the only examples of prehistoric fiction that are, despite several  reservations that I may outline in future entries, truly worthy of academic merit as well as being engaging fictional works.

With the development of post-processual archaeology, it has (relatively) recently been suggested that academic pursuits of the past in the form of fictional writing may well have a significant amount of scholarly merit. The 1999 volume by Mark Edmonds concerned with Neolithic life-ways in Britain is a prime example of such tentative advances towards story-telling as a form of communicating archaeological theory.

So if I can’t find it, I’m going to have to write it myself. What I want to create is a work of fiction, accessible to anyone with an interest in our human past, which is also acceptable as a work of informed intellectual enquiry. Even the academic claiming he or she is carrying out their research in a strictly scientific manner, after all, must admit that the prehistoric cultures after which they chase are almost impossible to truly know. All prehistoric archaeology is theory; unavoidably socially constructed and, for a large percentage of the time, entirely speculative. As someone who has dealt with the data and theories relating to prehistoric Europe, but is not inherently academic, I can truly see the worth of fiction as a form of archaeological interpretation.

Another reason for the creation of the blog is that I fully intend to continue on my path into the world of academic archaeology. I’m currently applying for the Digital Heritage masters course at York University, and if I manage to get a place then I’ll try to write about my experiences and opinions of various encounters I may have with all things archaeology and perhaps some things not.


21 thoughts on “On the lack of good prehistoric fiction

  1. I’ve written three books about early explorers who reached the Americas. The books a little controversial in that the first group to reach the Americas comes from West Africa and the second from the South Pacific, but I feel both ideas are well-supported by current research in archaeological sites in South America. If you’d like, you can read a sample on Amazon, at http://www.amazon.com/Misfits-Heroes-Africa-Kathleen-Rollins-ebook/dp/B00SNBQL6U?ie=UTF8&keywords=misfits%20and%20heroes%20west%20from%20africa&qid=1461862003&ref_=sr_1_1&s=books&sr=1-1. I also write the Misfits and Heroes blog at misfitsandheroes.wordpress.com.

  2. Hi Emily –

    I’ve published the first three of a four-book series, called Misfits and Heroes, about early explorers (not the earliest) in the Americas. One group comes across the Atlantic from West Africa and the second comes from the South Pacific, about 14000 years ago. In the third book, the two groups meet. In the fourth (my WIP), a small group from northern Spain joins them. The books are based on extensive research into archaeological finds, including the Pedra Furada site in Brazil and Olmec sites in Mexico. While the books are designed to be adventure novels, the facts behind the adventures are at least basically defensible.

    The books – Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, Past the Last Island, and A Meeting of Clans – all received 5-star reviews from Foreword Clarion and are available on Amazon. I hope you’ll look them up. While they’re set in the same time period as the Jean Auel books, they are very different stories.

    Kathleen F. Rollins

  3. Hi, Emily–

    I was going to suggest The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone, but I see someone else already has. I read it about a year ago as background research for my novel, The Jagged Man (just recently finished it and am now shopping for agents). Parts of it take place circa 6100 BCE, on Doggerland (which I’m calling Lekhua), in the English Channel (until the Storegga Slide tsunami inundates the island).

    I ran across your blog while I was doing some research for a new novel. One of my characters is an archaeologist studying tin mining in Roman Britain, and I was looking for good universities in SW England which have archaeology departments. Would you have any suggestions for me?



    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks so much for commented on this old (but certainly not forgotten) post! Ironically I was thinking about taking my rant up once again in another post soon.

      Coincidentally, I’ve just finished The Gathering Night and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s just made me feel even more strongly about the significance of creative writing with regards to the dissemination of archaeological knowledge.

      I would be absolutely fascinated to read your novel – it sounds positively thrilling. I do hope that you’ll let me know when it has been published so that I can check it out! As for good universities in SW England, you’re spoilt for choice. However I think that your best bet would be the University of Exeter. I would also wholeheartedly recommend Cardiff University – but I am biased in that respect as I graduated from there with a BA in Archaeology in 2011.

      All the best


  4. Had to laugh at TG’s description of cringe-making rituals…hope I haven’t been too ‘cringy’ in my book! (Needed a few rituals, of necessity–written with blood,sweat and tears and a lot of text books!) Actually one of my complaints about prehistoric fiction is almost the reverse–a lot of writers skim the ‘ritual/religious’ part of life altogether. So you have people building these huge monuments…and not doing anything with them! And no insight given into the reasons WHY they might want to do build massive structures.How people would have related to their environment, to the changing of seasons, to birth and death etc seems totally shoved aside in tales dwelling more on ‘relationships’ or ‘adventure.’

  5. There are also two more good ones I remembered by Naomi Mitchison. One is set in early neolithic Orkney, the other, if I remember rightly, around the Black Sea area c 500 BC. One Day in Orkney and Corn King, Spring Queen.

  6. I’m not sure whether it qualifies as ‘good’ in the archaeological sense (having been written in 1958, aside from anything else) but Rosemary Sutcliffe (who wrote ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ which recently inspired That Movie) wrote a book called ‘Warrior Scarlet’ about a boy in the Bronze Age. I read it when my age could be rendered in single digits, so I can’t really think critically about it very well, but I adored her books.

    With hindsight, I suspect that her books were the first step in wee TG’s interest in history and prehistory. I was EXTREMELY excited when they started coming back into print a few years ago.

    I think there was one called ‘Sun Horse, Moon Horse’, which was set among a tribe that worshipped Epona. I have a feeling that it was set in the Iron Age, but I haven’t seen it since high school, so I could be wrong.

    Anyway, interesting suggestions above! Will you do recs for particularly enjoyable ones?

    • I LOVE Rosemary Sutcliff! Yes, some of the archaeology is outdated (as will happen eventually with every book written in this genre) but her feeling for the landscape and people of ancient Britain overcomes that.

    • She’s on my list of people to read! She’s not so high because she’s a children’s author and, as you mentioned, has written a long time ago. I think if a book is truly well written, though, and has a wonderful underlying atmosphere, then historical inaccuracies can be overlooked.

      • I think the ‘children’s author’ label is misleading. Some of them are aimed at a younger audience, but I would classify it more as YA – a label that probably didn’t exist when she was initially writing. (I know I said I was reading them when I was pretty young, but I read Jane Eyre at that age, too.)

        She is brilliant at atmosphere. Her style is a little distant, in some books more so than others, but she is just so evocative. Including a grasp of creating rituals which make sense in context are not cringe-inducing (I have a low cringe-threshold for prehistoric ‘rituals’).

  7. Hi! Please DO write in this genre–I’m always seeking a good read! I have a few such novels in my collection, mostly on prehistoric Britain (my own personal ‘thing’ is British neolithic and bronze age ritual & burial.) Obviously, in some of the older books, the archaeology is dated, but I can overlook that if the story is good and the ideas in it aren’t downright stupid.
    Henry Treece’s GOLDEN STRANGERS is quite a gritty one about the arrival of the Beaker People in Britain.
    Hebe Weenolsen’s FORBIDDEN MOUNTAIN is about the bluestones of Stonehenge. She knew quite a bit about the archaeology of the day (1984).
    Bernard Cornwell has written about the building of Stonehenge in STONEHENGE–researched, but he shunted the whole construction phase into one generation deliberately. The people in the story felt quite real though. Another Stonehenge novel is PILLAR OF THE SKY by Cecelia Holland; it also had quite a realistic feel to it but very different from Cornwell’s.
    Michelle Paver has written a series of YA novels set in paleolithic Europe (no particular area.) I thought these were gripping and well written, even if a little bit fantasy orientated.
    Margaret Elphinstone’s THE GATHERING NIGHT is a good novel about mesolithic Scotland.
    On the ‘indie book ‘front there is BENDING THE BOYNE, a novel about neolithic/copper age Ireland, and a new one out less than 2 months, UNDREAMED SHORES by archaeologist Mark Patton which is set in 2400 BC, and features France, Jersey & Britain.
    My own novel, STONE LORD, is coming out this October, and is a retelling of the King Arthur legends…but with a twist… it’s set in the British bronze age, around Stonehenge.

    • Janet,

      Thanks for your comment! Some of the authors you mentioned I have heard of, but some books I didn’t know existed! On the word of several friends I’ve shunned Cornwell’s book just because, well, he got the main date and chronology wrong. I don’t think I’d be able to put up with that.

      However others look promising. Thanks so much for the heads up! Also congrats on the upcoming release of your novel! Can’t wait!

      • I’m not sure why Cornwell decided to totally scupper the chronology of Stonehenge. A bit of artistic license is ok, I have used some myself, but having goldwork before even the bluestones arrived was a bit much. Once that bit was over, Cornwell’s storytelling abilities carried it off reasonably enough. I think the only way you can properly write a book about the building of Stonehenge is to do a generational saga; to get the in ‘best bits’ from start to end I figure you’d have to have six main viewpoints as least. So a big book! Someone did try this in the 80’s in an obscure book called AS IF THEY WERE GODS, but it was totally dreadful, possibly the worst Stonehenge novel EVER (along with one 70’s effort called ANCIENT OF DAYS!) Why someone would write on a subject they knew absolutely nothing about I don’t know!

        • Yes, artistic license is fine when used sparingly and wisely, but I’m afraid I couldn’t overlook Cornwell’s glaring mistakes. I think you’re right – if anyone was going to write about how Stonehenge came into existence they would have to create a multi-generational epic and be extremely well-read in terms of Stonehenge itself and archaeological theory in general. In my opinion, however, there are so many other periods and sites that are, as yet, unexplored in the realms of Prehistoric Fiction. Those are the ones that I’m most interested in!

  8. I know that it is only tangential – I particularly loathe Jean Auel, but have you tried anything by Robert Holdstock (I’m thinking particularly the Mythago wood cycle). I’ve always considered that there were elements of sheer genius in his work – in terms of articulating what a genuinely pre-modern consciousness might be like. (A la Julian Jaynes & that amazing work “Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral mind” or some of the ideas from Leigh-Williams’ stuff).

    Not a great deal of scissoring, I grant you, but you might well find some inspiration in more general terms.

    • Hi Ian! Fancy seeing you here…

      I am still in the process of forming my full opinion on the Earth’s Children series. I have a HUGE list of criticisms on both her content and writing style, but she must’ve done something right because I kept reading, along with the masses. She can’t be faulted on her research – she has most of her facts right and has earned the respect of people like Chris Stringer. The huge numbers in her groups of early modern humans and the high levels of sedentism don’t ring true but other than that she’s really consulted the archaeology. As for the idea of a continent-wide, matriarchal religion – well I’m sure I don’t need to say anything to YOU on the matter ;)

      Robert Holdstock I had not heard of and, after a brief googling, my interest has been piqued.

      Jaynes rang a bell and I remember referencing him in an essay earlier in the year, but had completely forgotten about him. It was one of those shameful moments of desperation where I looked him up on wikipedia and read no further. Thanks for bringing him back to my attention – I’ll have to read him.

      Cheers for the comment!

  9. I’ve published the first two novels of a four-book series set in late prehistory. They’ve both won awards and received great reviews. You can find them on Amazon. I agree with many of your comments in this blog post. Prehistoric fiction is a niche that needs to be enlarged beyond Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series. I look forward to reading your first offering.

    • Hi Ron!

      First of all, thank you so much for your comment. And what an amazing first comment! To have a published author seeing this let alone commenting is brilliant!

      I’ve had a quick peep at the main page of your site and am utterly enthused!n I’ve bought the first book for my kindle and am now thoroughly peeved that I’ve got to go to work instead of being able to start reading immediately.

      I am assuming that the books are set somewhere in the European LBK? How wonderful! The Neolithic is my specialist period and I plan on having my novel set during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the Danube Gorges.

      Might I also add I am avidly interested and motivated by LGBT issues (one thing I couldn’t help but notice Jean Auel carefully skirts around in the Earth’s Children books). I’m still in the extremely early stages with the planning of this novel but I’ve known from the moment that the idea was just a twinkle of enthusiasm in my favourite archaeology lecturer’s eye, there will be gay characters.

      Already within a few days this blog has achieved something wonderful and that didn’t even cross my mind when I made it – I’ve found more of what precious little there is in the way of my favourite reading matter!

      I hope that we speak again, and I can’t wait to read your novels!


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