The irony of my never-beginning, never-ending quest to write prehistoric fiction

As quite a few people know, it has long been a dream of mine to write some prehistoric fiction that is great and interesting and great and lovely and nice and great.

Well, the trauma that was the Master’s course I graduated from a whole year ago has finally worn off and my little brain is not quite satisfied with the wonderful, challenging, fulfilling NHS job I’ve landed for myself. HAHAHA THANKS BRAIN. I lie in bed and say to my poor, long suffering partner ‘you know what I’m thinking about? My book I’m going to write…’

And then I talk rubbish at him until finally I manage to fall asleep, only to awake having forgotten all of my brilliant plot ideas.

And plot is the least of my problems. Cause, really, we all know how a standard plot-line goes… ordinary life, big call to adventure, meeting the mentor, enemies!enemies!obstables!, big ordeal, resolution of problem with probable reward, return to home, potential room for sequel if brain not died yet.

Anyway. Enough of that. The main problem for me is the very same problem that has made me completely and utterly (yet horribly half-arsedly) determined to write this book.

I STRUGGLE WITH THE LITERATURE. I REALLY DO. I mean, the ideas I’ve been reading are FABULOUS and so exciting and interesting. But the language is dry and the prose is convoluted. If there could just be a nice, bullet point list, separated into different aspects of the things I need to know about – environment, subsistence, material culture, settlement patterns… And maybe a lovely visual timeline. Maybe some illustrations? IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK????

Okay, I know I’m basically just saying I want to be able to write a highly accurate piece of prehistoric fiction without having to do any real research or, indeed, work. But surely you get my point? This is why there needs to be more fiction about periods of time that are slippery and difficult to articulate for even the most learned of scholars! Cause the only-mildly-learned ones like me can’t be doing with all this poncy, exclusive language!

Enough of the numbers and citations and all that! We’re all about telling stories, right, fellow archaeologists? AMIRITE? So let’s tell a really good story that everyone can enjoy!

C’mon brain, you can do it!

Are archaeologists afraid of their imaginations?

This is a subject that has been, in one form or another, plaguing me for a long time. And the fascinating thing is that it is touched upon in so many of my various lectures and seminars, yet there doesn’t seem to be anyone doing much about it. It is steadily driving me more and more insane, and if no one else does something about it, I might be forced to do a PhD about it, and that’s just an appalling idea because. Well, because I’m already an imposter at Master’s level.

Anyway, I digress. I’ve just come out of a couple particularly engaging seminars and it’s times like these, when I’m practically foaming at the mouth because I am so riled up by a subject and the rant that I want to rant is so tantalisingly out of reach, that I realise that this is why I just keep coming back to archaeology. Because archaeologists are SO frustrating at times. No, no no. Let me rephrase that; academics are so frustrating at times. I’m getting my A-words mixed up again.

The first seminar was about the authenticity of experiences and meaningful experiences with archaeology and heritage. One of the main points that came out of our discussions was that, to the lay person, authenticity has little to do with truth and fact, and more to do with the quality of the experience that they are having and the way in which they are engaging with that experience.

The second seminar was about 3D imaging and virtual realities in archaeology. Obviously, conversation quickly turned to gaming. In my previous post I articulated some of my feelings about the potential of games and gaming technology for archaeological dissemination, but now I have even more opinions on the matter.

So the overriding question in both of these seminars was, what is stopping us from moving forward and engaging with the archaeology/heritage in a more emotional, reflexive manner? 

And I think that it’s this huge reluctance in the profession to properly utilise and stretch our imaginations. Which, really, when you think about it, sounds absolutely ridiculous. After all, and especially in prehistoric archaeology, the imagination is key to the process of interpretation.

Scholars seem to be afraid of losing credibility or respect by using imaginative and emotive narratives to communicate the knowledge and theories that they have extracted from their data. I believe this is seriously narrowing the potential for the dissemination of archaeological knowledge.

It’s all well and good for the academics to sit and seek out scholarly articles on the architecture of Florence in the Renaissance, but there’s no chance that the average, intelligent lay person would ever consider doing such a thing (or even be able to access such articles, but that’s another rant). They would, however, be able to access and immerse themselves in the (IMHO) utter glory that is Assassin’s Creed II.

VR and gaming is just one example of an untapped resource with huge scope for the development of new ways of communicating our collective heritage. Those such as Mike Shanks have asked questions like the one I ask in the title of this blog. Clearly the time has come to stop asking is this true? or why is this so? and to start trying to overcome the barrier that is stopping those responsible for knowledge-making from circulating their work into wider circles in an exciting and engaging manner. I hope that soon we’ll be able to move on from this terrible, invisible divide between scholarly pursuit and ‘entertainment’.

Why archaeology needs Game Developers and Other Nerds*

I recently discovered the wonderful online magazine, Love Archaeology, created and run by postgraduate students at Glasgow University. This discovery in itself merits the creation of a blog post (I strongly recommend checking it out, the thing has a wonderful feel – a mix of enhusiasm, knowledge and general good spirits!), but it also links nicely on to a little archaeology rant that I’ve had brewing up inside for almost a year now.

The third issue of Love Archaeology considers how the study of material culture in imaterial worlds – that is, fictitious creations such as novels and popular games like the Elder Scrolls arc that have their roots firmly placed in our own, human archaeologies – can contribute to archaeological thought. This sort of thing has been hovering on the edge of my brain for god knows long, but I never quite took notice. Clearly I am preoccupied by the past, and that preoccupation has made its way into my hobbies in the form of nerdalicious pursuits such as the playing of Skyrim for really quite unreasonable amounts of time, and the perhaps more honourable act of reading great works of fiction such as George R. R. Martin’s epic political medieval fantasy. I’ve always maintained that I’m an archaeologist for the sole reason that I am also an escapist, and I very much enjoy pretending that the real world doesn’t exist by immersing myself in other worlds, populated by our ancestors. I suppose it just didn’t occur to me that this is exactly what a very large percentage of the population in most developed countries is doing as well.

Does this make us all archaeologists? I certainly believe it means we all think like archaeologists. Or does it mean that archaeologists think like humans? And I suppose that is indeed the goal – to get inside the heads of our human ancestors.

Anyway, I digress. The above discussion is a very interesting one, and one which I might attempt to pursue and perhaps somehow twist into something resembling a thesis. My main point for this post was, however, why the world of archaeology needs game developers and other hardcore gaming-type nerds in general.

This is an opinion that I’ve been brewing ever since somewhere around the middle of my third year studying for an Archaeology BA at Cardiff. I shall illustrate it with this beautiful piece of artwork that I stumbled across whilst surfing the web. Okay, I didn’t stumble across it at all, I was actively seeking out epic bits of concept art for the aforementioned Skyrim.


(c) Bethesda Studios 2011. Art by Adam Adamowicz. Cross section view of a long hall built by the fictional race who live in Skyrim, the Nords.

This wonderful piece of art was released in 2011 previous to the release of the actual game, Skyrim, the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The games are set on the fictional continent of Tamriel, of which Skyrim is a northern province (imagine mountainous landscapes filled with viking-esque settlers and warriors). More images belonging to the same collection of concept art can be found here.

Anyway, I digress once again. My point is… my point is just look at the above image. It looks like an archaeological reconstruction. Or rather, the best archaeological reconstruction anyone has ever seen, ever, in the history of archaeological reconstructions. The image clearly shows both the interior and exterior of the building. It shows the different stages of the build, and the contents of the building, the way it would look if it was occupied by people. The attention to detail is absolutely stunning, and the skills with which is was drawn are undoubtedly phenomenal. This is the sort of digital art that the archaeological world desperately needs.

The people who develop games like this are clearly extremely creative individuals. They’re also clearly hugely talented. We need them.

We are living in an increasingly visual world. In general I think people don’t read as much as they used to, and engage with their real and virtual environments in an increasingly  visual and visceral way. I feel like one of the main things holding archaeology back (don’t get me wrong, archaeology is definitely going places,  just a bit slower than the rest of the world) is our lack of ability (or reluctance?) to represent our findings and our theories in a visually creative and accessible manner. Although deeply rooted in academic scientific knowledge, archaeology is also fundamentally linked with the imagination, and in order to communicate the results of our imaginings, we need to use creative means. I’m interested in the way that archaeology has been artistically represented in the past and, although I’ve barely scratched the surface, what I’ve found has been pretty dire most of the time.  I’m not saying that there are no archaeologists who are good at drawing, definitely not. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some instances of really great visual representation in archaeology. What I think is probably the case is that most archaeologists are so preoccupied by their own research that they cannot bring themselves to spend huge amounts of time representing the things that they simply want to know more about. Or perhaps more realistically, and more depressingly, we simply don’t have the means to fund the creation of such effective images. I know if I was as gifted as the person/people who drew those images linked above then I’d be letting Bethesda pay me handsomely to do their concept art rather than trying to get penniless archaeologists to pay me for interpretive drawings.

Something that I’ve found during a large amount of the class discussions for my MSc in Digital Heritage at York has been that there are so many ways in which archaeology could be headed, making the digital dissemination and preservation of archaeological knowledge more effective and more widespread, but there is this one, terrible looming factor that holds us back. The ever-essential financing that would make such endeavours possible.

So what I would suggest, then, is that we communicate more with the people who have got all the skills and resources to produce such inspiring and imaginative creations. They’re already doing an archaeology of their own, what’s stopping them from getting involved in our archaeology as well?

*By ‘Other Nerds’ I mean ‘Other Hugely Specialised and Talented People’. Obviously.