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!

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Us and Them

As I continue to think about how I’m going to develop some sort of plot for this book of mine, I’m beginning to wonder about my original plans.

One thing I know for sure is that I want to write about the advent of farming. I want to consider the processes that might have been at play with the passing on of knowledge and skills that allowed people to keep domesticates. Old fashioned views see farming arriving in Europe from the Near East in the form of colonising cultivators, but we have to remember that some parts of the landscape were already heavily populated, and had been that way for tens of thousands of years! Almost immediately I had decided to write from the point of view of one of these indigenous cultures. I wanted to see how I would envisage them interacting with the people who knew how to raise animals and when and where to plant cereals.

However there is that age old concept of “us” and “them”. If I’m not careful I’ll find myself in that familliar “Dances with Wolves” scenario where the peaceful natives are disrupted in their harmonious lives by the incoming higher-level civilisation until one day two people think differently and unite their comrades in tolerance and equality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of story telling – in the last month alone I’ve been caught having a secret sniffle at Pocahontas during a particularly difficult hangover. I shan’t mention my reaction to Avatar… it was rather embarrassing.

One of the points I think I’d like to get across though is that interactions may not have been guarded or hostile; indeed they may well have been amicable. In some ways I am tempted to portray my hunter-fishers and my farmers as working together; trading food stuffs, material culture, even people. The stable isotope data from the Danube Gorges and indeed across much of Neolithic Europe often conveys a picture of patrilocality, with females entering the communities from outside of the region, or at least from a different social group who employed different subsistence strategies.

Having said that, a story needs intrigue and the reader needs, not necessarily to be able to take sides but to invest their time and emotions in a character or group of characters. Having clearly defined boundaries and roles for the characters can be a positive thing, especially if the story is taking on the nature of a parable.

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.