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.

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Naming names

This blog is turning out to be very useful for networking. It’s surprising the people who’ve found me through this thing. It has also proven (as I suspected would be the case) that I am devastatingly ignorant on the subject of prehistoric fiction and indeed literature in general. But that’s okay; I’m here to learn. I’ve been pointed in the direction of what promise to be some interesting reads, including a graphic novel!

I thought I’d talk a bit about issues surrounding terminology. This is something I touched on briefly in my previous post when I mentioned that it has been argued that “transition” is an inappropriate word to describe the period of change between Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The evidence almost always suggests that the process was much more complex than a quick, clean change brought about by a “Neolithic Frontier” – yet another term that has brought about extensive discussion. Archaeologists often continue to argue that the terms “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic” are unsatisfactory, but I fear that we’re too late to change that. Those particular terms are here to stay.

I’d also like to consider the sorts of terminology and language that authors chose to use in their writing. One of the first problems I’m encountering as I think about starting to write is simply how to go about naming any characters I might come up with! I’ve seen some authors making up their own names. Another popular route seems to be to follow the Native American approach and go for names reminiscent of dear old Jaguar PawPersonally I think that I’d be inclined to make up my own names. I find that although many cultures often give their children names that mean something in their language, I’m distracted by reading English words as names. I often find some of them rather laughable as well, which stops me from truly engaging with the characters and scenarios in which they find themselves.

Then there’s the issue with the names given to roles and positions within society. What do we call the leaders, the husbands and wives, the spiritual leaders? In archaeology it’s important to try and come up with the most impartial and neutral language. Personally I am forever running from westernised ways of thinking and writing. I think the number one rule when attempting to envision our past is to remember that the way we see our world could be infinitely different from the way that our ancient ancestors did.

Of course when writing fiction for a much wider audience than just archaeologists, who sympathise with such agonies, allowances must be made. The characters must be relatable and the situations understandable. I think that plot would not be the main issue here – in some ways humans are very simple, and I think that we have probably been telling stories in a similar fashion from the very beginning – there will always be accounts of “good” versus “evil”, forbidden love, parables and myths with some sort of moral lesson.

But is it really appropriate to call a Neolithic leader a King or  a Lord? Or a Mesolithic spiritual specialist a Shaman? The former, to me, smack of far too feudal a system. The latter is a specialised term that was originally used to refer to the spiritual guides of nomadic groups in the Arctic Circle, who were believed to have had access to the spirit realm through entering states of altered consciousness (by getting high as freaking kites), but has become widely used in anthropology, history and archaeology.

I feel like perhaps the best approach, then, would be to come up with more new names rather than re-using English ones that have hundreds of years of socio-political background and possible connotations.

It’s always very easy to get caught up in these issues. I have fallen victim to such discussions in so many of my previous written assessments. I would start an essay by defining the subject, and then confronting the inevitable issues with terminology in the subject and, without realising it, have wasted half of my word count on a tangent. If we spend too much time discussing the intricacies of terminologies, are we defeating the point of archaeological enquiry? Ultimately we want to find out what the hell people got up to, not what words are most appropriate to describe them! But to make a piece of prose enjoyable it must be written in a way that involves the reader, rather than bringing questions into their minds, so perhaps in fiction these issues remain important.

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.