Egg on Face…

A charming reporter from the National Geographic phoned me this evening. She wanted to do a piece on Stonehenge and the new visitor centre for their travel supplement. Suitably flattered I said something gracious and then started to answer her questions. Question 1:

‘Recently I was at the new Stonehenge visitor centre shop, where I bought a copy of your wonderful book Britain BC. So of course I thought you’d be just the person to answer a few questions…’

And then the questions followed, which I responded to as only I can. Simper, simper. Except that…

Except that, I recalled saying in my last blog post that:

“One consequence of the general ‘dumbing-down’ that is such a sad feature of so much modern marketing is that one rarely comes across anything interesting to read in an English Heritage or National Trust bookshop. Site guidebooks aside, it’s just the same old predictable, lavishly illustrated, if largely plagiarised, pap ground out by the usual celebrity suspects. Yawn, yawn. So I tend to spend my money on ice creams, which can sometimes be locally made and invariably stimulate my imagination far more than the books on offer.”  OUCH! Sorry English Heritage. Grovel, grovel…

Or was I right?

Oh God, now I’m assailed by horrible doubts….

Posted in books | Tagged , , ,

New Directions: Two Very Original Books on Archaeology

One consequence of the general ‘dumbing-down’ that is such a sad feature of so much modern marketing is that one rarely comes across anything interesting to read in an English Heritage or National Trust bookshop. Site guidebooks aside, it’s just the same old predictable, lavishly illustrated, if largely plagiarised, pap ground out by the usual celebrity suspects. Yawn, yawn. So I tend to spend my money on ice creams, which can sometimes be locally made and invariably stimulate my imagination far more than the books on offer. So now I’m going to suggest two books to take with you if you find yourself heading out into the countryside to visit ancient or prehistoric places.

Pagan BritainThe first is Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain (Yale University Press). I got to read it in proof stage, so that I could write a glowing reference for the back cover (not something I will agree to do if the book isn’t genuinely good, I hasten to add; I don’t get paid to do it!). It’s a superb piece of work and beautifully written, too. There isn’t so much as a hint of a textbook to it, yet it is packed full with facts. And don’t let the P word in the title put you off: that has nothing whatsoever to do with the sort of fruitcakery you’re likely to encounter if ever you’re mad enough to linger among the alternative crystal shops in Glastonbury (the town, not the festival). Hutton is careful not to remove the religions he discusses from the lives of the people at the time – as we currently understand them.  So I see it as a deeply rooted, or grounded, book, which sets religious and spiritual beliefs in their social context. To my mind it is just the sort of book one should read before visiting the newly made-over Stonehenge. And speaking as someone who has long been fascinated by ancient religion in all its bewildering and contradictory complexity, I rather wished this book had appeared thirty years ago, when I was wrestling with the problems of Neolithic ritual and ceremonial, as I tried to understand what had been going-on at Etton, some five and a half millennia ago (see my Seahenge, chapter 8). It’s a topic that has kept me stimulated ever since, and I will return to it in my next book for Penguin, which will be published early in October. The point is, that until quite recently nobody would have dared to have written about ancient religion if, that is, he or she wanted to retain so much as a shred of academic credibility. Thankfully, those dreadful, dreary times are largely past when to be a ‘scholar’ one had to stick to ‘hard facts’ and stay well clear of things that were ‘not provable’ or could be considered ‘speculative’. As I see it, we prehistorians are in the business of providing alternative models for life both in the crowded present and, perhaps more importantly, in the increasingly unstable future. And that requires imagination, not predictable stodge.

Which brings me seamlessly to my second book, Stonework, by Mark Edmonds and Rose Ferraby (Group VI Press, Orkney). In many ways the two books I have chosen to discuss could not have been more dissimilar. Pagan Britain is published by an established publisher of top quality books. It is thick, learned and packed with useful references. In many ways it exemplifies the old way of doing things, which is not to say, of course, that that will stop any time soon. But Stonework is, as the Pythons would have said: ‘something completely different’. For a start it’s self-published. Again, in the past the words ‘self-published’ could often be read as ‘unpublishable’; very often such books were produced by authors who were too arrogant to accept an editor’s changes. And sadly they were often tenth-rate. But with the coming of the internet all of that has changed. Now authors  can use Twitter and other social media to promote their work. Bloggers like me can write reviews; but it is not without its risks: I could have written something hostile, had I taken against it. Put another way, the ‘new’ self-publishing, whether truly self-done, or run through Amazon or Kindle, is not an escape from a real and hostile world. It’s another world of its own, entirely; another way of doing things, but one in which the author has far more control of his or her book’s production. In fact, I’ve been amazed by the extent to which I’ve been consulted by the nice folk at Unbound in the production stages of The Lifers’ Club. Never before have I been offered a range of styles and typefaces to choose from – and as for the cover(s), that has taken at least three attempts to get right. And now it’s spot-on. In fact, I’m delighted with it. But I digress…

No, the point I was so laboriously trying to make was that many authors today, especially those with an artistic or craft bent, turn to self-publishing to produce the book that not only looks right, but feels and handles right. Today, reading can be about far more than words and pictures alone. And Stonework is a prime example of this new genre of beautifully produced and crafted books. And being self-published there are few middle-managers and directors to ply with salaries and bonuses, so its price is very reasonable (just £25, which includes post and packing).

I first met Mark Edmonds, who wrote the words and did some of the illustrations for Stonework, many years ago, when he was a student. Since then he has become a leading authority on the Neolithic and has done some amazingly original research into the polished stone axes that were made in Cumbria and were exported all over Britain, between four and five thousand years ago. Etton produced loads of them, and Mark kindly described them in my final report (Etton: Excavations at a Neolithic causewayed enclosure near Maxey Cambridgeshire, 1982-7. English Heritage Archaeological Report No. 18 [1998]). Many specialists content themselves with classifying their chosen objects into endless categories and sub-divisions. Indeed those reports make an excellent substitute for diazepam, if you’re having trouble getting to sleep. But Mark has always been fascinated by why his chosen stone axes were fashioned in the first place. What made them so special and why did people seek out the wonderful creamy-green stone (that archaeologists labelled prosaically Group VI) and then quarry it? But they didn’t mine it somewhere convenient and low down, but high in the scariest cliffs of the Pike O’Stickle. I’ve looked up at those quarries, but the Fenman in me quakes at the thought of climbing up there, which Mark has done, of course, many, many, times.

So this book is a celebration of Group VI and what it might have meant in the past and how it affects us in the present.  It’s all about impression, feelings and time and is refreshingly fact-free. Mark describes it as ‘a different way of telling’. Personally I think you’ll get more from it if you can learn a bit about Group VI first. So if you don’t know anything about the topic I would strongly recommend that you visit the website which Mark has set-up (the tab ‘contexts’ gives you all you need to know in a nutshell):

You’ll be able to read about Group VI there, and of course you can buy the book on it. There are some useful references, too.

I was going to include some photos of the book, but I have to confess my pictures couldn’t do justice to its texture and feel. So I gave up. Another friend of mine, Mike Pitts, who edits the CBA magazine British Archaeology has written a very good review of Stonework, and with pictures that do the originals justice. It’s well worth a visit:

In two days time I’ll be poring over the first proofs of The Lifers’ Club. But there’s still just time to get your name in the list at the back (along with people like Mark Edmonds and Mike Pitts…). Meanwhile I’m wrestling with the plot of Alan Cadbury’s second adventure. The thing is, he never reports his stories to me the same way twice. It can be very frustrating and it makes the construction of a coherent narrative almost impossible! In fact, late last week I’d had enough. So I told him to get stuffed – I was that fed-up. Then yesterday evening he turned up at the pub and bought all the beers. So I suppose he’s forgiven, at least for the time being…

Posted in Archaeology, books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

More Words on the Weirdness of the Season

At last I now understand why politicians have invented Quangos (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental  organizations). It is of course to avoid blame. More to the point it’s to avoid having to make long-term decisions. So you tie the Quangos’ hands with stupid Treasury rules and then blame them when the Thames and the Somerset Levels flood. Meanwhile what’s happening in Holland, where the land is far lower-lying? Because the politicians there are more rooted in reality (i.e. they don’t inhabit a privileged Westminster Village), they realise that flooding events matter and affect the lives of ordinary people. So they have taken a long-term view and have set aside proper ‘washland’ areas that can absorb flood waters – indeed, we have similar things in the Fens (in part thanks to Dutch influence and advice).

My utter contempt for the short-termism of British (or more specifically Westminster) politics has just reached a peak, after listening to Eric Pickles MP blamed ‘the experts’ at the Environment Agency, whose Chairman, Lord Smith has turned round and blamed the Treasury who then pointed out that a previous (Labour) government had set the Treasury rules… Meanwhile, ordinary people, their farms and households, are being swamped beneath metres of sewage-filled floodwaters. That’s why I have just Tweeted:  ‘Dear Father Thames, hurry up: PLEASE flood Parliament!’ (and to my amazement it has been extensively re-Tweeted and Favourited). Trouble is, a far-sighted civil engineer, the great Sir Joseph Bazelgette, constructed the Thames Embankment while he was transforming London’s sewer system, in the 1850s and ‘60s and a by-product was the protection of the House of Commons (I discuss it in The Making of the British Landscape, pp. 548-9). So my selective flood almost certainly won’t happen – which I’m not really sad at, because I’d hate to see the Abbey and Westminster Hall under water. If only we could squeeze all the politicians into an Ark and pack them off to Mount Ararat… in evening dress…in the depths of winter. But I fear I digress.

But it has been a weird season. Yesterday we were pruning roses (me with a chainsaw, Maisie with secateurs) and Maisie came in for tea with this lovely little bunch of mixed David Austin roses. We’re very fond of his newly hybridised English Roses, which all have good disease resistance and most have fabulous scents.  They also survive well into winter and normally we can pick several for Christmas, but this year they have been exceptional. The varieties we grow include, Brother Cadfael, The Crocus Rose, The Generous Gardener and Sharifa Asma. Their leaves tend to get a bit blotchy in winter, but we don’t bother to spray against fungus then; life’s too short. Apart from the early bulbs, which I described in my last post, the other plant that has been wonderful this season has been Iris unguicularis (older gardeners will remember it as I. stylosa). It favours hot, dry rubbly and well-drained soil, so we have it close by a south-facing wall, in full sunshine, alongside a gravel path. Its flowers only last about 48 hours, but they smell gorgeous and are as delicate as any plant in the garden.

I’ve included two versions of the photo, one taken with, one without flash. They’re both very different. I suppose it depends on what you’re after: a record of the time, the flowers and the room, or a picture of the flowers. Can’t decide.

Oh, and one final thing. I made a mistake in my last blog post when I mentioned ‘agapanthus’; I should have said ‘acanthus’. Sorry!

Winter flowers (taken with flash)

Winter flowers (taken with flash)

Winter flowers (without flash)

Winter flowers (without flash)

Posted in Gardening, Tirades | Tagged , , , , , ,

At Last, Signs of Change

What a weird winter we’ve been having so far. In December we had those terrible storms down the east coast, and now poor old Somerset and the West Country are facing a terrible onslaught. Yet still many people confidently assert that the climate isn’t changing. So I fully understand Prince Charles’s frustration and fury at those people who choose to deny that anything is happening, despite what 99% of all scientists are saying. I even gather that one or two Republicans in the U.S. now acknowledge that climate change might be real. Blimey! They’ll be denying the literal truth of Adam and Eve next. Mark my words, it’s the start of a slippery slope…

Personally, I like the idea that global warming is finding meteorological expression in the weirding of the weather. And hasn’t it been a weird winter so far? The fuchsias in the garden are still fully in leaf, as are the agapanthus plants, which around here normally have their leaves frosted in November, or earlier. I think we may have had a couple of very light air frosts in December, but we’ve barely had so much as a ground frost in 2014. In fact the grass is getting so long I’ll have to mow the lawn soon, but I won’t be able to run the mower across the soggy ground.

This time last year our solar panels were doing virtually no generation, as every day was cold and grey. But this year the meter has been ticking-over very nicely (thank you). We’ve been having a day of storms, followed by two or three of bright sunshine. Today was one of those days and I was able to spend about six hours outside. It was gorgeous! On one of those sunny, in-between storm days last week, I took a stroll with my camera. To get into our wood you have to pass along a short walk, where the grass path is lined with hazelnut bushes, which we planted back in 1992, along with a handful of snowdrops which I’d transplanted from our old garden. I have to say that this year the combination of hazel catkins and snowdrops was quite stunning. And then when I got into the wood, I don’t think I have ever seen the snowdrops, aconites and hellebores looking better. Sad to say, but it’s indeed an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

The Nut Walk.

The Nut Walk.

Snowdrops and aconites in the wood.

Snowdrops and aconites in the wood.

Posted in Gardening | Tagged , , , ,

Of This, of That (and the Other)

Living as I do a mere metre and a half above sea level (which at this time of year means several metres below high tide levels), I was astonished to hear that the chairman of the Environment Agency has written in the Daily Telegraph that when it comes to flooding we must decide between town and country – and this from a political party that is supposed to number rural people among its supporters (but that doesn’t include me, I hasten to add!). I cannot believe what is being said. Surely if governments do nothing else, they must protect their constituents from harm, and that doesn’t only mean terrorists.  Water can kill, you know; it isn’t just  for diluting your expenses-paid whisky in one of the House of Commons bars. Frankly I’m speechless. Lost for words. Dumbfounded. Incredulous.

And I hadn’t planned to write anything about flooding in this post. No, I was going to discuss This That and the Other. To be quite frank, I thought I’d start with a feeble smutty pun based around ‘The Other’, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. No, that brain-dead politician saved me, and you, from my usual heavy-handed innuendo. So perhaps I’ve started with a digression. Or have I? Maybe that was the main message: my heartfelt sympathy for the people of the Somerset Levels who have had to endure so much, and for so very long. I can assure you all that the people of the Fens are right behind you. So contact us, if you plan future battles with politicians (of all and any party).

So now to This and That. I spent January strawing-down sheep in the barn and working on the plot of my second Adam Cadbury novel.  It’s going to be set in the Fens around Ely, this time. I’ve got a provisional title (which I won’t divulge), but all the plot, cast and timeline files are headed ‘AC Book 2’, or just ‘AC2’. Experience has taught me that titles can, and do, change. I’ve learnt a great deal from the initial sketching-out or planning process, and the most important lesson is that plots develop much better through conversation. I can sit back in a comfortable chair, crackling logs in the fireplace and glass of wine to hand, shut my eyes, determined to think constructive, plotty thoughts. And what happens? Suddenly Mylie Cyrus’s bum twerks1 its way into my mind. Other times it’s something less fruity: a sheep with fly-strike or a pimple on the side of my nose. But never the plot. Then I casually mention to Maisie that I am having trouble trying to work out how Alan can discover why the bishop was found dead in the dyke, and wearing his wife’s knickers. Then she casually suggests that they might have been at a college re-union. And all becomes clear. Sometimes we spent a full hour together working things through – and I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I bet most crime and thriller writers spend huge amounts of time discussing plots with their partners, friends and families. I’m also very lucky to have a wonderful Editor (Liz Garner) at Unbound and in a few days I’ll go to their offices in London to have a good, no-holds-barred, brainstorming  session with her. After that, the plot should be in very much better shape. As she told me when we were working through the final edits to the Lifers’ Club manuscript: it’s much easier if you can do the re-arrangement before you start writing…

As light relief from plot-framing, I’ve been writing (or in Alan Cadbury’s case, editing) guest blogs and opinion pieces for the splendid DigVentures blog and website.  The first one was a piece about my sheep-farming and how it has affected my life as an archaeologist. You can see it here:

Although I say so myself, I think it’s quite interesting. Says something about archaeology, academia and the real world…

The next piece is scurrilous rubbish written by Alan Cadbury and edited into something resembling the Queen’s English by my good self. I wouldn’t look at it if you’re a member of the archaeological Establishment. Hey-ho, bang goes my OBE (the MBE was ‘for services to tourism’; nothing to do with archaeology; should be given a knighthood, if you ask me. But I digress …):

And finally a wonderful thumbnail sketch that Adrian Teal did on the title page of my copy of his superb satirical romp, The Gin Lane Gazette. It shows a naked Francis Pryor scampering vigorously and brandishing the famous antler Lyngby ‘Axe’ that Adrian discovered in a gravel pit at Earls Barton, in Northamptonshire. You can read about it in Britain BC, pp.  67-9. It’s in The British Museum, but sadly not on display (in common with the vast majority of their possessions… but that’s (yet) another story-cum-digression). When I told him I was going to put the sketch in this blog, Adrian said he wished he’d done something more fully-finished. But I disagree: it’s the ability to dash something off that always hits the bull’s-eye, that separates true artists from the rest of us, mere mortals.

Ade Teal sketch

Younger friends advise me that twerking is no laughing matter. Sounds painful to me… But I digress.

Posted in Archaeology, books, Tirades | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Boys will be boys, will be boys…oy…oys

Ye Gods, it has been yonks since I last sat down at the keyboard and wrote something memorable – no, just something – for this blog. And why’s that? I hear you ask in a slightly bored tone. Well my excuse is complex. For a start, it has been horribly wet and I’ve had to get all the sheep in from the fields – somehow. And that has taken quite a lot of work, what with clearing stuff from the two barns and liberating hurdles from less essential tasks. Then there has been the final copy-edit of The Lifers’ Club, which I’m delighted to say is now fully finished and ready for the mighty printing presses. There has also been my book for Penguin Press, which is finished, but in need of some final tweaks, to make it more marketable (and me, fabulously RICH!). Oh yes, and I’ve also been doing duty as Maisie’s photographer, taking dozens, no hundreds of pictures of pieces of prehistoric waterlogged wood. Then on Wednesday Maisie and I went to the fabulous exhibition at the British Library, Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain. It was SUBERB! And well done to everyone concerned. I was delighted to see Ade Teal’s book Gin Lane Gazette selling briskly in the bookshop afterwards, where I also encountered Lucy Inglis’s first popular book, Georgian London: Into the Streets, which looks like a damn good read. By some weird coincidence, on Monday, tomorrow, when I ought to be getting on with other things, I’ll be holding forth to a group of sceptical people about prehistoric booze-ups, at Blacks Club, of all places, in darkest Soho. God knows what I’ll talk about (hang-overs in the Epi-Palaeolithic?). The event is organised by Ade Teal and the other speaker is Lucy Inglis. Coincidence, or what? And there’s a free scrummy supper at the end of it all. I ask you, how do I cope? What sheer Hell; what utter misery. Why do I do it? Can’t thing, but anyhow: why justify when you can digress?

So what am I going to write about now: Georgian Britain? Wet sheep? No: old tractors. On Boxing Day. And that’s what I love about England: things just sort of happen because that’s what people want – and with no hype, publicity or propaganda. A group of tractor enthusiasts from Holbeach decided to go for a run, and they stopped off in Sutton St. James, alongside the Church (and outside the butcher and home-made meat pie shop). They told me the run was meant to be for Fordsons only, but I noted at least half the tractors were Fergies. As the man said: ‘Made no sense to tell ‘em not to come along too. Cheers!’ Then he took a Fen-sized bite from a steaming meat pie.


Tractors in the street

Tractors outside Church

Posted in books, My life | Tagged , , , , ,

The Typology of China Blackbirds

Now how’s that for a title? A real grabber, I think you’ll agree. But this blog post is really about that second word, ‘typology’ – a term much used, abused and beloved of archaeologists. Essentially (so my Webster’s Dictionary tells me) it refers to the study of ‘types, symbols and symbolism’. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Introductions to archaeology often use the example of early railway carriages and motor cars, which closely resembled horse-drawn vehicles in their early years and then required several decades to produce their own characteristic shapes and identities. The acquisition of the new shapes happened in stages, whose progress can be plotted against time. Using their knowledge of typology, somebody who has studied the process will be able to date a particular model of, say, saloon car, even if they don’t know the details of the manufacturer or model. The same goes for archaeological objects, such as Bronze Age swords or axes, whose development can be quite accurately plotted by studying their typological changes. But in prehistory it can be difficult to relate the changing shape of things to the attitudes and prejudices of society at large. And that, for an archaeologist, is what makes modern typology so fascinating: one gets a glimpse of the sort of social influences that might have affected prehistoric manufacturers and their clients and customers.

In common with most of our archaeological friends, Maisie and I don’t have personal collections, other, of course, than our libraries. We like jig-saw puzzles, but we’re not ‘collectors’ in the London sale-room sense of the term. And there are a few pieces of worked flint knocking around our house, but most of these were picked up casually while out on walks. I certainly wouldn’t call them a collection. And then last week we were sorting-out one of the kitchen cupboards, when Maisie came across her little group of china blackbirds. These four-inch high models of fledgling blackbirds were used to prop-up a pie’s lid, while allowing steam to escape through the hole in the beak. The blackbird shape is, of course, a reference to ‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ of the nursery rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’. And now to Maisie’s collection, which she bought from time to time in kitchenware shops – they are none of them antiques.

China blackbirds. Approximate date of manufacture (from left to right): 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010.

China blackbirds. Approximate date of manufacture (from left to right): 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010.

China blackbirds top view

I’ve taken two photos of the five blackbirds, to show their colour, modelling and the hole in their beaks. They are arranged in order of time, from left to right. No. 1 (on the left) was bought in the 1970s. It is probably quite a faithful representation of a an earlier 20th Century example, with good modelling and three colours of glaze; note how the glaze around the beak makes an attempt to mimic a real bird, also note the painted claws. The next bird (bought in the 1980s) is cruder than No. 1, but the shape is still recognizably that of a blackbird. The black glaze representing the bird’s feathers is confined to the bird’s body, and does not extend to the feet/perch. Bird 3 was bought in the 1990s and represents the low point of the typological series. The shape is rounded and frog-like and the glaze covers too much. The boundary between beak and neck makes no attempt to look bird-like. It’s tempting to suggest that in the 1990s few people cared much about cooking or baking pies and were heating-up ready-meals in microwaves. Bird No. 4 was bought after 2000 and is a fashionably minimalist representation of the blackbird. On the whole, the shape is well modelled and quite convincing, even if the poor bird looks like it has been fired up the barrel of a gun. The china too, is of better quality. And then we come to No. 5, which was bought after 2010. This blackbird is blue and made from the new wonder kitchen material: non-stick silicone; it has a yellow beak, made from a separate piece of silicone. By now although the material has changed, the modelling has returned to the shape of No. 1, even down to the detail of the gap in the base of the foot, where the steam enters. It’s tempting to suggest that the improved shapes of the last two blackbirds reflects a renewed interest in cooking, albeit as a hobby, or something done at weekends. I think blackbirds No. 2 and 3 say something rather sad about the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Or maybe I am reading too much into things which if I excavated them on site, I would probably interpret as religious offerings: the Cult of the Stiff-Necked Blackbird. How could I possibly know they were strictly utilitarian and owed their strange shape to a nursery rhyme? The frustration! There are times I would happily sell my soul to get inside the minds of prehistoric men and women.

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