Truth, Archaeology and Fiction (1)

From time to time over the years I have found myself working on two books – and it’s never much fun, so I have tried to avoid it. The trouble is that the human brain, or at least my own version of it, lacks the flexibility to switch between widely differing topics. So I would try to arrange the work into separate batches: say a week on The Making of the British Landscape edit, followed by a fortnight writing The Birth of Modern Britain. That way I could usually arrange for a weekend away from either book, to allow my mind to re-focus. Then, just over two years ago, and while we were planning and then filming the final (20th) series of Time Team, I had the idea of writing a book of fiction. By then I had signed the contract for my latest Penguin non-fiction book, Home, which is essentially a personal exploration of British prehistory, based around ancient and modern British home life. This has not been an easy theme to work on and I have had to rewrite it at least twice. You might suppose that a reminiscence is fairly straightforward, except that my perceptions, even in my 70th year (when my life and thoughts should have settled down) kept changing. And the task wasn’t made any easier by the subject matter, because I had decided to take the story of home life right back to the end of the last Ice Age, over ten thousand years ago and that meant straying into the Mesolithic – a period dominated by the obsessive study of flints and by ever more minute changes in the climate and environment. It’s a period that archaeologists of later prehistory, such as myself, who are interested in the lives of people, have tended to avoid. Nerdish categorisation scares me witless.

Then I discovered that things are changing in the world of Mesolithic archaeology. True, most specialists in the period seem to know little about later periods, but there are some notable exceptions and word is beginning to spread that there is more to the past than those tiny pieces of flint. This process has been speeded-up by the recent discovery of early post-Glacial houses dating back to the 8th and 9th millennia BC – which are about the same size and general shape as buildings of later prehistory. This has meant that we are having massively to revise our ideas about hunter-gatherer societies and their supposedly shifting semi-nomadic lifestyle. So my reminiscence has also been an exploration, which, to make matters even more complex, I have extended into my own life, and home-building, in the 20th and 21st century, AD.

I knew that the first version of what was later to be called Home wasn’t working. It lacked a central argument and theme. So I put it to one side and immersed myself in the Mesolithic period. At the end of that, I realised that the theme I was seeking lay all around me. It was the story of my own life and the way I was living; it was about why everyday family life is so important. I also began to question modern perceptions of home – as somewhere people can be packed away in order to keep them quiet. In reality home and family life can be a radical and creative experience. It was, after all, where the great ideas that shaped all societies were formed and developed. It’s the basic relationship, the fundamental building block of every human community. It was then, too, that I realised how hopelessly unbalanced modern British society has become, with a distant ruling elite in London – far from the world the rest of us inhabit. It put me rather in mind of the degeneracy of the patrician classes in ancient Rome, as described by the great Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

While these seditious thoughts were rampaging through my newly radicalised septuagenarian imagination, Westminster politics revealed itself in its true colours, as politicians of all Parties made concerted and blatant attempts to scare the Scots from voting for independence. I’m not Scottish myself, and I wouldn’t presume to influence my many friends north of the border, but after that disgraceful display of concerted moral blackmail, I know where I’d put my saltire on the ballot paper. So if Scotland does go independent, maybe we timid English will find encouragement to demand a bit of regional autonomy for ourselves? Let’s face it: apart from a theocracy, almost anything would be better than the current system.

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