Skip to content

Holiday Reading – The Buried Circle by Jenni Mills

July 31, 2015

It’s possible I’m developing an obsession with books about Avebury. This is the 2nd (or is it the 3rd? I’m losing track!) I’ve reviewed here. One day I might even get around to reviewing an Avebury book written by an archaeologist, but not today. Today we’re firmly in the realm of fiction, but it is fiction with an archaeological theme. Jenni Mills was a presenter and producer with BBC Radio 4, directed TV documentaries, taught voice techniques for broadcasters, wrote a handbook The Broadcast Voice and is now a lecturer in creative writing. Impeccable credentials for a writer, but she is by no means an archaeologist. What Mills has, however, is a real feel for the Avebury landscape: as she explains in an endnote the (North Wessex) Downs are somewhere she’s spent a lot of time and her evocation of the area rings true. Additionally, during her television career, Mills was involved in making a documentary about Keiller and Avebury (The Village in the Stones) and talked to many of the surviving villagers who remembered Keiller, she also volunteered for the National Trust (who with English Heritage administer the Avebury estate) talked to the curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum, consulted the Keiller archive and this research comes through in The Buried Circle.

 

Like John Preston’s The Dig this book deals with a 1930’s British excavation, in this case Keiller’s excavation of Avebury, but that’s pretty much the only thing the two works have in common. Preston’s book was subtle and nuanced in its evocation of immediately pre-war British mores (or dull and badly imagined, take your pick) Mills’ novel is a thriller and a love story set in the present and in the 1930s with the Avebury landscape as location and almost instigator of the action. Whereas Preston’s work was aiming for literature; Mills has written a galloping, if not rollicking, read and one that is far more fun for the reader.

Having come down firmly on the side of low-brow writing I would point out that while on one level The Buried Circle is enjoyable tosh with sex, shamanism, magic and murder featuring heavily, Mills also discusses some very weighty issues such as identity, family and belonging, the nature of time, as well as looking sympathetically but unflinchingly at what old age does to people. More importantly, from an archaeological point of view and showing she did her research well, part of the plot is based around Keiller’s management of Avebury village. Mills explicitly points out that Keiller bought and then demolished many houses and trees in his attempt to return the site to its prehistoric character regardless of this being only a snapshot in its long history. Avebury village in the 1930s was a thriving place, a proper village with a blacksmith, butcher shop and other amenities, Keiller effectively destroyed this community with his vision of the past. Having spent a lot of time there, I find it difficult to imagine Avebury as anything other than a rather quaint, extremely wealthy, settlement where you can get a postcard, a beer or a cup of tea and cake, but not much else of any use to a non-Druid. It’s to Mills’ credit that she effectively recreates this vanished society.

What is less convincing is the plot. I know, I said it was enjoyable, but the plot is complicated, many stranded if not tortuous, and frankly it doesn’t really matter that it’s unconvincing. Basically the book centres on Frannie and her granddaughter India, switching between the present and the late 1930s/early 1940s. Frannie, as a young girl, is taken on by Keiller’s secretary to assist with sorting out the Windmill Hill archive and slowly becomes more involved with the excavations of the Avebury henge, the unearthing of the barber-surgeon has a pivotal role in the plot. Through flashbacks we learn of her romance with one of Keiller’s workers, Davey, who is possibly also Keiller’s lover, her seduction and later rape by Cromley, Keiller’s site assistant, and her love for Keiller himself. Davey and Cromley join the RAF at the start of World War 2, and, in revenge for how he’s treated Frannie, Davey kills Cromley –and himself – in a deliberate plane crash. What we don’t learn, and this is the question her granddaughter keeps asking, is whether Keiller was the father of her child – India’s mother. Meanwhile, India has come back to Avebury, or rather Avebury Trusloe where many of the inhabitants of Avebury were relocated once Keiller had bought and demolished their houses. India has been working in television but is recovering from a traumatic helicopter accident (no, really) which killed her producer and has potentially ended her career as well as the career of the helicopter pilot, Steve, with whom she had a one-night stand. Helicopter pilot – fighter pilot/navigator, the past is sort of repeating itself and this is one of the many themes going on in The Buried Circle. India becomes increasingly concerned about Frannie who appears to be descending into senility and keeps seeing lights on Windmill Hill, despite not being able to see the hill from her house. However, this turns out to be part of a bigger secret Frannie has been keeping – rape, pregnancy, and a still-born child buried on Windmill Hill during an air raid. As you do.

Still with me? Ok. By a series of massive coincidences, India has the opportunity to work with a different television company on a film about Keiller’s life (Mills uses her own experiences here as she explains in the endnote) which leads her to the Keiller archive and the discovery that her grandmother worked for him. Another mini-excavation takes place and India is involved with this as her grandmother was with the original stone resurrections. India is reunited with the helicopter pilot and after a few twists and turns admits she loves him, she is also reunited with a childhood friend whom she last saw when she was eight and they were both taken into foster care after a different but equally traumatic accident. Unfortunately the childhood friend is not in the best mental health, there’s some stuff about the Mother Goddess that went right over my head here, the friend possibly kills his own dog*, has tried to kill his son’s mother, then attacks Frannie and lands her in hospital, tries to kill India by crushing her – in barber-surgeon style – with the newly resurrected megalith (again, no really) but India is rescued by a helicopter low flying over the circle which topples the stone onto her attacker’s leg. This is not the helicopter being flown Steve, in fact this helicopter might not even exist, but I will admit that by this point I was having trouble with keeping the plot straight in my head. Anyway, it all ends well, except for the childhood friend who’s looking at a lengthy prison sentence as well as having a fractured leg.

Can I just say I haven’t even mentioned John, India’s stepfather, who is a shaman and plays an important role as advisor and voice of reason. Nor the discussion of free festivals, raves, the Battle of the Beanfield, the work of the National Trust or any of the other themes running through this book. You get the expurgated easy to follow version!

Perhaps wisely, given she has so much going on, Mills doesn’t discuss the minutiae of excavation, either in the 1930s or the present. I found this a little disappointing, I would have liked to know how an outsider sees and understands our physical work but she may have felt that Time Team – which she namechecks – makes this unnecessary. Mills does talk about the nature of archaeology, having Keiller, Piggott and Cromley discuss various aspects of the dig: unsurprisingly, given Keiller’s interest in witchcraft (after his death over 400 volumes on witchcraft, demonology and erotica were donated to the National Library of Scotland) much of the reported 30s interpretation of Avebury and Windmill Hill relies on ritual and magic – Keiller never completed his report and the excavations were eventually written up by Isobel Smith in 1965. Modern archaeological interpretations are supplied by Martin Ekwald – Mills’ fictional archaeologist brought in as a presenter by the TV company. Each section of the novel is preceded by quotes from his work, he’s ever so sensible and disinclined to speculate, I suspect him of being a processualist!

Interestingly Mills presents Keiller in an ambivalent but ultimately sympathetic light, he is shown to be irascible, quick-tempered and autocratic, but at the same time he can be charming and kind. And extremely attractive, albeit with unconventional sexual predilections which are, thankfully, not described. Cromley is obviously the villain, but poor Piggott isn’t warmly portrayed either, he’s nicknamed ‘Stu Pig’, has ‘sly’ eyes, is humourless, overly intelligent but insensitive – Mills seems to have taken against his cartoons (I thought they were quite funny when I saw them) – and bad-tempered. Young, Keiller’s foreman then curator of the Avebury Museum, has a very minor role, mentioned only once or twice we’re told Keiller listens to his opinion and that he’s ‘awkward’ around women. There’s a lot of sub-text going on here but presumably even Mills recognised that any overt conjecture about Keiller’s homosexual relationships would have added yet more to an already weighty – and complicated – novel.

So, there you have it. If you’re looking for light-hearted, somewhat crazy, summer holiday reading with an archaeological flavour, I can highly recommend The Buried Circle.

If you have any recomendations do let me know

Have a great weekend

Julia

SAA Session Call for Papers

July 29, 2015

HARN member Neha Gupta would like to make HARN members aware of the following cfp

Session for 81st Meeting of Society for American Archaeology (SAA)
To be held: Orlando, FL, USA, Apr 6-10th, 2016
Session Chair:
Dr Neha Gupta
Postdoctoral Fellow
Memorial University
nguptag@gmail.com
Recent years have witnessed a rapid growth in computational techniques including visibility and least cost path analyses and agent-based modelling in archaeological research. While fruitful, this research tends to focus on a narrow range of themes, overlooking variability in the collection of archaeological data and in the interpretation of the past. Archaeologists have long acknowledged variation in archaeological field studies in patterns that are seen on local, national and regional scales, yet we have only a partial understanding of how and why these patterns evolved through time. This in turn has obscured the impact of such variability on our understanding of the past. Moreover, while current efforts including the building of cyber-infrastructures (consolidated Web-based computational databases for the integration and preservation of digital archaeological collections), acknowledge variability in the nature and organization of sources of geographically referenced information, they often underestimate the social context of archaeology and the intersection of knowledge, space and power, a key factor in the practice of archaeology. For example, who are the archaeologists and the composition of archaeological teams that carried out field investigations, what were their aims, and which methods and tools and technologies did they employ? Where and when did field studies take place and what weight was attached to these places of interest? To begin addressing these questions, this session calls for computational research broadly defined, on social dimensions of the practice of archaeology in any local, national and regional context, covering any period of time, present or past and the impact of social and political factors on the interpretation of archaeology. Papers employing geographic methods in archaeological research are especially welcome.
Interested scholars are asked to contact Neha Gupta (nguptag@gmail.com) with their email address, institutional affiliation, title and abstract of their proposed paper by August 31, 2015.

Archaeology Blogs

July 23, 2015

I wanted to leave the HARN conference update post up for a long as possible to remind you all to come and hear the wonderful papers that are going to be given, but last week we received an intriguing email from Fleur Schinning who is currently a master’s student at Leiden University. She’s asked for the assistance of HARN members – and anyone else who reads this or other archaeology blogs:

I am currently writing my master’s thesis as a part of my specialisation in Heritage Management at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in which I am supervised by Monique van den Dries. My research will focus on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology in the Netherlands.

Public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but much can still be improved concerning public outreach activities. This is why I have decided to focus my research on communication methods that are favourable in our current digital age and might make archaeology more accessible for a wider public.

For my research I will be looking at several blogs from both the UK and USA; in these countries blogging seems widely accepted and used a lot as a tool in creating support for archaeology, and I have come across some very interesting and successful blogs.

To be able to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology, I would like to question the bloggers and blog readers of these blogs. This is where my request comes in. I have set up a questionnaire in which I ask the visitors of your blog several questions regarding their motives for visiting the blog and so on.

The questionnaire can be viewed here. All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; 6 issues of Archaeology Magazine!

So, if you can spare a few minutes of your time, head over and answer Fleur’s questions. She’s promised to send us a summary of the results which I’m sure will make interesting reading.

Have a great weekend and don’t forget to email us and register for the HARN conference!

Julia

HARN Conference Update

July 16, 2015

HARN 2015 flier 15 July LARGE

Antiquity Imagined: The Remarkable Legacy of Egypt and the Ancient Near East

July 13, 2015

HARN member, Robin Derricourt, has sent us notification of his latest publication:

Antiquity Imagined front cover

Antiquity Imagined: the remarkable legacy of Egypt and the ancient Near East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015)

 Outsiders have long attributed to the Middle East, and especially to ancient Egypt, meanings that go way beyond the rational and observable. The region has been seen as the source of civilization, religion, the sciences and the arts; but also of mystical knowledge and outlandish theories, whether about the Lost City of Atlantis or visits by alien beings. In his exploration of how its past has been creatively interpreted by later ages, Robin Derricourt surveys the various claims that have been made for Egypt – particularly the idea that it harbours an esoteric wisdom vital to the world’s survival. He looks at ‘alternative’ interpretations of the pyramids, from maps of space and time to landing markers for UFOs; at images of the Egyptian mummy and at the popular mythology of the ‘pharaoh’s curse'; and at imperialist ideas of racial superiority that credited Egypt with spreading innovations and inventions as far as the Americas, Australia and China. Including arcane ideas about the Lost Ten Tribes of biblical Israel, the author enlarges his focus to include the Levant. His book is the first to show in depth how ancient Egypt and the surrounding lands have so continuously and seductively tantalised the Western imagination.

Introduction

  1. Mystical roles for ancient Egypt
  2. Pyramidologies and pyramid mysteries
  3. Mummies and their changing reputation
  4. Egyptocentrism: Illusions of global influence
  5. The blight of ‘race’
  6. Race reversed: The Afrocentric challenge
  7. Creating narratives of ‘the Holy Land’
  8. Conflicted pasts of Israel: Politics, religion, identity
  9. Lost tribes
  10. Distant links: Apostolic travellers
  11. Changing images: History and prehistory in Egypt and the ancient Near East

‘Knowledge is the ultimate addiction. What we cannot find in the directly observable world, we invent. With patience and erudition Robin Derricourt explores a prominent field of alternative knowledge, ‘the remarkable legacy of Egypt and the ancient Near East’, where theories proliferate which mainstream researchers either reject or ignore. Pyramid theorists, Egypt as part of a pan-African black civilisation, the search for the ten lost tribes of Israel: the author’s range is remarkable. His book is both fascinating and entertaining. It is also worrying, for as science and scholarship advance so too does the amount of delusional knowledge increase. This is a study above all about the fragility of truth, and how democratic interest can at times be its most serious enemy.’
Barry Kemp, CBE, FBA, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology, University of Cambridge

‘Wonderfully wide-ranging in space and time, Robin Derricourt’s Antiquity Imagined authoritatively shows how ancient history has been created and recreated by successive generations to fit their own – or their desired – image of what such history signifies. It is an engaging and bewitching journey through a fascinating landscape of imagined pasts.’
Graeme Barker, Disney Professor of Archaeology Emeritus, University of Cambridge and Professorial Fellow, St John’s College, Cambridge; author of The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory

It’s priced at £25/$40 but individuals can gain a 30% discount by ordering directly from the publishers and using the discount code AN2. A bargain for what sounds to be a fascinating book – if any members would like to submit a review of it then do please get in touch.

Museum Review: Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn USA

July 9, 2015

The Brooklyn Museum is located on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY.  It is not hard to get to, with numerous subway lines stopping within a 5 minute walk of it.  It is set nicely in a Botanic Garden, which, if you arrive in spring as I did, has almost all of its plants in bloom and is a beautiful walk. Before I introduce you, dear reader, to the museum, let me first say that I had really no idea about the Brooklyn Museum.  I suppose I had heard of it before, but I was not expecting what I encountered.

Brooklyn Museum, USA

Brooklyn Museum, USA

The museum has its roots as far back as 1823, with the founding of the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library.  By 1890, the plan was to build a large building to house the Brooklyn Institute, and a number of other institutions under one roof.  They had originally planned for four wings, much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, but in the end only one wing was built (see above).  Its collections vary widely, and are not strictly archaeological, so you get all the benefits of a big museum without having to spend 3 days being jostled among hundreds of people to see everything.  Admission is technically free, but they suggest a donation of $16 for Adults.  You should give a donation, but can give anything you want.

Rubin Pavillion

Rubin Pavillion

As I write, their 2nd floor is being renovated so the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World is closed, but they did move some items in this collection to other areas.  On the 4th floor there are some important European paintings and I personally think that the decorative arts section of any museum is always a must-see.  They also have some beautifully recreated period rooms.  The image below is of the recreation of the Jan Martense Schenck House, from Brooklyn, circa 1675-76. 

Schenck House, top: exterior, bottom: interior

Schenck House, top: exterior, bottom: interior

While I was there they had an exhibit of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks.  In fairness, I am not much of a modern art fan, so I don’t understand much about the Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat’s importance, but it was a good installation.

Basquiat, Hollywood Africans

Basquiat, Hollywood Africans (Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, USA)

The 5th and top floor of the Brooklyn Museum is American art collections, which is a crucial collection for any American museum.  Don’t pass it up.

My favorite floor was the Near East and Egyptian floor, the 3rd floor, and the reason that this museum review is being written.  The museum has dedicated almost a whole floor to their permanent display of Egyptian objects.  As you enter the floor, you see an impressive display of Near Eastern objects.

Monument of King Ashur-Nasir-Pal II

Monument of King Ashur-Nasir-Pal II

The beautiful reliefs from the Palace of Ashur-Nasir-pal II arrived at the museum in 1937, through a circuitous route.  In 1840, an English diplomat, Austen Henry Layard, was sailing down the Tigris river and noticed a large mound.  He came back 5 years later and excavated the remains of the palace from 879BC.  The excavations proved extremely successful, and the British Museum, who received the lot, had to sell a number of sculptures and reliefs.  In 1855 they were bought by an American expat in London, and shipped to Boston.  They were unable to raise funds for the items in Boston, so James Lenox of the New York Historical Society bought them.  The NYHS loaned them to the museum in 1937, and the museum was finally able to purchase them in 1955, thanks to a donation from art dealer and collector Hagop Kevorkian.  They are now installed in the Hagop Kevorkian Gallery of Ancient Near Eastern Art.  There are other important objects in the Gallery as well.  Honestly, I don’t usually stop for the Mesopotamians, but the Brooklyn Museum has done an excellent job with this collection that I stopped and spent a lot of time there.

Near Eastern Hall

Near Eastern Hall (Brooklyn Museum Website)

Many of the Egyptian artifacts at the Brooklyn museum came either from the Abbott Collection from the New York Historical Society or from a bequest by Charles Edwin Wilbour and his wife.  Wilbour was an American who travelled to Egypt in the mid-19th century, and is one of the first recognized American Egyptologists.  (See here for a museum review from Archaeology Magazine about the Wilbour exhibit!)  In his travels, as many scholars and tourists did then, Wilbour bought antiquities, so many of them are without a specific provenance.  The Abbott Collection was purchased from the NYHS in 1948 and contained about 2000 objects.  The exhibit in the museum is set up so that you can walk in a straight line from predynastic Egypt through the Egyptian timeline and end with some Hellenistic items.

Statue of Metjetji

Statue of Metjetji

Label for Statue of Metjetji. Notice the provenance as it came from Wilbour.

Label for Statue of Metjetji. Notice the provenance as it came from Wilbour.

The labels explain everything very clearly, and are geared toward educating the public.  One feature I have never seen before are the ipads available in many rooms where you can “Ask an expert” a question you may have.  There are also video monitors where the experts have already answered public questions and you can watch their responses.

Ask an Expert!

Ask an Expert!

My personal favorite is the dedicated mummy chamber with 4 mummies in it, of which I took no pictures.  Sorry.  Throughout the display of a fully unrolled Book of the Dead scroll, some alabaster canopic jars, and even a small, rearticulated tomb, the display explains the process and reasoning behind mummification.  Importantly, the mummymania phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries is analyzed in a few panels, and museum-goers can even watch some scenes from the 1932 film The Mummy with Boris Karloff.  That seems to be talking across purposes, but it does draw people to the panel, so it works.

The Mummy, 1932

The Mummy, 1932

The museum is bigger than I thought it would be and everyone there is very nice and helpful.  I was there for some archival work—they hold most of Wilbour’s papers and a number of rare books in their amazing Wilbour Egyptological Library you cannot get elsewhere—and the archivists are endlessly knowledgeable about their collections as well as curious about what you’re working on.  They’re lovely.

If you’re in New York and want a good museum that isn’t too crowded, do check out the Brooklyn Museum.

–Kate

History of Archaeology sessions UISPP, Melbourne 2017

July 4, 2015

International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences Scientific Commission “History of Archaeology”

The next meeting of the UISPP will be in Melbourne, Australia in September of 2017, The History of Archaeology Commission is very keen to organize sessions that reflect a global approach to the history of archaeology, and the fact that the conference is in Australia provides a great opportunity to attract colleagues from all over the Asia-Pacific region, as well as from the Americas, Africa and Eastern and Western Europe which have traditionally strongly supported our conferences.

At this early stage we are seeking expression of interest from colleagues who have an interest in furthering the aims and objectives of our Commission. At the last UISPP conference (2014 in Burgos, Spain) there were several important sessions related to the History of Archaeology, and we wish to improve on this. At present our goal is to attract organizers of sessions, and we have already received an expression of interest related to a session on the History of Archaeology in the Pacific, and for a session on the History of Archaeology in Australia. Nonetheless there is room for other sessions that need not necessarily be organized around geographic themes – for example around the history of theory in archaeology, the history of the archaeology of mining, the history of wetland archaeology, the history of rock art analysis or indeed the histories of major archaeological societies – to name just a few. Please include a short abstract outlining the goals of any proposed session and your estimate of the number of people who may wish to present papers.

We are also very interested in ensuring a good attendance at the Melbourne conference. The conference website has been launched (http://www.uispp2017.com.au) which contains useful information – particularly about deadlines. During 2016 the website will significantly expand providing more detail about the conference, tours, the city of Melbourne, and of course the UISPP itself. Colleagues will need to join the UISPP to attend the conference and full details about this can be found at: www.uispp.org. It is UISPP policy that attendance fees for the conference will be reduced by membership fees paid for 2015-2017, which provides an excellent reason for joining the UISPP as soon as possible!

Session organizers should also be aware that the papers presented in the History of Archaeology sessions will be published. The papers from the Burgos conference will be published by BAR in a special UISPP series.

Please circulate this notification as widely as possible. Please direct all queries related to the History of Archaeology sessions to the Commission Cordinator for Melbourne 2017 Tim Murray (T.Murray@latrobe.edu.au). Queries concerning the Commission should be directed to the President: Marc-Antoine Kaeser, (marc-antoine.kaeser@ne.ch).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 165 other followers