Finally, after many delays, I have found enough time to turn my notes on the brilliant Haunt this Place session at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in December into a, reasonably coherent, post. The session was organised by Katy Soar and Penelope Foreman to examine the way that haunted landscapes are presented in fiction, archaeology and/or both. This was right up my street, a lot of the speakers drew heavily on the children’s authors of the late 70s and early 80s. I’ve written before about how writers like this helped make me into an archaeologist and the session showed that I am not the only one. Penelope spoke about how Alan Garner’s retellings of ancient myth were rooted in experiences of very specific parts of the landscape. Krystyna Truscoe looked at how haunted places and things in the work of Penelope Lively and Robert Westall throw the protagonists into the past.
Proper Jackanory era cover for my personal favourite Penelope Lively
There was also an interesting, probably generational, thing going on about haunted fiction and nostalgia. The children’s fiction of the late 70s and early 80s was admittedly a sort of golden age for this kind of ‘around the corner and into the olden days’ stuff but was also, I suspect, the point when most of the speakers were children. You could argue that popular fiction today is equally rich in this kind of imagery: Jonathan Stroud and Ben Aaronovitch come to my mind straight away. Aaronovitch in particular clearly has an archaeological advisor for his magical landscapes, a fairly important sub-plot in his latest, Lies Sleeping, turns on the theft of Roman bricks from the MOLA stores.
Stroud and Aaronovitch would both recognise the urban gothic mythos that has grown up around the Crossbones burial ground and which was the subject of Lucy Talbot’s contribution. Crossbones is the former site of a post-medieval burial ground in south London. Following a vision in 1996, the playwright and poet John Constable wrote the Southwark Mysteries, suggesting that Crossbones was the medieval burial site for sex workers from Southwark – the so-called Winchester Geese. Lucy showed how Constable’s original encounter with ‘The Goose’, the spirit of one of these women, has become the catalyst for a whole range of other spirits to be commemorated at the site. A similarly ethnographic approach was taken by Juliette Harrison to modern oral traditions about ghosts. Using six ghost stories which appear in Pausanias’ Description of Greece as archetypes, she looked at internet accounts of ‘true hauntings’ at various locations in Britain and the US. There were some striking similarities: for example, on haunted battlefields, in both the ancient and modern world, the ghosts are heard but never seen.
Martyn Barber gave a characteristically thoughtful analysis of M.R. James’ ghost stories and their connections to the developing professional discipline of archaeology. He showed how the occult binoculars used to see into the past in the story A View from a Hill can be understood as metaphors for the new technologies of scientific archaeology in the 1920s. In another interesting, but probably entirely co-incidental, connection, the ‘bone glass’ which features as a major plot device in Jonathan Stroud’s The Whispering Skull is assembled in a similar way. Both the binoculars and the bone glass are objects of supernatural power which are manufactured from bits of dead people.
The role of fictional archaeologists within classic sci-fi is also interesting. Philip Boyes showed how haunted and abandoned worlds allowed hard sci-fi authors of the 60s and 70s to bring darkness and mystery to their otherwise utilitarian visions of the future. For example, the Captain Picard-like commander of the exploratory ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an amateur archaeologist. His point was that archaeological investigation has been adopted many times in sci-fi as a metaphor for the process of attempting to understand an alien civilisation. He also pointed out that, as in the work of M.R. James, the archaeologist’s stereotypical combination of bumbling unworldliness and unhealthy curiosity makes them the member of the away team most likely to have their face eaten off by inter-dimensional monsters. This year’s Dr Who New Year’s Day special was a case in point. As soon as it was revealed that the two people investigating the mysterious object associated with the medieval skeleton were archaeologists you knew they were Dalek fodder for sure.