Tag Archives: Archaeology

‘Digging up inspiration’ – guest post by Nicola Ford, author of The Hidden Bones

The Hidden Bones by Nicola FordNext week, Allison & Busby publishes The Hidden Bones by Nicola Ford, the pen-name of Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. With credentials like those, this is a novel that I am very excited about and I’m delighted to feature a guest post by the author to celebrate the publication. I was an archaeologist myself for many years and so I was really keen to know more about the archaeological inspiration for The Hidden Bones, especially the inspiration of the prehistoric landscape of Stonehenge and Avebury, a place I love very much. Thanks so much to Nicola for such a fascinating post. My review will follow next week.

First, a little of what the novel is about:
Following the recent death of her husband, Clare Hills is listless and unsure of her place in the world. When her former university friend Dr David Barbrook asks her to help him sift through the effects of deceased archaeologist Gerald Hart, she sees this as a useful distraction from her grief. During her search, Clare stumbles across the unpublished journals detailing Gerald’s most glittering dig. Hidden from view for decades and supposedly destroyed in an arson attack, she cannot believe her luck. Finding the Hungerbourne Barrows archive is every archaeologist’s dream. Determined to document Gerald’s career-defining find for the public, Clare and David delve into his meticulously kept records of the excavation. But the dream suddenly becomes a nightmare as the pair unearth a disturbing discovery, putting them at the centre of a murder inquiry and in the path of a dangerous killer determined to bury the truth for ever.

The Hidden Bones: digging up inspiration

Call me biased but I think I have the two best jobs in the world: crime writer by night and archaeologist by day. In my day job I work in two of the most astonishing landscapes on the planet. And that’s official! It’s why Stonehenge and Avebury are a World Heritage Site. So I didn’t have to look far to find the inspiration for my debut crime novel The Hidden Bones. The Marlborough Downs deep in the ancient Wiltshire landscape is where much of the action takes place and that’s where you’ll find Avebury – the largest prehistoric stone circle in the World. But the ancient hills are littered with Bronze Age burial sites just like the barrow cemetery at Hungerbourne.

In The Hidden Bones Clare Hills and David Barbrook rediscover the artefacts and archive from a glittering excavation that has been lost to public view for the best part of four decades. The goldwork from the site is directly inspired by an Early Bronze Age burial in the Stonehenge landscape, known somewhat unglamorously as Wilsford G8. They’re simply stunning pieces of craftsmanship that in real life were dug up at the beginning of the eighteenth century. And if you’d like to see them for yourself and not just rely on Clare Hills word for what they look like you’ll find them on display in the incomparable Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. In the book I wanted to capture the excitement not only of what it’s like to work on fabulously rich finds like these but to unlock the secrets of past lives. Much of what archaeologists like Clare, David and I do is back-breaking hard graft or the result of hundreds of hours spent in windowless museum stores. But the pay-off is that moment of revelation, when you pick up a piece of pottery or hold a stone axe and know that the last person to hold it was laid to rest five thousand years ago. In The Hidden Bones you get to short-cut that and to be there at the moment of revelation.

Archaeology is about layers and things are always more complicated than they appear. The Hidden Bones combines the story of the modern day rediscovery of the original finds and the excavation of the site they came from. But Clare and David also have to dig into the history of the original dig in the 1970s to reveal the truth of what happened at Hungerbourne.

The inspiration for the ‘Brew Crew’ photograph of the original dig team came from a site that was dug in the 1920s and is one of the most famous in the country. In the archives of the museum in Avebury there is a wonderfully evocative black and white shot of the marmalade magnate turned archaeologist Alexander Keiller and his team during their excavation of the Neolithic site at Windmill Hill. And unusually for the day the team comprised not only workmen but a whole bunch of highly talented women. Digs are hard work but enormous fun and there’s a special something that binds a dig team together. When I saw that photo for the first time the sense of camaraderie that you get on an excavation, now as then, leapt off of the print. But there was something else there too. A something that asked who got along with whom? Were any of these people more than just good friends? And what secrets did they share? And who among them might have taken those secrets to their graves? And with that The Hidden Bones was born.

Buy the book.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Hidden Bones banner

Interlude 2: Archaeology – a thing of the past?

Tonight I went to a talk by archaeologist and TV presenter Neil Oliver – of prehistoric archaeology and Viking fame – at the Waterstones store in Oxford. This wonderful event did, I’m afraid, let loose in me my long bottled up feelings about the fate of archaeology in Britain, not only on television but also for the archaeologists who dig day in, day out across the land. Or at least did.

I am an archaeologist by trade. I spent years learning my craft – trowelling, mattocking and pick-axing my way through layers of compacted, resisting clay, collapsing sand or brittle stone, searching for clues to the past and little glimpses of history that I could touch with my fingers. Long days I spent, sometimes the hottest of the year, often the coldest, almost never losing my enthusiasm for the history around me. Those fifteen years left their mark on me – arthritic knees and hips, an unhappy back and an intense lack of appreciation for frostbitten ground. I’ve been ordered to sweep clean a desert site in a sandstorm; I’ve fought to save the remains of a Saxon hall from a flooded river; I’ve been blown off a prehistoric mound and I’ve been bored to near death by Roman quarries that stretched the entire width of Gloucestershire. All part of the job.

Or so it used to be. British Archaeology has taken some severe knocks over the last few years. I’m mainly talking about contract archaeology, which is what I’m used to. The work carried out by consultancies across the country in advance of road and rail schemes, housing projects, town developments, flood works – even Olympic stadium works. So many times an archaeologist is asked ‘what’s the best thing you’ve found?’ when, in reality, on many digs, the hope is that you will find nothing. These are the evaluations that have to be out of the way before the real work on the site can begin. Archaeology at its best holds the developers up, at its worst there will be long trenches of nothing. Imagine a year of such projects – two week evaluations, up to sixty trenches or more, and no time at all to excavate any of it. Pray for nothing, that’s what you have to do. But is that why you dream of becoming an archaeologist?

Many of Britain’s largest contract archaeological units now operate with a skeleton crew, their archaeologists (including my other half and many of our friends) redundant. Planning laws are relaxed, the legal requirements for archaeological investigation reduced – harming our historical heritage just as much as the industry. For many years, Units across the land have relied upon highly qualified graduate archaeologists working for little more than the minimum wage in difficult conditions to recover our past. So many of these people have now been cast off.

Look at archaeology on the TV. Time Team has now been axed. How sad this is. Whatever its faults, Time Team has blazed a trail of archaeology for the public to follow from the comfort of their homes, encouraging them to research the history of their families, their towns and their country. It has always been a comfort to me that archaeology has such a profile on TV. No matter how bad it gets for those working in the trade, it will survive because so many people are being given a glimpse of how utterly fascinating and compelling our history is. Personally, I love spotting good friends on Time Team. I’ve been involved with the Trench One magazine for its club members. Its loss is not easy for me.

Often the archaeologists you see on TV are students and volunteers working for units associated with academic bodies. How often do we contract diggers envy academic archaeologists for the time allowed for their excavations, for the quality of what they’re unearthing? But even these bodies are under threat. The University of Birmingham’s Archaeology Institute has been closed much less than a year after the University’s appointment of public archaeological figure Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Other University Units have also closed after many years of great work, including the University of Manchester’s Unit. My own training was gratefully received from the University of Leicester Archaeological Unit, now uncovering the remains of Richard III. They taught me how to mattock 23 years ago – I still remember the lesson. I was terrible at it. I’m much better now.

I found a Roman coin my very first morning on an archaeological site in Leicester. I never found one again. This is a common irony in British archaeology. When I dug in Israel not long afterwards I received a can of beer for every small find (brooch, figurine, coin) I found. No wonder that archaeologists are such appreciators of the grain and grape (speaking personally, of course).

With Time Team now dealt its death blow and Units decimated or worse by redundancies, it’s difficult to envision a future for British Archaeology whether on screen or off it. Programmes such as Neil Oliver’s Vikings are now more essential than ever for making audiences appreciate their heritage and wonder at its discovery. When they see archaeologists on television, is the public aware of how few are now left, trowel in hand, to uncover their past?

I asked Neil Oliver this evening how archaeology on British TV is representative of the state of the industry. Quite rightly, Neil said that contract archaeology has little to offer TV makers. So, if you remove academic archaeology or Time Team archaeology from our screens, what is left?

Long may British archaeologists – not least the charismatic Neil Oliver – appear on our TV screens, reminding us all of that we have to lose.