I very nearly trained as an archaeologist. I wouldn’t actually have got into an archaeology course at university (you need a science A-level, usually chemistry preferred, and my circumstances did not include this). But I have been reading about archaeology since I was a teenager, was a member of a young archaeologist’s club, lived with archaeology students and occasionally crept into their lectures, borrow from the archaeology section of my university library, etc. This isn’t a way to get a rounded education, since one inevitably focuses on what is readily available (I have read more popular books which debunk the term ‘Celtic’ than any one person ever needs) and on some particular interests (stone circles are where I started, and although I’ve branched out I’ve never really got far from British prehistory). However, I have learned enough that the questions, the methods, and the approaches tend to shape my ways of thinking about other things, and enough to feel able to write fiction set in some periods of British prehistory.
I once tried to explain this, in a sentence, to a group who were mostly historians, and not at all philosophers. I wanted to say, “in a nearby possible world I became an archaeologist” – possible worlds are, so to speak, different legs of the trousers of time, worlds in which things happened which didn’t happen or came out differently in this, our actual world, and the nearer they are the more likely they are to have happened (except that, as it actually happened, they didn’t). I tried to translate that into more ordinary language in something of a hurry, and it came out as “in another life I was an archaeologist”, which I think mislead people into thinking that I had really worked in archaeology at some point. I didn’t – but I can cope with a bit of historian-talk about primary and secondary sources and that sort of thing, which was what I think I was really being asked.
Archaeology has its own related discipline of nearby possible worlds: archaeological reconstruction. Actual archaeology can only reveal what was left behind, and interpret it as far as possible. Depending on the conditions, there tend to be more hard things – lots of stones, some bones, pottery, burnt things – and fewer or no soft things – very little wood, not much flesh, almost no fabric. Especially before writing, but even after that, there are also only clues to the intangible: a statue of a deity but not a religion; a tomb, but no account of the meaning of death; jewels in this grave and weapons in that but no way of knowing how they related to gender, status, or anything else. An archaeological reconstruction, then, has to go beyond some of the facts into conjecture. Some people have build replica houses from the Iron Age, for example – what an Iron Age house might have looked like in a nearby possible world. It smells of straw and smoke and it evokes an aching feeling of genuine connection with the ancient past, but all it really tells you is what some people now managed to build when they tried to build a house the way it was done in the Iron Age. Clues: nobody sleeps there and there’s a safety rope around the hearth.
As well as finishing a novel which is set in neolithic Orkney, my very own attempt at house building in a long ago but nearby possible world, I am setting out on a new project to write about Quaker theology. Perhaps that’s less like real archaeology and more like digging for a treasure which people keep telling me doesn’t exist – or maybe some of them suspect it’s cursed! My worry isn’t so much about ending up in another world as the dangers of bringing to light, making explicit and visible, something which functions best or is best preserved when it’s left well alone. If you lift a piece of Bronze Age wood from Flag Fen, you need to be ready to preserve it by another method before it dries out and crumbles to dust. If I lift out theological ideas and worldviews from little scraps and throwaway remarks and writing which was meant to be about something else, how do I make sure that I look after them faithfully and don’t twist them out of shape?