Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Women Warriors - Hannah Snell, Royal Marine

This is a story of a woman whose husband left her - so she went down to Portsmouth and joined the Royal Marines! The date was 1747, and her unit was sent out to India. She fought at Pondicherry in 1748, and at Devicotta in 1749 - she was injured eleven times in the legs, and once in the groin, but managed to keep her sex a secret. She was calling herself James Grey.
In 1750, her unit returned to Portsmouth, where she revealed her true identity. She was encouraged to approach the Duke of Cumberland, the head of the army, to ask for a pension - which she recieved.
She also shot to fame, appearing on stage in uniform doing military drill and singing. She also had her portrait painted. Her story was published as The Female Soldier by the publisher Robert Walker.
For a while, she kept a pub called The Female Warrior, and later she married twice more, and had two children.
Sadly, at the end of her life, in 1791, she had to be admitted to Bedlam, where she died.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Bersham Ironworks, near Wrexham

I follow a blog called archaeodeath, by Prof. Howard Williams from the University of Chester, partly for his thoughts on the memorials of death as seen through the lens of archaeology, and partly because of his posts about North Wales - he quite often visits sites I'm familiar with.

One of these is Bersham Ironworks. I spent a couple of seasons, back in the 1980s, digging at this site. I took the job to get out of my clerical position with the Met Police, and to get into the career that I had trained for at university. The main attraction at the time was the promise of half the season at Caergwrle Castle. I thought medieval archaeology would be much more interesting than an 18thC ironworks.
Caergwrle was great fun - it's one of my favourite castles - but Bersham proved to be fascinating too, and I really enjoyed working there.

And now it's closed. All that work we did, all that fascinating archaeology we uncovered, the visitor centre in the old mill that was, for a while, a tourist attraction - all locked up and deserted.

Prof Williams calls it Zombie Heritage.
This is the mill (used, like many small mills, up until 1947). I remember the very hot day we went into the mill race underneath there, right into the tunnel. Just to the side is the hillside where a local dowser predicted we'd find a wall - and we did, just where he said, though it wasn't on any of the plans, and we weren't expecting it. I remember our team's surveying being compared to the late 18thC map of the site, and the difference being only the width of a pencil line, even though they were measuring in chains. I remember the funeral party, who'd just come from the crematorium up the road, who came to look round, in their smart clothes - I suppose it was understandable that they seemed slightly spaced out.
I remember shifting vast heaps of bricks, and emptying out a pit that was full of the broken up sand moulds that were used to make big cauldrons - it took us about three days, and we rubbed banana skins on our hands when they caused a rash (which worked surprisingly well - none of us bothered with gloves for the job). And when we had emptied the pit, we found it was exactly the right shape for an experimental engine that Wilkinson had built.

And now Wrexham Council have closed it, and other heritage sites like Minera Lead Mines, to save a bit of money because of Austerity.

"Together they provoke a sense of sorrow at the loss of the past that is not simply sad, but tragic. These sites have been brought back to life, conserved, opened to the public only to be then shut and put into stasis: left to rot. They were made viable as heritage attractions and as natural conservation areas drawing visitors local and from further afield, and yet they became unsustainable in the face of local government funding cuts in our age of austerity. They may be open on demand for specific visits, and for activities for local kids, but they are not open in any real and proper sense."

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Trowelblazers - Margaret Murray

I first became aware of Margaret Murray's name because of her books on witches. As academic work, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe has been largely discredited now, but the book she wrote for the popular audience, The God of the Witches, has been very influential in the formation of the modern religion of Wicca.
But before she started writing about witches and pagan religion, she was an Egyptologist.
She studied under Flinders Petrie at University College, London, becoming his copyist and illustrator and providing the illustrations for his report on the archaeological dig at Qift. When she was promoted to Junior Lecturer in 1898, teaching the linguistic courses in the Egyptology Department, she became the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. She also taught Ancient Egyptian history and religion.
In 1902, she went to Abydos where Flinders Petrie was digging, for practical archeaological experience. As well as Hilda Petrie, there were other female archaeologists there, and the experiences she had there led her to feminist points of view (some male excavators objected to taking orders from a woman, for instance). She discovered the temple to Osiris at Abydos, and wrote the site report.
In 1908, she was chosen to perform the public unwrapping of a mummy from the Tomb of Two Brothers, excavated by Petrie. Around 500 people attended.

She also did important work in Maltese archaeology, together with Edith Guest and Gertrude Caton Thompson, and continued her interest in Egyptology throughout her career.
So it's a shame that her interest in Folklore and witchcraft has come to over-shadow her important contributions to Egyptology and archaeology more generally. When she died, at the great age of 100, Glyn Daniels (another well known archaeologist) called her the Grand Old Woman of Egyptology.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Mary Renault

Everything I knew about homosexuality as a teenager, I found out from reading Mary Renault!
This was a good thing, because in the pages of Mary Renault's novels about Ancient Greece, gay men were generally sympathetic, well rounded characters. Though I do remember reading The Persian Boy when I was fourteen (about Bagoas, the Persian eunoch who was friend to Alexander the Great) and hoping that my gran didn't try to read any of it over my shoulder!
The books, by the way, mostly came from the school library - we had a very good school librarian, who introduced all sorts of interesting literature to the mix. So I read the Alexander books, and The Last of the Wine (which included Athens under siege and Socrates), and her wonderful stories about Theseus The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. Later I found the audio book of The Bull from the Sea, narrated by Michael Yorke, who will always be the voice of Theseus for me now (though it was a pity the story had to be abridged so much - one of my favourite scenes, where the girl bull leapers go down to try to catch the escaped bull before Theseus gets there, was missing).
This year at Hay Festival, there were two talks about Mary Renault which I wasn't able to get to, by Bettany Hughes. She talked to Hannah Critchlow on May 24th and Tom Holland and Peter Stothard on May 25th.
I did manage to get my hands on the free handout paper for the Festival, though, with her article in it. The Daily Telegraph, sponsoring the Festival, put out an issue every day it was on, and this one also has an original short story by Neil Gaiman called Click-Clack the Rattlebag.

So this is what the school librarian was putting into my eager little hands at secondary school: "What she gets right is the sheer peacock-gaudy, drug-saturated, hardcore sensuality of this time and place. Cutting-edge science now tells us ancient warriors would indeed consume vast vats of liquid opiates and a ferocious honey-mead, retsina and wine cocktail. There was cannibalism. Girls and boys did oil one another with rose and saffron-scented olive oil. Renault heard and smelt the ancient world many millennia after it had died and decades before it was resurrected by contemporary technology."

She was a nurse during the Second World War, too, so when she wrote about wounds, she knew what she was talking about. Her books were one of the reasons I studied Greek Archaeology at university - because I'd already been to Athens, and Crete, and on campaign with Alexander.
And through the magic of literature, I can go back whenever I want, to listen to the girl playing the double-flute while languid lovers toss the dregs of their wine onto the tiled floor to try to make the initial letter of their lovers' name.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Women Warriors - Maude Butler

She didn't quite make it to the Front, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
Maude Butler was turned down as a Red Cross nurse when she applied during the First World War - so she acquired an army uniform and stowed away on a troop ship from Australia to Egypt. What gave her away, in the end, was the fact she had not been able to get the right boots - she was wearing her own boots - and that she needed to raid the ship's kitchen for food.
She was sent back to Australia on another troop carrier.
She was only sixteen at the time.
She did get to become a nurse, though, and ran a private hospital later in her life.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Archaeological Mystery Novels

This week I finally got round to reading two novels that I'd been getting round to for some time. Both have an archaeologist in the starring role, and both are murder mysteries. In real life, archaeologists are called in by the police to excavate when bones are found, and the techniques of archaeology are designed for collecting evidence, but writers so often get it wrong when they try to write about archaeology. I still have nightmares about that episode of Murder, She Wrote where the trenches were laid out in a style not seen since the 1950s and Jessica finds a valuable artefact - a gold plate, I think - and jumps up and down waving it in the air! And then there was that awful BBC series which started with an episode about the True Cross, and had the student digger inviting a member of the public down into the trench, and later wandering around with the lump of True Cross under her arm, instead of recording it properly! Come on, people, at least give it a context number!

Fortunately, The Lifers' Club is written by Francis Pryor, who is a real archaeologist who has written several very good non-fiction books on archaeology - and reading the descriptions of archeological digs here took me right back to the days when I was a circuit digger. Reading about setting up the grid, and dumpy levels (used for surveying), and trowelling back - it was like relaxing into something when you don't even realise you've been tense.
The mystery was interesting and complex as well, involving an "honour killing" in a Turkish family and the Turkish family's links to one of the archaeologists who were working on a dig when the young woman disappeared, who has since done very well for himself and now runs his own company. Our hero, Alan Cadbury, goes to work for the company, and at the same time is trying to prove the innocence of the young man convicted of the murder of his sister, who is a member of the Lifers' Club of the title in the nearby high security prison.
There was an interesting sub-plot about a Victorian pillar of the community who turned out not to be such a nice man after all, thanks to discoveries at a dig in a churchyard, which ties into the main plot when several of the Saxon skeletons they dig up turn out to come from Eastern Europe.
I really enjoyed this one, and will be looking out for the sequel. Francis Pryor also writes a good blog, with a link in the side bar.

Elly Griffiths isn't an archaeologist herself, but she's done her research very well. I first became aware of her at the Hay Festival a few years ago, when she was sharing the stage with Phil Rickman (our local mystery writer) and someone else whose name I've forgotten. Elly Griffiths stuck in my memory because she was writing about a woman archaeologist in Norfolk. I spent two years digging on the Norwich Castle Mall excavation, and as soon as my husband got his driving licence and a Rascal van we spent every weekend going out looking at Norfolk churches. So this is an area I used to know pretty well.
I finally got my hands on a copy of The Crossing Places, the first in her series about Ruth Galloway, and it involves child murder and a sea henge, and a druid in a purple cloak who calls himself Cathbad. The Chief Inspector on the case comes from Blackpool (another area I used to know well), there's a charismatic Norwegian archaeologist - and lots of marital infidelity.
I was impressed with Ruth Galloway, who came over as a competent archaologist and an interesting character, the mystery was very well done - and it did take me back to those big Norfolk skies. Elly Griffiths mentions her indebtedness to Francis Pryor's book Seahenge in the acknowledgements, too.
I'll be looking for the next one in her series as well.