Warning: This post includes descriptions and images of excavated human remains from archaeological sites.
The world is full of mystery. It seems a strange thing to say in this day and age, where information is at our fingertips 24/7 and we can turn our home heating on from the office, but it’s true. Mysteries prevail and this is where stories thrive, where conspiracy theories are hatched and where the imagination can stretch its wings and fill in the blanks. It is these blank spaces, these gaps in our knowledge, that make history so fascinating and so well suited to fictionalisation.
Even for events within our collective living memory we are able to create mysteries and conspiracies; recently we marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, yet many choose to believe that it never happened, citing a lack of stars in photographs and a rippled flag as evidence of fakery. Such theories are easily debunked; the stars are present but the image is focussed on the astronauts not the background and in the low light the stars are simply not bright enough to be seen, as for the flag, well the fabric was moved as they stuck it in the ground and as space is a vacuum it remains rippled. However, conspiracy theories and alternate histories abound - just look at the many strange conspiracy theories popping up about vaccines and Donald Trump. If this is the state we find ourselves in with televised and well documented events within living memory, just imagine how much scope for imaginative adaptation there is when we go further back in time? Especially if we are only looking at the little physical evidence that remains.
As a professional archaeologist, it is my job to put forward the most rational explanation for what I see in the ground, to explain my evidence and not embellish more than our knowledge of a culture will allow. Although there are some cases where what I see in the ground is just plain weird. For instance, I dug a site a few years ago (currently unpublished) where we found several wells, all of which contained a horse skull. Not only that but roughly in the centre of the site was a complete horse burial accompanied by three small dogs (or cats - I’m still waiting on a full analysis). All were of broadly similar date and likely to be contemporary. So, what was going on here? Perhaps some kind of ritual cult to the Goddess Epona, which demanded the removal of horses’ heads? (horses being sacred to Epona). Or perhaps the heads were used to close the well when it ran dry, although if they all ran dry at the same time that seems like a waste of horses. A different theory; could it have been a raid, with raiders killing the horses and throwing their heads in the wells to contaminate drinking water? This is plausible, but does not explain the complete burial with dogs, so we end up back at the loose and somewhat undesirable interpretation of ritual activity, or at a stretch, a horse stud where a favoured stallion was buried and the heads in the wells were … I honestly have no idea.
The facts are simply that there was a complete horse burial and several horses’ heads in wells, all of a similar deposition date, the story of the site is whatever fiction based on fact I chose to make it until someone challenges it with a better theory. Though I imagine the story of a raid on a wealthy horse stud, where the attackers decapitate horses and stuff their heads into the wells as some form of punishment to the landowner, would make a dramatic scene in a gritty historical drama. Especially if we were to set some surrounding structures on fire and frame the whole event on a dark stormy night in the sleet and wind. But such flights of fancy do not belong in the archaeological report.
A second example; several years ago, a colleague and I were excavating a prehistoric watering hole on a quarry site. This was exciting as the clay layer towards the base had created a condition in which organic remains had been preserved, meaning we could see the wood wattle-work of the steps that allowed access to the water. A little further down, we found something else. Buried facedown was a human skull, the lower mandible was missing but otherwise the skull was complete. When we lifted it, very carefully, we discovered something else, a strip of leather covering the eyes and below the leather two white stones within the eye sockets. As we lifted it, it also began to rain. – These are the facts as they stood on the day.
Now, from an archaeologically interpretive point of view, our skull is most likely one of two things. Either a revered ancestor whose skull, having been kept by family or tribal group, was placed lovingly in the watering hole as it ceased to function as a watering hole. Or, a very naughty fellow who had been executed and hurled into the watering hole. Both are plausible scenarios within the established facts that we know about our prehistoric cultures, so how can we narrow our factual interpretation and give a reason for the skull to be in the watering hole?
The fact that the leather blindfold survived and the flesh did not, would suggest that the blindfold was placed on a skull rather than a flesh covered head. This, coupled with the missing mandible and the fact that we know, or assume, an ancestor cult involved the living interacting with the dead, (whether entering a tomb or bringing the remains to a feast or event), indicated that our best interpretation here would be that the individual was an ancestor rather than a criminal, and was perhaps lovingly placed in the watering hole when the group moved on, or when the hole ran dry – for cultural reasons that we could debate all day. Essentially this leads us to the fiction of facts as my archaeological report listed this skull as a likely revered ancestor from which we can further extrapolate ritual or settlement activity on the site.
As a writer of fiction however, this skull and its discovery lends the writer a thousand ideas. Lifting the skull caused it to rain: could it be that we had, in our ignorance, stumbled across a buried rain god? Was the skull cursed? (I tell you it did feel like it was – every time we had to move him it rained, although I guess that’s not so uncommon in the UK), was he an offering to the rain god? Was he a sacrifice? An outsider? Was he planted in the ground to claim ownership of the land? Is he evidence for a battle between two local groups and an instance of biological warfare in the ancient world (the contamination of the enemies drinking water) – the stories we can imaginatively attach to a single artefact are endless. From the simple fact of a skull in a watering hole I can create a vast amount of fiction yet retain the original fact.
History, paradoxically then, is not set in stone. Certainly, we cannot physically change it, everything has already happened and cannot be changed. What can be changed is our understanding. History evolves as we discover more evidence that either supports or disproves theories. Look at Pompeii for example; it has long been established that Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city in August, Pliny tells us so and he was there, he should know. However, the archaeological evidence for an October eruption grows stronger every year as new artefacts are discovered and new analytical techniques are used to interpret. The historic event remains the same, the eruption happened, yet the established August date now begins to seem inaccurate or fictitious. Did Pliny forget that it had been October and not August when he wrote his account, is the August date a typo made by later copyists? Was it August to Pliny and October to us as our Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar are out of sync? Pliny’s messed up date could be a story in itself.
We will never, I think, fully understand history, as we will never understand the true motives that drove people to act as they did, and no matter how hard we try not to, we will always project our own thoughts and concepts back. In order to interpret an excavation site we have to give it a story, so my horses’ heads therefore must indicate a society with a vested interest in horses and likely wealthy enough that they can afford to offer up horses’ heads and one complete horse as sacrificial objects. My human head in a watering hole is a lovingly placed ancestor whose time for burial had finally come as the watering hole dried up and the social group moved on. Both interpretations are my own, using the facts to inform a history, but this is just one version of the story and beyond the hard facts lies a blank page ready for an alternate, yet equally plausible story to be told.
When I don't have my professional hard-hat on I like indulging in the speculative fiction side of archaeology - you can check out archaeological adventure novels by clicking on the image below!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.