On a rushy hillside in Lubitavish, Co. Antrim, a group of stones overlooks
Glencorp and Glenaan onto Scotland. An archaeologist would describe this
cluster as the remnants of a Neolithic court tomb – one of 394 such monuments
in Ireland – comprising a semi-circular forecourt opening onto a gallery of
two burial chambers, all once covered by a cairn. Folklore enthusiasts would
know this site as ‘Ossian’s Grave’, final resting-spot of Oisín, son of Fionn
MacCumhaill. Within a stone’s throw stands a modern cairn commemorating
John Hewitt, who described the surrounding mountains as ‘the utmost limits of
my chosen ground’ in his poem ‘Sunset over Glenaan’. In this liminal zone, a
mythological warrior-poet and a twentieth-century Belfast poet have been knit
into the Neolithic fabric of remembrance. How well, however, do archaeology
and poetry really intersect in our cultural landscape?

In ‘Ossian’s Grave’, Hewitt depicts academic archaeology as a destroyer
of poetry that strips away strata of memory, mythology, and imagination,
leaving only the ‘shards and bones’ of fact. Indeed, when the poem was
published in 1962, archaeology as practiced in Britain and Ireland centred
on scientific methods and eschewed myth or fancy in interpretation. This
empiricism was taken to a more sophisticated level by the development of
‘processualism’ from the late 1960s, a school of archaeological thought
espousing the objective explanation of the past through no-nonsense hypo-
thetico-deductive reasoning. In the earlier days of the discipline, however,
the hunt for sensational finds that could validate a romantic, mythologi-
cal past featured significantly. Using methods considered crude by modern
standards, Heinrich Schliemann single-mindedly excavated a mound he
believed to be Troy in the 1870s in search of treasures he could tentatively
associate with characters from Homeric epic. Destroying much ‘irrelevant’
archaeological material in the process, he provided the public with a more
glorious narrative of the past than that acted out by the simian characters of
Darwinian theory. From 1899-1902, a group known as the British-Israelites
– who believed that the Anglo-Saxons descended from the Lost Tribes of
Israel – dug into the Hill of Tara in search of the Ark of the Covenant, as
well as confirmation of the British right of empire. Those protesting against
the dig included W. B. Yeats and Maud Gonne, who not only deplored the
destruction of archaeological evidence, but sought to preserve the Hill as
spiritual capital of an independent Ireland.

As well as demonstrating how greatly present concerns bias interpretation
of the past, these historic ventures fit well with the ‘Indiana Jones’ trope
– one at odds with the reality of professional archaeology in Britain and
Ireland today. Many archaeologists spend more time hunched over a laptop
than in the field; when a licence to excavate is obtained, the focus is not
on recovering golden idols or holy grails, but the often mundane traces of
everyday life. A thrilling find is a waterlogged rubbish-pit full of smashed
pottery and well-preserved organic remains. Everything unearthed on-site
must be painstakingly recorded in context; the position of each and every
artefact and feature planned in relation to all others. Ambiguity is ever-
present; a feature may be little more than a change-in-colour in the soil,
yet it must be recorded as meticulously as any other. In the unlikely chance
gold is found, it must be sent to the museum. For many of its practitioners,
archaeology is hardly a more lucrative profession than writing poetry, and
shares much of the associated neck-strain.

Recent developments in the theory of archaeology, however, have empha-
sised more profound similarities between processes of archaeological inter-
pretation and poetic creation. From the late 1970s a range of archaeologists
classified by the catch-all phrase ‘post-processualists’, led by Ian Hodder,
reacted against the concept of archaeological data as neutral, emphasising
the role of human agency in the creation and use of sites and objects, as
well as their subsequent interpretation. A pot unearthed is not an unequivo-
cal pot, but a material metaphor to be assigned meaning by the archaeolo-
gist according to a system of hermeneutics s/he considers a past society
to have employed. This process of ‘invention … going beyond what I have
found; being drawn into metaphor and allegory’ has been described by Mi-
chael Shanks as an ‘archaeological poetics’ in Experiencing the Past.

Whether trowelling at humps and bumps, photographing ruins, or perform-
ing a geophysical survey, the archaeologist is engaged in a creative act,
making subjective decisions on what is of value, and how it should be
recorded. They are already narrating a version of the past before they have
even started writing up their research for publication or oral delivery, at
which point they must craft their story further according to the conventions
of academic style, fleshing out an argument into something that can survive
the inevitable critical dissection, stretching a skin of rhetoric over their
weaker conclusions, also adding in photos, tables, and plans. Somewhere
in this crafting, archaeological interpretation must involve a leap off the
fence of data into imagination so as to re-animate an ultimately dead, ir-
retrievable past. The telling of the past, like the making of poetry, operates
in a liminal zone between ambiguity and meaning, and between inspired
fancy and meticulous editing.

In turn, the material remnants of past societies have proved a rich source
of inspiration for great poetry in English; Jon Stallworthy compared the
delving of poets into the buried depths of memory, myth, and history to
archaeological excavation. Ruins and artefacts are given new meanings as
poets move between past and present. Shifting between tenses, the poet of
the Old English lyric ‘The Ruin’ re-inhabits a foreign past in coming to
terms with temporality. In ‘Ozymandias’, published January 1818 when
the colossal bust of Rameses II now displayed in the British Museum was
en route to London, Shelley sought hope in the march of history that would
sweep away autocrats and their monuments, opening the way for an egali-
tarian society. Heaney’s ‘The Tollund Man’ re-invents and re-invigorates
the eponymous bog-body, a museum artefact, as a metaphor for sectarian
killings in Northern Ireland.

In Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination, Jennifer Wallace
calls for a ‘poetics of depth, a reawakened understanding of how we imag-
ine our sense of history and of place within the landscape and the earth.’
A sense of the past can foster the production of more complex, multi-layered
work that can be used to challenge tradition and received history, rather
than reinforce cultural stereotypes. In ‘Sunset over Glenaan’, Hewitt ne-
gotiates the boundaries of historic record and creativity, contrasting the
farmed landscape of the ‘inland Planter folk’ – his ancestral stock – with
the wilderness of the dispossessed Gaels. Poetry provides a space where
his own legacy can intertwine with that of the historical and mythological
landscape of the Glen, so that he can transcend the simplistic Protestant/
Catholic dichotomy, obtaining ‘a peace and speech I do not find/familiarly
among my kin and kind’. Hewitt may have been disappointed by archaeo-
logical rhetoric, but it is vital to find common ground in a world in which
both academia and artistic endeavour are turning into a battle for funding
that kills the creative impulse; while different outcomes are desirable from
creative writing and academic writing relating to the past, their methodolo-
gies are surprisingly similar. Poets and all artists and heritage professionals
alike must continue to engage with the past in a sophisticated way that
challenges our modern perceptions of what is ‘normal’ and ‘right’. There is
always room for new voices in our crafting of history.

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