Christian Cameron on how experimental archaeology and reenactment influence his writing.
I was recently in a panel that discussed the limits of authenticity in historical fiction. A wide variety of views were put forth, including some that might surprise; one author suggesting that it was impossible for any modern writer to accurately understand, much less represent, the reality of the past – any past.
While this point of view may at first glance appear radical, I think it’s worth considering. I will confess that I have always had qualms about the limitations imposed by genre, in writing historical fiction, especially with a military bent; and as an historian, I have always had reservations about everything from paucity of evidence to cultural bias. Issues from the past, especially those that are still very much with us today, can be so contentious as to blind us to stark historical realities; sexuality, the roles of women, ideas of nationalism and even of gender that, when examined carefully, do not always bear out as having any impact on the past. To try a non-contentious example (at least to an English audience) the story of the Greek independence movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is one that would be very difficult to explain without using ideas like ‘Greek’ that may not really have existed in the period.
So, yes, it is very difficult to grapple with the mind of the past; especially as there is not one mind, but millions of minds, each as different as one modern mind from another. But there are tools; and it is in those tools, it seems to me, that the quality of our recreation of the past will lie.
First, history is not the only lens through which to bring the past into focus. I’d assert that the history of philosophy (I happen to be a passionate dabbler in philosophy) and literature both offer us authentic windows into the deepest thoughts of the past. If Herodotus seems to offer a confusing and culturally biased account of the Persian Wars, the addition of Aeschylus and Pythagoras might help us be a little more comfortable. Surely Socrates (granted, as represented in Plato) as a hero of the Athenian war effort in the Peloponnesian Wars, as well as an intellectual of enormous standing, or the comedies of Aristophanes, give us different lenses to examine Ancient Greece, even if the subject remains the Peloponnesian War.
Archaeology, too, is a vital, and to me, too-oft neglected tool to examine the past. Last year I had the pleasure and honour to be a speaker at the University of Newcastle’s conference on Hadrian’s Wall, ‘Reading the Wall’, where I was constantly reminded of the richness of the material culture found in the Wall context, and how well it matches up with other contemporary evidence. To give a single example, the quality of the shoes worn by the Legate’s wife tells me a great deal about her, and about the Roman idea of empire. If I were to write a ‘Wall’ novel, I promise those shoes would appear, however fleetingly. I’d add, too, that far from being a dry collection of artefacts, good archaeology (there is some bad archaeology out there, friends) offers theories, dates, and evidence fascinating to the novelist; my friend Rob Collins’s theories about the late period on the Wall may yet give birth to a novel…
But it is to the complicated world of experimental archaeology, and its cousin, reenacting, that I will turn. Experimental archaeology, at its purest, would contend that if we assemble the right material artefacts and we use them correctly, we should be able to learn something about the past. This might take the form of building an Iron Age round house or using a particular kind of sword or shield; it involves a spectrum of validity from the very casual to the ultimately scientific. If the philosopher Edmund Husserl’s assertion that the only way to understand history would be to ‘experience’ it directly is true, then reenacting, and it’s scientific cousin, experimental archaeology, are the best ways to reach that understanding.
An example is required; these are complicated-sounding concepts that are not, themselves, so very complex. Let us take the Greek hoplite and his phalanx that won the Battle of Plataea. Despite all of the ink spilled by such excellent historians as Hans van Wees and Victor Davis Hanson, there really isn’t anyone in the world who can tell you precisely how a Spartan army ‘worked’, marched, drilled, or fought in 480 BCE. That may seem like a shocking assertion, but despite all the best efforts of everyone from academia to Hollywood, the casual reader might be surprised by how little we know about the length of Spartan spears, the weight of their armour, how many pieces of armour they actually wore, how they marched, their dressing order, their depth of ranks, the role of helots, the role of combat archery, the weight of the aspis (shield), the way the spear was carried…
We haven’t even had a fight scene yet, and we don’t know anything. And that same cloud of unknowing can surround even the smallest detail that can define domestic life. How, for example, did a Spartan light a fire? There is not a single mention of flint and steel in the whole corpus of Greek literature; it would appear that Spartan armies carried fire pots with smoldering coals from camp to camp on the march.
The vast literature on Ancient Greek warfare has failed to clarify the actual working of the phalanx, although the subject has been hotly debated since at least the late nineteenth century. And this is where both experience and recreation inform us, or should. Because a day spent practicing what we know of Greek manoeuvres, (another whole area of discussion) is intensely revealing. Ten days of the same exercises, with controlled variables, careful attention to artefact recreation, and some experience from other areas of drill, can be wonderfully informative. If no one theory of the phalanx can be proven, several can be utterly disproven. (Just one experiment of many in which I have participated: twenty-four men and women, all with good reproductions of the aspis; pushing together in three files eight deep, with scientific instruments measuring the quality and total work of the push. A dozen theories on hoplite warfare died in twenty minutes.)
But as a writer of historical fiction, whatever small contribution my reenacting and experimental archaeology may make to, say, understanding the Battle of Plataea, the contribution of the recreation of the past to my own experience is far greater. To some, very limited extent, I have experienced some small bit of the life of a hoplite. With luck, and practice, I can then translate that to my readers, and that experience, that recreation – for isn’t a work of historical fiction an attempt to take the reader into an experience of the past – is what gives some authenticity to the exploration. And some hope to the author that it is possible to understand the ‘other country’ of what men and women did, whether in 480 BCE or 1367 Italy or wherever we encounter historical fiction.
Christian Cameron is the author of the Tyrant series and the Long War series. He lives in Toronto, Canada and is a dedicated reenactor. His latest book, Rage of Ares, concludes the Long War series and is out now in paperback.