Thursday, 7 September 2017

The possibles and probables of the past - by Dawn Finch

I have a new book out today.  As you all know, this is not the beginning for any writer, this is just another step on the long road to a physical book. Back in early 2016 I was commissioned to write a book on hill forts for primary school-age children. I’ve had about thirty years’ experience of historical research, and I’ve worked on a few (!) books, and so I knew exactly where to start; primary sources and experts. I wrote the book, visited sites, took lots of photographs, checked facts, and then it went to my editor. 

She checked the text for anything glaring, and then found another expert, another archaeologist, to go over everything and fact-check it again. Tweaks and changes made, and both me and my wonderful editor go back over the text yet again just in case there is anything we’ve missed. Final drafts, final layouts, approval of things like the cover, the glossary and the index – and it can actually go to print. Hurrah! I can move on to the next project and look forward to publication.

 Thinking on all of this, I decided to take a walk up to one of my favourite hill forts – Tap O’ Noth in Aberdeenshire. This is an amazing and lesser-known hill fort. It is one of the highest hill forts in the UK at a shade over 563 metres above sea-level, and from the top you can see for many miles in all directions. The view is breathtaking, in one direction you can see clear to the Cairngorms, the other out across the forest and farms to the sea. The fort is early Pictish / late Iron Age, and has the remains of impressive stone ramparts encircling the summit, in places the rocks of this wall are vitrified. At some point in antiquity these rocks have been subjected to intense heat for such a long period of time that the rocks have literally melted and fused together.
Tap O'Noth wearing her gown of heather

If you're going to build a hill fort, build one with a view!

Now, when I wrote my book there were two prominent theories among archaeologists about how this vitrification happened. One was that it was a deliberate attempt by the inhabitants of the fort to strengthen the wall. The other is that the fort was attacked and the houses and ramparts burned as part of a destructive process. There are, of course, a good number of infinitely less believable theories. These vary from aliens to my own personal favourite – dragons, but for the purposes of a non-fiction book I stick with the theories of respected archaeologists.

Looking forward to my publication day, and strolling up my favourite hill fort, I was delighted to discover a group of archaeologists working on a trench within the ramparts. I love chatting to archaeologists, and was especially pleased to discover that one of them knew of me and their own children have my other books. We chatted about my new book, and naturally talked about Tap O’ Noth and the vitirified wall. We talked about the excavation and the exploration of the wall, and of the theories and the ones that don’t work. Then she hit me with something new – a new theory, one that was not included in my book.

In case you're wondering, this is what vitrified rock looks like
This theory is that the vitrification occurred as a result of a deliberate “devastation event” possibly connected to a tribal power-marker. The fire required to melt rocks would have had to be huge, and had to have lasted for weeks, possibly months. This would have needed people to fuel the fire. Bear in mind that this hill fort is on the top of a pretty big hill, so that would mean hauling wood to the top for a long time. They haven’t (as yet) found any kind of tar or accelerant within the walls, so it would have needed to be a huge amount of wood to keep those fires going. What better way to make a statement to other tribes or potential enemies about how powerful you are, than to have a burning hill in your territory?

Interesting theory. As a researcher, I can see many reasons why this theory is a good one. It is solid, works within the landscape, and has expert opinion, available evidence, and sense behind it. But this version is not in my book. This came too late to be included in this edition. It’s fine though, the theories I currently have in the book fit, and allow for further speculation along the lines of a devastation event. This is because both me and my editor understand that writing about ancient history is often a process of writing about theories. 

I have found all too often that certain publishers want definitives and they hate the use of words like “possible” and “probable” – but these are essential to writing about this period because of the amazing archaeologists who keep finding out new things. When I was a child I was taught in school that Tutankhamun was murdered. All the books had that “fact” in, and that was what the teachers said. It’s not true. Modern science and analysis has shown that he had a terrible injury that probably led to blood poisoning and death. Probably. Possibly.

My education was littered with things that were taught as if they were carved-in-stone facts, but they were theories, and further knowledge gleaned from later excavations and research has changed the way we look at things. They weren't facts, they were possibles and probables. The more we know, the closer we get to the fact. Sometimes we do have absolute facts, but we must make room for possibles and probables.

This proves two things for writers
  • Just because a publisher has a book on a subject, it doesn’t mean that it’s not time for a new one. If you are an expert in a certain field and you see that a publisher has a book that is decades old, pitch them a new one. You’ll be doing every child a favour if you stop them rehashing or reprinting old stuff.
  • If you have written a non-fiction book and you are working with evolving research – don’t buckle. Stick with your “probably” and your “possibly” – once again, you’ll be doing every child a favour. In this case you’ll also be teaching a child critical thinking as words like this allow them room to speculate.

So, I am grateful for my possiblies and probablies, and I’ll keep on using them and deferring to archaeologists, historians, and scientists. I think that one of the best things an archaeologist ever said to me was that it “made good sense” for a researcher like me to write about things like this because he said that, in his experience, they are often too close to their own field and their own theories.

I like that, I’m taking it as a compliment, and it helps with the imposter syndrome researchers and writers often feel. I’ve worked with a lot of field archaeologists, historians, curators and experts over the years, and that’s pretty close to a compliment. I love them all, and couldn’t do my job without them, they keep us writing!

Dawn Finch is a children’s author, librarian and researcher. Past President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) and member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)
Bronze Age and Iron Age Hill Forts is published by Raintree – 7 Sept 2017
ISBN 9781474730464 


Penny Dolan said...

At my desk with a mug of coffee beside me, enjoying your walk vicariously. Thanks for the scenery and the possibilities - and for all the excellent points you're making.

Gillian Candler said...

Great points, thank you for that confirmation about the need to keep things open-ended. I've written a book about New Zealand before people arrived called 'From Moa to Dinosaurs' and science certainly has moved on a pace since I was at school. But there are still lots of fossil gaps and unknowns. I decided to include a 'How do we know?" feature to help children understand that 'facts' come from evidence but that they can also be overthrown by new evidence.