First Review for Built on Bones!

So, I spent this week doing a lot of things. One of my favorites was freaking about my photoshopped proximity to lifetime hero author Neil ...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Now out! I had such a terrific time recording this (thanks Max! thanks Ian!).  According to Captain Podcast Max S, our long and discursive sound check (I think we got through most of the neolithic) was perhaps the most informative yet recorded, a badge of honour I am sure. Though presumably not actually included on the recording...

You can also listen along on any of the usual suspects: Itunes, Soundcloud, etc

I will also just mention that it was very surreal, the  experience of being totally isolated from outside media (ironically, because we were recording our own) while events in the outside world took a dramatic turn. I went into the studio to record the podcast  right as news started to filter through that 'something' had happened in Westminster; it wasn't until after the recording we realised that people had been killed so horribly. It is a tribute to this city, London, the one I call home, that I got all the way home on the tube without incident, without fear, without fail. And I stand absolutely by my pro-urban flag; lowered to half mast or no.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

So, a little while back I had a terrific time writing this piece for History Today. I was given pretty free reign to charge around talking my second favourite subject (after teeth) -- TrowelBlazers. We had our big Raising Horizons launch coming up and we were all scrabbling away to bring the sheer awesomeness of Women Who Dig to a wider audience. However, in the excitement of telling the story about Hilda Petrie and her climb up Khufu and the time Margaret Murray won WWI (she put a hex on the Kaiser, you know), I got a bit distracted.
Margaret Murray TrowelToon by Gabe Moshenska
As a very kind reader of History Today pointed out, I'd gotten the details of the redoubtable Amelia Edwards's companion on her historic, and life-changing, trip down the Nile wrong. Amelia was the force behind Egyptology in the UK, cheerleading dashing youngsters like Flinders Petrie (just try imagining him without the beard. No, right?) and more critically, setting up the Egypt Exploration Society and funding the Edwards Chair at University College London. Her early travels to Egypt were in the company of Lucy Renshaw, who history knows very little about; and I had mistaken poor Lucy for Ellen Braysher, Amelia's companion in later life.
Amelia Edwards around 1860. From Wikipedia.
Amelia has attracted a lot of interest; partially because of the inherent interesting-ness of a woman who cross-dressed as a boy n the disreputable bits of Paris in order to better visualise the settings for her novels (she had a thing about architectural accuracy), became a popular writer, and generally charged through life accomplishing amazing things... but also because of the non-traditional (for a Victorian lady) partnerships she had through her life. Amelia spent most of her life either solitary or accompanied by female companions. Many have later read 'companion' as 'romantic partner', but this re-reading might misunderstand the relationships of a woman who, a contemporary once remarked, 'did not love many people for all her seeming geniality'. This came from Kate Bradbury, however, who would go on to sort out Amelia's affairs after her death, and has herself has been described as an intimate companion of Amelia.

This complicated romantic (or platonic) history is one of the most vexing things about writing history. It is a rabbit hole of slightly salacious second-guessing. As a modern reader, we feel short-changed if we don't have access to the full life stories of our characters, and nobody is fully rounded in this conceptualisation without the details of who and how they loved. Writing historical women, however, we are never guaranteed that kind of disclosure. We can read between the lines or even just read the lines themselves; there are some very romantic-sounding overtures in Amelia's letters. To the point that one correspondent, Marianne North, remarked 'What love letters you do write, what a pity you waste them on a woman!'.

We may never be able to understand the real human relationships that make up such a large part of personality, but I have to say I've come down on the side of trying. One thing we have learned at TrowelBlazers is what a challenge it is to take the larger-than-life heroes of science and remake them into a relatable role model, someone who inspires scientific effort rather than just looking aloof in a natty hat. Rather gloriously, however, we find that sometimes history can get trumped by the material realities we are so fond of in the digging sciences. Amelia Edwards, who as Kate Bradbury once said in relation to the dashing Flinders Petrie, 'might just as well be fond of a young obelisk', wrote her final feelings in immutable stone. On her instruction, a grave marker in the shape of an ankh was placed next to the final resting place of Ellen Braysher; and it was Kate Bradbury who carried out her final wishes.

Photo from


Ladies of the Field

Barbara Lesko's biography for Breaking Ground

Brenda Moon's biography of Amelia; More Usefully Employed: 'Amelia B. Edwards, Writer, Traveler and Campaigner for Ancient Egypt'

This work on historic  LGBT place-mapping

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

As part of the long process of thinking about the book (especially now that people are reading it, and asking awkward questions like 'wait how do the genetics of pig domestication work again?') I've been doing some additional writing. This was a longer piece for Guardian Cities that I really enjoyed thinking about; I've now decided Annie Besant is one of my personal heroes.

She's been arrested* for everything you ought to be arrested for as a Victorian lady - feminism, reproductive rights, atheism, and anti-colonialism.  Besant was a rather prolific writer who turned her talent into a crusaders' sword -- she wrote passionately about injustice, and had a special feeling for those women who felt the hand of opprobrious society most heavily. In 1888, she wrote about a kind of 'white slavery' in London's East End, starting off a torrent of accusation and retribution by match moguls that resulted in the London Matchgirls strike and, eventually contributing to the banning of toxic white phosphorous that caused 'phossy jaw'.

I thought it an apropos kind of hero for Women's History Month, given the TrowelBlazers beacon I sent up in the sky (ok, Guardian) calling for a return to activism for International Women's Day.

So, as the furore and excitement of IWD settles back down, I hope everyone has a chance to trawl through the pages of history and find their Annie. And then gets up and does something about it :)

*ok, not always arrested as such. But usually arrested.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Properly pleased to see such a stellar review in that rather august instrument, The Times (register for free access), for Built on Bones! Tom Whipple has masterfully identified key draws of the book, primarily chattiness and Alan Rickman references. 

Trivia (personal)

archaeologist. dental anthropologist. yes, that's a real thing. Author of Built on Bones, available in February 2017 (UK), May 2017 (USA) from Bloomsbury.



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