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 ...

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Rabbit Holes; or: The Dangers of Writing History

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

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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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