Guides to Corinth, ancient and modern

Anyone writing a historical novel set in ancient Greece should pour grateful libations to the memory of Pausanias, a doctor from Ionia, who was an inveterate traveller in the 2nd century AD. That is to say, he lived roughly from 110 to 180 AD. The reigns of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were (mostly) an age of peace and prosperity for the Roman world, and Pausanias took full advantage, travelling far and wide. He wrote a detailed guide for those who might follow in his footsteps, and his Description of Greece is a fascinating read.

He wasn’t in any sense a professional historian, as we would understand it, but he diligently notes down what the locals say about the origins and founders of their cities, as well as summarising more recent events. As was always the case in the classical world, he makes no distinction between what we would call myth and history. The sons of Zeus are as real as the Roman generals who later sacked Corinth as far as Pausanias is concerned. There is similarly no question about the gods’ existence, as he details the Sanctuary of Poseidon at the Isthmus. And he really goes into all the details of the temples and the statuary, the monuments and the stadium, as well as the pine trees that adorn the site. Whenever he’s learned some interesting story about a hero or goddess, he notes that in an aside, along with observations about local customs and traditions. As he walks up the road to Corinth, he tells us about the city gates, along with the stories of the people they commemorate. Then he walks on through the marketplace, describing the many shrines and fountains. His work offers us an entertaining insight into the people of the classical world, as well as a guide to its places.

Though I would have come badly unstuck, if I had relied on Pausanias alone. He was writing hundreds of years after my story is set, and pretty much the closest he gets to dating evidence is references to before or after the days of Homer. There’s no way to tell from his text when the buildings and temples he describes were actually erected. More than once I came across a place I thought I could use, only to discover it hadn’t been there when Philocles would have needed it. For that vital information, I am indebted to ASCSA, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Founded in 1881, their affiliated scholars and students have been digging in Greece for decades, most especially in Corinth and the wider Corinthia. Their work means there’s been a wealth of papers and reports available for me online, as I researched the setting for this book. Even better, with absolutely superb timing, ASCSA recently published their fully updated site guide to Ancient Corinth. If you plan on visiting Corinth’s archaeological sites, you really should buy it. Full of detail, descriptions, maps and dates, it’s been been invaluable for my purposes. All told, ASCSA has more than earned my gratitude in this novel’s acknowledgements. (I wonder if this is the first time they’ve had a mention like this?)

Lastly, but by no means least, I’ve been able to make use of something Pausanias could never have dreamed of – Google Earth. I have been to Corinth myself and it was most definitely memorable, which is one reason I wanted to set a story here, but that was decades ago, and I had no reason to fix particular views in my mind’s eye, or in our photographs. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I could (virtually) stand on the stage of the classical Greek theatre. I can turn through a full circle and see for myself the details of the landscape that Philocles and his actors saw as the backdrop to their performance.

So the sense of place in this novel has been brought to you by resources spread over nearly two millennia!

The challenge of knowing what we don’t know, when Philocles goes to Corinth.

Writing a historical mystery set in Athens takes a lot of research. There’s a great deal of material available. We have a wealth of primary sources in pots, manuscripts, statues and inscriptions. Then there are the decades of scholarly thought interpreting all those things. Finding the precise detail that a writer needs, to be certain that a vital clue or a passing reference is correct can take a whole lot of work.

Taking Philocles and his play on tour gave me pretty much the exact opposite problem. Outside Athens, and beyond its interactions with other cities, much of the history of 5th Century Greece is fragmentary, literally and metaphorically. When it comes to Corinth in particular, the focus of so much of the available research is the first century AD, thanks to the apostle Paul stopping by, and writing a couple of letters. I kept coming across things I thought I might use, until I found out they were far too late historically to be relevant for my story.

Records from earlier centuries are sparse, and physical evidence is far less readily available, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it’s said that the Corinthians posted their civic decrees engraved on gleaming plaques of a fabled alloy known as Corinthian Bronze. Very impressive – and very easily melted down in the two and a half millenia since the city’s classical heyday. All that information is lost and gone for ever. A carved stone recording some Athenian civic honour or festival victory can also be reused of course, but when that’s found as part of a later construction, the inscriptions can still be read.

This might seem like good news for the fiction writer. Doesn’t that mean you can just make things up? Yes – and no. Not unless you’re willing to risk a well-informed reader posting a link to an academic paper that you missed. If that supplies some information contradicting that vital clue, your whole plot could unravel. Take the simple fact that Athenian actors and playwrights sometimes took their plays to other cities. We know that happened from references in the primary, contemporary, written sources. So far, so good, for the premise of this second book. But who decided which plays went on tour? Who issued invitations? Who paid the bills and why?

I needed to know – or I needed to know for certain that scholars didn’t know. Believe me, it was a great day, when I finally found an authoritative paper firmly establishing there is no evidence to answer these particular questions. That meant I was finally free to weave that fact into my historically plausible scenario, along with other scraps of Corinth’s ancient reputation, mostly mentioned in passing as the Athenians recorded their dealings and battles with the city.

The ancients tell us Corinth was famous for its hero-worship cults. It was also known for outbreaks of civil strife. After the archaic kings were overthrown, Corinth was ruled by a Council of uncompromising oligarchs. It was a society where women lived very different lives to their Athenian sisters, even competing and winning prizes in musical competitions. The cosmopolitan population had links to the furthest Hellenic settlements to the east, and to the far distant west, thanks to Corinth’s twin ports on either side of the Isthmus. All this trade and bustle was overlooked by the brooding bulk of the Acrocorinth, the mountain fortress that ensured no army could ever leave or invade the Peloponnese without making allies of the Corinthians.

It’s all very different from home, as far as Philocles is concerned. It’s a risky place to make any misstep, even before he’s caught up in a murder…

Last Supper in Pompeii, now at the Ashmolean in Oxford

If you’re interested in the ancient world, and you can get to Oxford to visit this exhibition between now and 12th January 2020, your time will be very well spent. It’s packed with fascinating artefacts that show how the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD captured life in the cities that were overwhelmed in the midst of an ordinary day, telling us so much about how they lived, and specifically how they shopped and cooked and ate. Here’s a link to the museum’s web page for more.

It’s one of those exhibitions where the everyday objects give us a powerful sense of connection between then and now – and the centuries in between that link us all together. Take these three mundane pieces of kitchenware – and apologies for my less than skilled photography. Here’s a frying pan, a bun tin, and a fancy mould for puddings or forcemeats.

I’ve seen pretty much identical things hanging in Victorian kitchens in National Trust houses.

On the other hand, another glass case held a big earthenware pot for keeping live edible dormice in, for fattening them up until you ate them. That’s not something we would ever do today! Well, not unless we’re in Croatia or Slovenia where they are still a delicacy apparently, according to curator Dr Paul Roberts, in his introductory lecture a few weeks ago. Not every country is as sentimental about fluffy animals as we are in the UK.

The Romans certainly weren’t. This cute rabbit is eating the figs that he’s about to be cooked with… There are several pictures from frescos with a similar theme, showing this was a popular decorative idea for kitchens.

Food was also a common motif in dining room mosaics, and the detail in this panel is incredible – the individual tesserae/tiles here are 2-3mm/an eighth of an inch square, or less. Not only that, the depictions are so accurate that the fish can be identified by species. Seriously, there’s a key on the wall beside it.

There are all sorts of other fascinating things, from the expensive dinner services used by the rich as they reclined on their triclinium couches, to the much-mended, most likely secondhand bronze pots recovered from tavern and takeaway kitchens, along with carbonised bread and fruit, and even remnants of oil and honeycomb. All evidence of everyday life so suddenly cut short.

Of course, when we think of Pompeii, one of the things most people remember are the famous plaster casts of the eruption’s victims. There’s one of a pig who never made it to a dinner table. There’s also one of a woman where resin was used rather than plaster, so the few physical remains still present are visible. I didn’t photograph that, because frankly it gave me the creeps. But it’s important to have her there, I think, to remind us of the disaster’s human cost.

One of the most striking things for me is this picture of Bacchus/Dionysos, adorned with supersized grapes, with Mount Vesuvius as it was then, famed for its vineyards. There’s no reason to think it’s not a reasonably accurate representation. Compare this to Vesuvius today, and the scale of the eruption becomes apparent.

Boundaries and borders and the complexity of history

There’s a great deal of talk in the media at the moment about concepts like borders and nationality. History is frequently, and highly selectively, cited as evidence for whatever political point of view is being promoted. Meantime, tangible history, by way of archaeological artefacts, keeps reminding us that the world has always been interconnected, and that people have always moved around.

It’s taken two years, but experts have now identified a glass shard found at Chedworth Villa in the Cotswolds as part of a bottle from the Black Sea region, brought all the way to Roman Britain. You can read the full story here. Now, Chedworth’s inhabitants were clearly among the wealthy elite, so I don’t suppose they bought this perfume or whatever the bottle contained, from a stall in Corinium market, but the fact remains that this valuable thing passed from hand to hand over thousands of miles to end up in an ordinary, if well-resourced, household. This is of course merely the latest such discovery to indicate that the British Isles have always had ties to the European mainland, and far beyond. See also the Vindolanda letters, the Staffordshire Hoard etc. etc. etc.

Then there’s the recent find in Greece, that may be the oldest Homo Sapiens skull found outside Africa. If so, it takes the modern human dispersal into Europe back tens of thousands of years. That raises the possibility of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal co-existing for countless generations. This catches my eye in particular because that particular narrative is one that’s changed and shifted over the past century, reflecting all sorts of often problematic things about the decade when a particular theory held sway. When I was a kid in the 70s, the story we were told was a simple one; superior Homo Sapiens drove out the inferior Neanderthals, who were always drawn as nasty, brutish and short. That theory’s since been modified, first with talk of the Neanderthals coming second in competition for resources, and more recently still, on account of their theorised inability to adapt to climate change. When it comes to whether or not Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens could interbreed, the arguments remain heated even with new genetic evidence.

How much of this is unintentional projection, based on current preoccupations? How much of this is attempting to secure history’s endorsement for what is in fact quite simply racism, when the obscuring layers of argument are peeled away? I am always very careful to pick apart the reasoning when politicians and the like start using their preferred version of history as a way of putting an end to arguments about contentious policies in the modern day.

That’s why I think it’s important for historical fiction to reflect the world as accurately it was, insofar as we can possibly tell. That’s one reason why there are characters of colour in both Shadows of Athens and Scorpions in Corinth. Not because they have to be there for some plot-related reason. Simply because they would have been there. Writers from Herodotus onward make it very clear that people have always moved around. As did a couple of nice artefacts that I spotted on that recent visit to the British Museum.

African boy, terracotta, Rhodes 460-450 BCE

What sort of pots does Zosime paint in Shadows of Athens?

Since I was in the right part of London recently, and had some time spare between meetings, I went to the British Museum to see what there was to see that might prove useful for my books. I took a few reference photos, so for those who may be interested in seeing some of the oil and wine flasks that Zosime specialises in painting, here’s a good display.

Incidentally, the reason these white-background pots don’t survive in such a pristine condition as red and black figure ones is they were painted after firing, so the pigments are vulnerable to wear and fading.

“If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.” Why corpses can’t just be a McGuffin.

This is something we say in this household, sometimes through gritted teeth, when a scriptwriter has hit us hard by killing off a favourite character in a TV show or film. The same applies to my reading, certainly these days. I have long since moved on from the fun, formulaic mysteries where the body in the library or wherever might just as well be a realistic dummy, because their role is simply to get the plot rolling. A McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock explained, and frequently demonstrated in his work. Rear Window is a fantastic film, but does anyone ever remember the dead woman’s first name, or why she was killed?

For crime fiction to have emotional depth, readers (and viewers) need to make a connection with the victim. This death has to matter. On the other hand, the crime is generally what starts the story. So making that connection can be a challenge when our first encounter with someone is with their corpse. It’s getting to know who this person was, and why someone else would be driven to kill them, that draws us on through the book, in most cases. There are exceptions of course, but it takes an accomplished writer to do this well. Even so, that won’t be what a lot of readers are looking for.

So how do we make Mr or Ms McGuffin matter, if the reader will never get to meet them? The most satisfying way for me as a reader is to see the dead person reflected in the reactions of other characters in the story. The more complex and varied those reactions are, the more interested I become. Someone blameless and beloved by all, who’s murdered by an unrepentant monster, is certainly a tragedy, but that can make for an ultimately one-note, and depressing, novel. Reading about an unrepentant monster who finally gets what’s long been coming to them is most likely to leave me thinking ‘good riddance’, closing the book, and moving briskly on.

Thankfully there are infinite possibilities between the two extremes. We can see one person who knew the victim is genuinely grief-stricken, while the next is really struggling not to speak ill of the dead. Or maybe they’ll have no hesitation at all, venting some fresh or festering grievance. What does any or all of this tell us about the victim, and why they were killed? Or maybe this particular quarrel has no significance? The opportunities for false leads and red herrings are endless.

But there still has to be an emotional connection in all this, not just plot mechanics. We have to see that this person mattered, that they had value or significance, at least to someone. No man or woman should be an island, any more than they should be a McGuffin. Their death should diminish someone. As readers we need to see this, if we’re really going to feel it. We won’t make that connection if we’re simply told about the victim’s virtues and/or vices.

This is why Xandyberis had to be more than an unexpected dead man in expensive shoes, when I came to write Shadows of Athens. I had to think through all aspects of his character and his life, as well as working through the events and motivations that ultimately led him to meet his demise. Philocles discovers some, but but no means all, of this through the course of the book. That he doesn’t learn everything doesn’t matter. I still had to do the work that didn’t end up on the page, to make sure that this story would count.

And yes, some recent notable deaths in recent film and TV got me thinking about this, but No Spoilers.

“The thugs vandalised the wall with vile grafitti” – words you won’t find in Shadows of Athens

As those who’ve already read the book know, this line could have been in the book. It’s stuck in my mind because that was a point where my typing completely crashed to a halt over the question of vocabulary. It’s something that definitely challenges historical fiction authors.

Where do you draw the line between ‘realism’ and clarity for readers? Because on the one hand, complete realism for readers would mean me writing Philocles’ adventures in Attic Greek, writers like Simon Turvey brushing up their Latin, and James Wilde reaching for his copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. That would be ridiculous.

On the other hand, the wrong word can throw a reader out of a story completely. That’s happened to me more than once. The last time was thanks to a Roman legionary using a Napleonic era military term. No, I can’t remember the book, and wouldn’t cite it if I could.

The fact that English is full of so many loan words complicates things still further. Just look at that sentence above. ‘Thug’ comes from the era of British rule in India, ‘vandals’ harks back to the rampaging Germanic tribes in the so-called Dark Ages, while ‘graffiti’ comes from Italian and wasn’t used before the 1850s. All of which are so far removed from Classical Athens, that the sentence above would surely have been a real stumbling block for the reader.

Though I wonder if it would be the use of all three words so close together that would make the real difference? Would the reader’s eye slide over ‘thug’ or ‘vandal’ if those were the only potentially out-of-place/period words in a sentence? Perhaps, and also, any reader response is going to be a very individual thing. One reason why I wouldn’t cite that time-travelling Roman legionary, even if I could, is because, let’s face it, you have to be a major military history nerd to pick up on something like that. The majority of readers wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. Indeed, that probably added atmosphere to the book for a lot of them.

Add to that, I know full well that I’ve seen ‘graffiti’ used in books set in Ancient Rome, and my Pedant Sense barely buzzes. It’s an Italian word with Latin roots, and as a consequence, that doesn’t seem nearly so far out of place in that setting for me.

Then there are the times when using wholly accurate vocabulary can give an entirely misleading impression of a historical period and place. I remember seeing an interview with the scriptwriters for the TV series Deadwood, set in the Wild West, i.e. America from the mid 1860s to 1900 roughly. The writers were being criticized for the frequent use of ‘cocksucker’ in their dialogue. They pointed out that contemporary newspapers and other records invariably mention the unmitigated and incesssantly foul language of these frontier territory towns. Men and women alike couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’… Er, that would seem positively quaint today, wouldn’t it? It would certainly fail to convey anything like an accurate sense of the era and setting.

So as with so much in language, context is everything. Writers certainly have to be aware of potential unhelpful associations with particular words, but an excess of pedantry/accuracy can be a waste of everyone’s time, and sometimes actively counterproductive. I will continue to examine my own word choices to strike the best balance – and to discuss borderline cases with my editors to see if I need to put my Inner Nitpicker firmly back in its box. Fresh eyes are always invaluable for things like that.

And yes, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Deadwood movie on Netflix. Seeing that advertised got me thinking about the use of historical language, hence this piece.

Romans, rabbits, and the shifting sands of historical accuracy.

The recent news about rabbits being a Roman import to the British Isles naturally caught my eye, though not for the reasons you might think. I was particularly interested in the range of comments between ‘but everyone already knew that’ and ‘hang on, I thought it was the Normans’. In so many cases, people were citing ‘what I learned at school…’.

I must have been on the cusp of this change in thinking, because I distinctly recall the Romans getting the credit when I was at primary school, only to be told it was the Normans when we did 1066 and all that at secondary school. In both cases, teachers I liked and respected were telling me completely different things. Hang on… So I asked my secondary school teacher to clarify who was right, who was wrong, and why. This has all stuck in my mind because it was one of those conversations that first showed me new and fascinating facets of history.

As my teacher explained, it wasn’t a case of right or wrong, but of evidence and interpretation. The Romans might well have brought rabbits over, but it was very hard to say if they became established in the wild. If they did, these small populations may well have died out well before William the Conqueror and his pals arrived. What we do have solid evidence for is the Normans establishing rabbit warrens and the little furry pests getting loose, presumably to the delight of medieval British foxes. So on balance, at the time, certainly as far as Second Form history lessons were concerned, the Normans got the credit. It’s only when you dig deeper, that you realise the foundation for that ‘fact’ isn’t as solid as it might seem.

What has this to do with writing historical fiction? Well, a writer must always bear in mind how many readers will come to a story with ‘what I learned at school’ as their yardstick for assessing how believable the historical setting might be. Depending on how long ago that was, that yardstick might be as technically outdated as feet and inches in a metric world. But a lot of people still use feet and inches. A couple of people here and there have remarked that the portrayal of the city and society in Shadows of Athens is quite markedly at odds with what they learned at school.

They’re not wrong – this view of 5th century BCE Greece isn’t what I learned at school either. I first had to rethink my ideas when I reached university, where I learned how much more evidence and interpretation was out there to be found. Over the past couple of years, since I first embarked on this project, I’ve had to rethink a whole load of ‘facts’ a second time. There’s a wealth of new evidence that’s been uncovered – literally – and these days historians and archaeologists work far more closely together than they did thirty years ago. In my undergraduate days, the classical texts came first and last, and anything chaps with trowels in trenches turned up was a secondary curiosity at best.

Attitudes to those classical texts has changed as well, which is to say, classical scholars are revisiting and interrogating who is telling us what and when about Ancient Athens. Let’s consider the social status of the likes of Thucydides and Xenophon, and discuss how that is likely to colour their world view. Are they really a reliable guide to working class women’s lives? Then there are academics taking a long hard look at what we’ve been told about those classical texts, when and by whom. The final two chapters of Professor Vincent Azoulay’s biography of Pericles make for fascinating reading, as he traces the evolution of the Golden Age of Pericles notion from the Enlightenment to the present day. So I need to write my books also bearing in mind those readers who will be familiar with these things that I’ve just encountered – and far, far more besides.

I need to strike a balance between these very different sorts of readers. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who learned about The Golden Age of Pericles decades ago at school, and those ‘facts’ about Classical Athens remain firmly fixed in their minds. At the other end are the readers who know far more about these things than I can ever hope to. Then there are all the many, many readers in between – as well as those who know nothing much at all about Ancient Greece and like finding out about something new.

I have two things to help me strike the right note to satisfy most of the people most of the time. Firstly, I’m writing fiction not a textbook. Historical detail in a novel underpins the sense of place and the plot. A light touch works best. I can pick and choose the evidence and interpretations that suit my purposes without dragging anyone too far out of their comfort zone – while satisfying the more knowledgable that yes, I have definitely done my reading. When it comes to the people in my story, I can rest assured that human nature then and now remains much the same. The tragedies and comedies that we have from this period show that is so time after time.

Secondly, I am the lucky beneficiary of the excellent TV documentaries we’ve seen in recent years, thanks to accomplished scholars and communicators like Mary Beard, Michael Woods, and Bettany Hughes. I’ve noticed so often how these programmes reference ‘what everybody knows’ about some aspect of the ancient world without rubbishing these ideas as outdated, but integrating those starting points with more recent discoveries and perspectives, to encourage a new outlook in their viewers.

I hope I can do something along the same lines with Philocles’ adventures, while always entertaining readers, whatever their starting point may be.

Historical faces, facts and fiction

There’s a crucial, initial choice that an author must make about writing a book set in the past. Are they going to write about real people, or are they going to write about a real time and place using fictional characters. It’s a very personal choice, and here are some of the considerations that led me to invent Philocles, Zosime and the rest of my dramatis personae.

Writing about real people offers up a story as a hostage to fortune – or archaeology or archivists. New facts, however unexpected, can emerge to wreck a narrative. I’ve been reading books intent on rehabilitating Richard III ever since I encountered Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in my teens. Whoever these different books have blamed for murdering the Princes in the Tower (my vote is for the Duke of Buckingham) they have agreed on one thing. Richard’s supposed deformity is hostile Tudor propaganda. That makes for awkward reading after digging up a Leicester car park revealed a skeleton with an emphatically S-shaped spine. True, the best assessments reckon the visible and physical effects of this were later highly exaggerated, but the fact remains that Richard very definitely and noticeably had scoliosis.

Real lives, however dramatic, rarely if ever shape themselves into truly satisfying plots. We see this time and again. Two recent historical films offer examples of recurrent problems. The latest Mary Queen of Scots movie insists (not for the first time) on having Mary meet Queen Elizabeth I. This never happened, as the historical record makes emphatically clear. The implications of that choice to ignore those facts go beyond that scene. If the film makers are willing to invent stuff for dramatic effect, how far can any of the rest of the film be trusted?

On the other hand, sticking closely to the facts can cause the film maker just as many problems. The Favourite, the new film about Queen Anne, is being praised for superb performances, visuals, and the like, but I’ve come across more than a few viewers dissatisfied with the way the story ends. No spoilers, but when a screenwriter is constrained by unhelpful facts, there’s only so much they can do.

So far, these are relatively straight-forward issues. There are much more hazardous minefields for the historical novelist. The Cape Doctor by EJ Levy is a forthcoming novel already at the centre of heated debate. James Barry, the doctor of the title, was discovered at his death to have been born biologically female (or possibly intersex). Consequently, his life has been intensively studied, especially as better understanding of the complexities of human sexuality and gender expression has developed in recent decades – not least thanks to study of the ancient world. Such studies have also prompted considerable pushback from those unable or unwilling to accept sexual and gender identities outside their personal experience, or their religious or philosophical conventions.

In the case of James Barry, this means sharply divided opinions, and the aforementioned heated debate, between those insisting that dressing as a man was the route this young woman took to achieve a meaningful career, and those who point to Barry’s writings and deathbed wishes as firm evidence that he saw himself as a man and wished to be remembered as one. I have no more idea than anyone else what story Levy wishes to tell, or the issues she wishes to explore, but in choosing to write about this particular historical figure she has guaranteed controversy, and to cause offence. These arguments seem highly likely to obscure whatever the merits of the book might prove to be. By contrast, other novelists have prompted far more constructive debate about revisiting historical views of sexuality and gender by centering their stories on fictional people.

So weighing up all these considerations, I have opted for writing stories about invented characters, who get caught up in satisfactorily dramatic events, in a time and place that’s as rigorously accurate and factual a setting as my research can make it. Every historical writer must find their own balance point between fact and fiction, and this is mine.

The fascination of history’s fluctuations

There’s always something new to learn about the past. This is something that’s sustained my lifelong interest in history. Any view of history as simply a static list of deeds and dates is woefully behind the times.

New technology is constantly bringing new information to light, and I don’t just mean the geophysical surveys and ground penetrating radar that first appeared to work their magic for Time Team. Most recently, a couple of archaeology documentaries I’ve watched have highlighted Swansea University’s isotope analysis of tree rings from timber samples that’s revealing a wealth of historical climate data. That in turn reveals pressures like famine and flood on populations and their rulers, filling out our understanding of political events. Isotope analysis of teeth from skeletal remains has been showing us how far people could travel from where they were born and raised, even as far back as prehistory. DNA analysis is showing that old assumptions about an individual’s gender based on the clothes and things they were buried with, need to be revised. We have evidence of Viking women buried like warriors, as well asScythian men buried in female clothing surrounded by domestic accoutrements. Such evidence calls into question a whole lot of assumptions that have been made about ancient societies’ views on gender.

It’s not just technology that’s offering new insights. Experimental archaeology and living history projects show us all sorts of things. When someone starts to wonder how long it actually takes to get from wool on a sheep’s back to a wearable garment, and decides to find out, a huge amount is revealed. Historians start to appreciate the practical knowledge and considerable skills involved, as well as getting an understanding of the actual time these things took. Increasingly, the idea that women (especially in the ancient world) were kept at home by the stern hand of male authority is being questioned. A wife and mother keeping her household fed, doing everything by hand, and clothed with her own spinning and weaving, wouldn’t have much spare time to go gadding about.

As for their husbands, we’ve seen projects as varied as building a medieval castle at Guedelon, to various attempts over the years to erect replica Stonehenge monoliths with period appropriate equipment. Every time, the challenges encountered show that thinking pre-modern must mean primitive, ignorant or unskilled says more about modern arrogance than it does about people in the past. When it comes to those old theories about great cities in Africa or Asia being built by long-lost pseudo-European tribes, that notion now looks as racist as insisting the great pyramids could only have been created by aliens.

New insights are coming from indirect sources as well. Oil industry exploration in the North Sea provided the original data that’s revealed Doggerland. The hot, dry weather of 2018 across the UK and Ireland offered up lost historic locations revealed by parch marks spotted by drone enthusiasts pursuing their hobby. Even things as seemingly unrelated as DVD box-sets and TV streaming can prompt rethinking. I remember reading scholarly papers as an undergraduate discussing how classical Greek drama and musical competitions might be arranged, very dubious indeed that an audience would sit through five comedies, one after the other, or an entire trilogy of tragedies plus a satyr play. These days, binge-watching and Lord of the Rings (extended version) movie marathons give whole new insights into audience endurance capacities.

I could go on. These are merely a few of the examples that occur to me this morning. So much new information offers endless possibilities for the historical fiction writer. Though of course, this also has challenges for an author. It’s all very well for a 21st century crime writer to know that a skilled individual could travel hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles in the ancient world. If they turn up as the victim in a murder mystery, whoever’s investigating still needs some plausible way to find out that doesn’t rely on modern technology. Even if isotope derives from the Greek: isos topos – same place.