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Literary Updates: English PEN, 404 Ink, Solzhenitsyn & Others

2 Jul

– Please note that this post has been delayed by three or so months, it seemed appropriate to post it now though it has become somewhat disjointed.

Things have been a bit quiet on this site lately as I settle down into a new job (1).  I’ve also been working on two interviews for the blog behind the scenes and I hope to bring them to fruition within a few weeks.  So it is fair to say that the free time I have had has been largely spent relaxing by reading various books; more often than not reaching for a fiction or non-fiction volume that has little to do with human skeletal remains or matters of archaeological importance.  Though I admit I have been dipping into The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology, by Joanna Sofaer, on occasion.  Instead I present here some literary gems that I’m re-reading or have recently discovered by chance and wish to share with you, my dear readers.

In the past month or two I’ve taken the opportunity to sit out and read in the garden, taking time to admire the change in seasons as we slip into Spring.  I’ve been joined by a flurry of both wild and domesticated animals as I sit and drink my coffee and write notes, hearing and seeing a motley collection of avian companions enjoy the fruits of a fresh crop.  As I’ve written here before in Bones of Contention I’m lucky enough to share the garden with three domesticated hens and these delightful birds (of the inquisitive Gingernut Ranger breed) provide all the friendly chirping and cooing as one could want.  Though, when let loose (now that the latest avian influenza scare has been downgraded in England) to forage in the garden and to take their much-loved mud baths, they can sometimes unexpectedly jump up onto the table at which I am pondering my life and steal whatever is waiting to be eaten on my plate before scampering away, guilt-free and clucking happily.

Caught in the act. A quickly took shot of a cheeky hen in the garden where I try to spend my time reading, scribbling notes and drinking coffee, if not chasing chickens. Photograph by author using a Pentax ME Super and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a whole host of other animal visitors to the garden too, including blue tits, whizzing robins and fleet of foot blackbirds in the fresh spring morning, as well as hearty magpies, hefty wood pigeons and loved-up collared doves; even to seeing a cheeky mouse scampering around during the day, as all the while seagulls spread their wings and soar freely overhead.  It really is quite a delight and a breath of fresh air to be away from the click and whir of computers, to replace the digital with dappled light cast through the flickering leaves as the gusts of winds blow the cobwebs away and make you appreciate the world anew.  (Even amidst the dire national and international news).  Of course it is easy to romanticize the natural world in contrast to the world of bricks, cement and microprocessors, where the two may seem so separate as to be alien to each other, yet this isn’t really the case as we share the same space.  So I shall stop my sermonizing!

Writing, Reading, Learning, Enjoying

As I’ve been reading various volumes or books in the past month or two I was reminded of the importance of expression, of the freedom to read and the freedom to write, as something that I, for now, can largely take for granted when for other individuals in the world it is a hard-fought for thing.  As a member of English PEN I was reminded of this as the roll-call of detained journalists, writers, poets and artists who had made their mark known and suffered what they must for the idea of self-expression and freedom of the written and spoken word, landed in my email inbox.  I have to admit I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up to join English PEN as I’m so often lost between the various archaeological societies or associations that take a slice out of my payslip each month.  (Honestly Society for American Archaeology, you can stop sending me your trans-Atlantic reminders to re-join now that it has been 2 years since I left – please think of the trees!).

Recent developments across the world have delivered to me a quake of realization, that underfoot nothing is as solid or as stable as it seems.  This is something that a friend mentioned a few weeks ago and I think it one that I generally agree with; that to become complacent is to assume stability as a fact of life when we know well enough that things happen, not always for the worse and not always for the better.

Introducing 404 INK

I was reminded of independent expression when, in a serendipitous occurrence, I came across the website of 404 INK, a new independent publisher of literary magazines and books based in Scotland and spearheaded by Edinburgh-based publisher and editor due of Laura Jones and Heather McDaid.  After having a read through of their website, aims and current content, I decided to order a hard copy of the first issue of their literary magazine, released in November 2016, which has the theme of Error.  Having now read the majority of the entries, ranging from interviews, fiction and non-fiction stories, poems, and cartoons, all of which touched upon the error concept in some way, I’ve become a big fan of their publishing output.  I’m excited to see what awaits me as a reader for the 2nd issue, with the topic of ‘the F word’, a starting off-point for each authors choice and implementation within their work (2).

Eating Animals, Eating Humans

As an aside and among the books I’ve been grazing on are Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (always good to challenge your perceptions and habits), an unfinished re-read of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and an abridged version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  Each volume can be related to the other as the history within each is so entwined with the author’s own experiences and perceptions.  Of course any comparisons between such disparate topics such as an account of the Gulag system, investigation into the moral and business implications of farming animals, and the creative endeavors of magical realism, may be tenuous as best but each is rich with creativity and equally unsettling with the presentation of documentary evidence.  I’d recommend them as the volumes are well worth a read.

A New Style: Influence from Svetlana Alexievich

I’ve also been thinking about bringing back a new form of blog entry: the unfiltered viewpoint of the archaeological professional, as experimented with in two recent blog entries that largely focused on anonymous field archaeologists in Digging Up Time parts 1 and 2.  The two posts were influenced in style by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets publication, which presents the experiences of witnesses in the modern-day Russian Federation and the surrounding countries who lived through the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  This time I think I’ll shift the emphasis towards bioarchaeologists and human osteologists, and their viewpoints on working with the skeletal remains of past individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  If you are interested in taking part in the above (providing that I need further testimonies), then please do feel free to contact me and I’ll provide a writing prompt and guideline for the style of the post.  Check out the above two posts first though to get a feel for the style of the entries.


(1).  I became uncharacteristically ill over spring hence the delayed timing of this post.

(2).  The 2nd edition of the 404 INK literary magazine, with the F Word theme, recently became available to purchase.  Check it out here.

Further Reading

Foer, J. S. 2010. Eating Animals. London: Penguin.

Márquez, G. G. 2000. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. London: Penguin Classics.

McDaid, H. & Jones, L. eds. 2016. Error: 404 INK Literary Magazine. Issue 1 November 2016. Glasgow: Bell & Bain.

Sofaer, J. R. 2006. The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney & Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Exposing the Dead: Javier Marías in The Art of Fiction No. 190, The Paris Review

15 Dec

Earlier today I came across the Paris Review after stumbling online looking for something to read.  The Paris Review is a well-known literary magazine that is published quarterly and a publication that I have read online on occasion, most often for the insightful and in-depth author interviews.  After glancing through it earlier I spotted one such feature that I had not read before – an enlightening interview with the Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías.  He is an author who I had come across by chance in a bookstore in Newcastle upon Tyne a few years ago and one that I have come to love after reading his novels A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, alongside his short story collection When I Was Mortal which I became intrigued by as it offered stylistic snapshots of his writing and intense introspective vignettes.

In a section of the interview Marías discusses his relatives and his personal family history in the tumultuous 20th century, his father’s imprisonment under Franco’s regime in Spain (1939-1975) and the times the family spent in other countries in effective exile during Franco’s rule.  In particular he recalls an instance of the personal face of death within the family…


‘You sometimes use actual photographs in your novels.’

Javier Marías:

‘Yes, because when I read about an image I like to see it at the same time, be it a painting or a photograph.  But you must be very careful with putting actual things in a novel.  In the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, there is a moment when the narrator recalls the story of his uncle, who was killed during the war, and how his mother had to look for him because he didn’t come home, and she eventually found a photograph of her brother dead.  That is a real story—it happened to my uncle.  He was killed in the war when he was seventeen.  I did reproduce one photograph, but I knew I could not put in the other one of him dead.  Just as it is told in the book, the photograph was inside this box, wrapped in red cloth.  It is quite a terrible photograph.  I did not dare make it part of a fiction.  You can’t expose the dead too much.’

(Quoted from Fay’s interview in 2009).

I was struck by the last sentence, of how the preservation of the image within the box carefully wrapped contrasted sharply with the limited exposure that it would receive stored in this way.  In this case the photographic image displayed not the living, breathing individual that the family remembered but the final portrait of his uncle’s body, frozen in time.  The context is unclear but the photograph does not need to be seen, at least by the audience, or to be presented in a fictional piece of writing as Marías attests.  The imagined brutality of his death is enough; the truth remaining as memory shared by the family.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Fay, S. 2009. Javier Marías: The Art of Fiction No. 190. The Paris Review. Winter Edition. 179. (Open Access).

Marías, J. 2012. A Heart So White. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. London: Penguin Classics.

Marías, J. 2013. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. New York: Vintage International.

Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.


Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Literature Travels

28 Aug

In a brief aside from osteoarchaeology, I thought I’d focus a quick entry on what I’ve been reading lately as I wait for my arm to heal.  I have a particular soft spot for travel literature, so I’ve been delving into some classic books from the 20th century.  Among these are American writer John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1943 autobiography The World of Yesterday, and the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s 1959 memoir Arabian Sands.

By chance my current haul of literature deals with the themes of cultural change (and, in the case of Zweig’s, the devastation of his previous way of life with the rise of Nazism in Europe) and the beauty of the natural landscape in their respective environments.  Thesiger, for instance, relates his constant worries of the impact of petrochemical prospection and development in his beloved and desolate deserts in Saudi Arabia and Oman and the anticipated effects on the Bedouin (Bedu) way of life.  Steinbeck, meanwhile, mourns a population that he barely knows any longer, even as his magnificent and diverse body of work champions their history and lifestyles.

I’m currently in the middle of Thesiger’s memoir detailing his epic 1945-1950 explorations in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the Empty Quarter in Arabia (Rubʿ al Khali, one of the largest sand deserts in the world spanning parts of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen and Oman).  I’m struck by his lucid description of Bedouin life, of their harsh but close living environments and tight social structures.  As with reading any literature endeavor care must be taken in understanding the motives of the writer, but it is clear that Thesiger held the Bedouin close to his heart and set about emulating and living their lifestyle as close as he could and was allowed to.

During his numerous journeys into the Empty Quarter Thesiger often acted as an impromptu medic, dispensing medicines he had brought with him to his guides and friends as needed.  In one scene he highlights the use of old remedies that have been passed down in Bedu culture:

During the days that I was at Mughshin my companions often asked me for medicines.  Bedu suffer much from headaches and stomach trouble.  Sometimes my aspirin worked, but if not the sufferer would get someone to brand him, usually on his heels, and would announce a little later that his headache was now gone, and that the old Bedu remedies were better than the Christian’s pills.  Bedu cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill.  Their bellies, chests, and backs are often criss-crossed with the ensuing scars.” (Thesiger 2007: 112).

One first thought by me was the fact that branding would certainly make you forget about headaches quickly!

However it also reminded me of perhaps the most famous iceman in Europe, Ötzi, an individual who lived and die around c.3300 BC during the European Chalcolithic period.  Ötzi, whose naturally mummified body represents the oldest so far found in Europe, has evidence for many distinct line and cross tattoos across his preserved body.  The location of the majority of his 50+ tattoos could possibly be related to the underlying pathologies that are present on his bones.

Radiological investigations have highlighted evidence for osteochondrosis and spondylosis in the lumbar (lower back) region, knee and ankle joints in Ötzi’s skeleton, whilst microscopic analysis of his gut has highlighted evidence for a whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) infestation (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1024).  It has been suggested that the tattoos could relate to an early form of acupuncture to help with the pain, or aches, that Ötzi probably felt (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1025), rather than the tattoos reflecting, or assuming, a purely decorative or ritual form (Scheinfeld 2007: 364).

In the case of the brandings that Thesiger describes in his travels with the Bedu above it is obvious that they have a functional aspect in their use as a treatment for illness, but it is likely that there is deeper meaning ascribed to them.  As such I should probably head back to reading the book!


Dorfer, L., Moser, M., Bahr, F., Spindler, K., Egarter-Vigl, E., Giullén, S., Dohr, G. & Kenner, T. 1999. A Medical Report from the Stone Age? The Lancet. 354 (9183): 1023–1025. (Open Access).

Scheinfeld, N. 2007. Tattoos and Religion. Clinics in Dermatology. 25 (4): 362-366.

Steinbeck, J. 2000. Travels with Charley. Penguin Modern Classics.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.

Zweig, S. 2014. The World of Yesterday. London: Pushkin Press.

* Publication dates are for modern editions.

Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.


A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?


Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Quick Mention: ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’ By Ann Oakley

1 Oct

I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time.  The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile.  Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley.  After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.

Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating.  Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).


Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’.  The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society.  This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period.  As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self.  The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.

This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America.  The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism.  The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).

The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32).  The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted.  Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008).  Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).

For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event.  It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.

This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes.  By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.


Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness5 (1): 83-94.

Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.

Anatomically Modern Humans: A Brief Introduction

22 Apr

The imperative of  the human species to ‘Know Thyself‘ has developed into a rapidly expanding field in palaeoanthropology.  The exploration of our species, Homo sapiens, is a particularly active field which utilizes multi-disciplinary approaches to untangle the evolutionary threads of our beginning.  The following essay introduces concepts and approaches used in this field, whilst raising current research issues.


“For a species that is both narcissistic and inquisitive, Homo sapiens has so far done a remarkably poor job of defining itself as a morphological entity”, Tattersall and Schwartz (2008: 49).

Thus starts the opening sentence to Tattersall and Schwartz’s 2008 article on the problems of clarifying the morphological distinctiveness of anatomically modern humans (AMH or the species Homo sapiens).  It is perhaps applicable not just to the morphological characteristics but also the fossil record and origins of AMH themselves (Pearson 2008: 38).  This paper, then, will discuss the principles behind the definitions and evolution of AMH in context with reference to its behaviour and morphological traits.  In turn, the dominant models of the origin and subsequent dispersion of AMH will be discussed, with reference to where Homo sapiens ‘fit’ in the palaeoanthropological record.  A wealth of new genetic research data and fossil finds has considerably opened up the treasure chest of hominin information, which is having a considerable impact on our understanding of the H. sapiens place in the evolutionary records (Bowden et al. 2012, Curnoe et al. 2012, Krause et al. 2010, Prat et al. 2011, Wood 2005: 42).  It is directly as a result of how the reporting of evolutionary science has changed in the past few decades (McEwan 2012), and how technological approaches have uncovered so much genetic data in reconstructing fossil record relationships (Jurmain et al. 2011: 270), that the definition of AMH is not so easy.  This paper will conclude with a talk on how the biocultural evolution of H. sapiens is now impacting both our environment and localised populations in certain contexts (Le Fanu 2009, Hawks et al. 2007, Jurmain et al. 2011).

It is important to note that H. sapiens are the last species of the genus Homo, with the first species tentatively dated in Africa to nearly 2.5 million YA (years ago), which led to the first dispersal of hominins (largely H. erectus) from Africa around 1.8 YA (Jurmain et a.l 2011: 240); AMH dispersal occurred much later.  It was once thought that AMH were defined by modern anatomy and behaviour at the junction of the Upper Palaeolithic around 40,000 YA (Nowell 2010: 438), however, recent palaeoanthropological finds and research have discovered a distinct ‘decoupling’ between early AMH anatomy and later symbolic/modern behaviour, with anatomically similar traits of AMH in fossils pinpointed to east and south Africa to around 200,000 YA (Rightmire 2008: 8, Wood 2005).  However there are problems concurrent with the dating of the hominin fossil record, as Millard (2008: 870) concludes that ‘the dating evidence for many key fossils is poor’.  Typically there are a number of assigned morphological features that mark out Homo sapiens compared to other species in the Homo genus (Table 1).  As Tattersall and Schwartz (2008: 51) note, however impressive the suite of features ‘not all of them are expressed with equal emphasis in all living humans’.  When this is combined with the fossil record of AMH, with individuals often taken as examples for their own long lost skeletal population and the problems inherent in the preservation of skeletal elements (geological pressure, scavenging etc), we should rightly be wary of definitively assigning a species name before comparison with relative contextual remains, stratigraphic layers and other similar period sites (Millard 2008, Pettitt 2005).

General Characteristic Morphological features of AMH:


  • Cranial capacity in excess 1350cc (variable).
  • Distinct chin (inverted T).
  • Relatively veretical frontal bone
  • Relatvely flat non-projecting face.
  • Brow ridge expressed more clearly in males.
  • Round occipital region.
  • Small incisor teeth.

Post Cranial:

  • Narrow thorax.
  • Small and narrow pelvis.
  • Straight limb bones.
  • Typically less ‘robust’, more gracile, then recent ancestors.

Table 1. General morphology for Homo sapiens (Pettitt 2005: 132, Tattersall and Schwartz 2008: 51, Wood 2005: 110). NB see also Pearson’s Table 2 (2008: 39).

Using a cladistics framework, Pearson (2008: 38) highlighted the fact that there are specific difficulties in using statistical measurements of metrical and discrete measurements as having been conceptualised as derived features in AMH crania, with comparison to Neandertal and H. erectus crania.  However there are further problems when trying to establish if the earliest H. sapiens African fossils of Omo Kibish, the Herto crania, or Near Eastern Skhul and Qafzeh fossils fit within the 95% rate of modern features, with results not even reaching the 75% fit of the modern features for AMH (Pearson 2008: 39).  In part this is due to fossils, such as the Herto crania, which are used as the mean of that particular population, which ultimately ‘conflates individual, within-population variation and between-population variation’ (Jurmain et al. 2011, Pearson 2008: 39).  Other problems of quantifying such long chronological morphological differences include the lack of various populations of modern (Australian aboriginals, for example) and certain prehistoric peoples being outside of the 95% confidence to fit the given morphological concept of AMH.  Clearly there needs to be a control on the temporal/geographic population of the AMH under consideration in such studies, when carrying out both the statistical analysis with other fossil hominins and when taking the defining measurements.

Pettitt (2005: 132-137) argues that H. sapiens should be classed into three arbitrary chronological groups of morphological continuity: 1) those of the earliest H. Sapiens, including material from Bodo (Ethopia), Broken Hill (Zambia) and Elandfontein (South Africa) amongst others; 2) Transitional (or archaic) H. sapiens including Herto, Omo Kibish 1 and 2 (Ethiopia), Florisbad (South Africa) and Jebel Irhoud (Morocco); 3) finally AMH including Makapansgat, Border Cave and Equus Cave (South Africa), Taramsa (Egypt), and Dar-es-Soltan (Morocco) examples (see Table 2 below for dates).  This ordering of morphological continuity defines AMH through the evolution of H. sapien traits with retention of H. ergaster traits (earliest), whilst the AMH group compromise clear AMH dating to less than 125,000 YA (Pettitt 2005: 132).  As Pearson (2008: 44) suggests, ‘the process of becoming modern likely occurred as a series of steps, regardless of whether one considers these different steps to be different taxa in a bushy phylogeny or merely different grades in a single evolving lineage’. Pearson (2008: 44) goes on to say that the ‘evolution of modern man should be viewed as a process rather than an event involving rapid morphological change due to drift during population bottlenecks and selection for new advantageous traits or genes, or a combination of the two’, rather than a singular smooth process.  Therefore we should be wary of relying purely on the often sparse fossil record.  Regardless, it is widely recognised that H. Sapiens are a probably daughter species of H. erectus (i.e. as a result of a speciation occurrence) which spread across Africa and into Western Eurasia at the beginning of,  or just before, the Middle Pleistocene (Jurmain et al. 2011, Rightmire 2008: 8).

Recent research has also led to five majority agreements in regards to the tenets of AMH behaviour (Table 2; Nowell 2010: 447). Wood (2005: 109) makes the salient point that early eurocentrism in the search for AMH behavioural origins clouded certain judgements, such as focusing on Western Europe to the detriment of African archaeological sites.

Points of Consensus on Modern Behaviour:

  • The relationship between modern anatomy and modern behaviour is more complex than once thought.
  • Modern behaviour has symbolic thoughts at its core.
  •  Archaeological record of the African Middle Stone Age has rendered invalid the idea of a ‘human revolution’ occurring for the first time in the Upper Palaeolithic of Western Europe.
  • Later Neandertal sites have demonstrated modern behaviour to either some form or some degree, such as personal adornment or symbolic behaviour.
  • The triad of social, cultural and demographic factors are key in understanding variability and patterning in the archaeology record.

Table 2. Agreed points in visioning the concept of modern behaviour (Balter 2011: 21, Nowell 2010: 447, Pettitt 2005, Zilhao 2006; 2010: 1025).

Research (Jurmain et al 2011, Prat et al 2012) has also highlighted symbolic  behaviour in a number of early H. Sapiens sites throughout Africa and the Near East; Balter (2011: 21) highlights Aterian sites in North Africa where various personal and possible symbolic artefacts have been found, whilst Blombos Cave in South Africa (77,000 YA), and Katanda in the DR of Congo (80,000 YA), have some of the earliest symbolic artefacts recovered including incised ochre, worked bone and beads; almost a full 45,000 years before any such artefacts appear in the European record (Jurmain et al. 2011: 298-299).   Mellars (2006: 9383) proposes a model that indicates climatic, environmental and cultural changes around 80,000 to 60,000 YA as major causative agents of cognitive change alongside population pressures in the dispersal of African H. Sapiens.  However Nowell (2010: 441) states that the gradual emergence of behaviours as a mosaic of features, and not as a single revolutionary package, should be considered within the archaeological record, whilst defining that for the majority of researcher’s symbolic language and codified social relationships define modern behaviour.  Mosaic features in fossil hominids have been noted in recent discoveries of the Australopithecus sediba specimen, highlighting a mix of Australopithecus and Homo anatomical features (Wong 2012: 25).

The origins of AMH living outside of Africa have led to the formation of two major competing models in palaeoanthropolog: the multi-regional continuity hypothesis that proposes already living populations of hominins and local populations in Asia, Europe and Africa continued their ‘indigenous evolutionary development from pre-modern Middle Pleistocene forms to anatomically modern human’ (Jurmain et al. 2011: 281), whilst the complete replacement (or out of Africa) hypothesis  proposes that AMH arose in Africa 200,000 YA to completely replace those in Europe and Asia (Table 3; Jurmain et al. 2011: 279).  Critical to the multi-regional hypothesis are the tenets that i) a level of gene flow between geographically separated populations prevented speciation, ii) all living humans derive largely from the species H. erectus, iii) natural selection in regional populations is responsible for the regional variants found in extant populations, and finally, iv) that the emergence of H. sapiens was not restricted to one area per se but was a phenomenon that occurred throughout the geographic range where ‘humans lived’ (Johanson 2001: 1).


Table 3. Timeline of major H. sapiens discoveries, question marks denote tentative dates (Jurmain et al. 2011: 413) (Click to enlarge).

Critical to the complete replacement theory are that i) H. sapiens arose in one place, highly likely to be East/South Africa, ii) H. sapiens ultimately migrated out of Africa, and replaced all human populations without interbreeding, and that iii) modern human variation is a relatively recent phenomenon (Johanson 2001: 1).

Although not all factors of the multiregional hypothesis cannot be falsified, it seems prevalent that H. sapiens originated in Eastern Africa (with Ethiopia so far providing the most stable dated site), and dispersed to Europe and Asia from 65,000 YA onwards in various waves (Table 2; Jurmain et al. 2011: 282, Mellars 2006: 9381).    The two most securely dated sites in Europe for AMH are Pecstera Cu Oase in Romania at 42,000 YA and Buran Kaya III in the Crimea, Ukraine at 31,900 YA (Hoffecker 2009: 16040, Prat et al. 2011).  Unsurprisingly, Hoffecker (2009: 16040) notes that the issue of the mechanism of transition is a ‘controversial topic in palaeoanthropology’.  Arguments have been made that AMH crossed into Eurasia via a Levantine corridor, with the earliest AMH dates from Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel at around 120,000 to 100,000 YA (Wood 2005: 98), whilst recent work in North African Aterian populations from around the same period are pointed out as being possible ancestors to at least some of the H. sapiens who left Africa during this period (Balter 2011: 23).  The palaeoanthropological evidence suggests that they, the Aterians, possessed the right symbolic behaviour, anatomy and favourable climatic conditions to be at least a contender for contributing to one of the waves of H. sapiens leaving (Balter 2011: 22-23).  There are a variety of sites across Europe after 40,000 YA that show a variety of evidence for AMH presence, including the triad of modern human behaviour with symbolic artefacts and modern skeletal morphology.  However, we should not forget that Europe was already populated with the H. Neandertalensis species prior, and co-existed with H. sapiens for approximately 10,000 years or so (Hoffecker 2009: 16040, Wood 2005: 110).  This subject will be tackled shortly.

The most secured dates found in Asia are from areas such as the Sahul region (conjoined landmass of Australia, Papua New Guinea and Tasmania), where it is possible AMH occupied various areas (Wood 2005: 111-112).  It must be remembered that while the ‘dwarf’ species H. floresiensis survived up until 18,000 YA on the island of Flores with temporal overlap between themselves and H. sapiens, it seems unlikely there was regional overlap from the archaeological evidence (Wood 2005: 111).  Curnoe et a.l (2012: 1) note that the AMH fossil record for East Asia is, at this time, poorly recorded owing to a lack of detailed description, rigorous taxonomy classification and a distinct lack of accurately dated fossils.  However there are a few key sites: Liujiang in Southern China has produced a skeleton which, although it lacks exact stratigraphic position, has been dated to an estimated broad range from 153-30,000 YA, whilst the Niah Cave child in East Malaysia has been dated to 45-39,000 YA for the cranium from a recent field and lab program (Curnoe et al. 2012: 2).  Tianyuan cave, just south of the Zhoukoudian cave, has fragmentary evidence of an AMH crania and teeth which are dated to 40,000 YA, with a possible mix of archaic and modern features; the American and Chinese team who excavated it have suggested it is evidence of interbreeding in China with resident archaic populations, but suggest an African origin for the AMH itself (Jurmain et al. 2011: 287).

The above examples highlight problems in understanding the definition of AMH, both anatomically and behaviourally.  With the advent of dispersals from Africa AMH interacted with other hominids, prominent of which are the Neandertals in Eurasia and the elusive Denisovans in Siberia (Krause et al. 2010, Hubin 2009, Noonan 2010, Zilhao 2006).  Genetic evidence is unravelling what it is to be an AMH (Hawks et al. 2007), and there is evidence to suggest that Neandertals contributed up to 4% of non-African modern human DNA via gene flow (Green et al. 2010: 711, Reich et al. 2010: 1057).

Roughly one third of Neandertal mtDNA genetic diversity, dating from 70,000 to 38,000 YA, is comparable to contemporary human populations (Briggs et al. 2009:  319), although Noonan (2010: 550) and Herrera et al. (2009: 253) raise the flag of caution as the majority of Neandertal remains were not collected with their regard to DNA investigation, whilst modern DNA contamination, despite the safeguards, is still prevalent.  Briggs et al. (2009: 321) postulate that low mtDNA diversity throughout much of the Neandertal lineage may indicate a low effective population size, although it could be reflective of AMH direct/indirect  influences as they spread from Africa (interbreeding or out competing for example).  Herrera et al. (2009: 253) note that there are difficulties such as identifying haplotypes indicative of interbreeding.  Nonetheless, as Zilhao et al. (2010: 1027) points out that a Mid-Palaeolithic Iberian Neandertal sites shows distinct features associated with AMH including symbolic behaviour, with ochre and shells displaying evidence of body paint, and organisation skills, which that studies believes is the outcome of demographic pressure, technology and ‘social complexification’ within the Neandertal species itself (Roebroeks et al. 2012: 2).

Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree of complete mtDNA rooted with chimpanzee and bonobo mtDNA, showing geographic origin of mtDNA samples (Krause et al. 2010: 896) (Click to enlarge).

Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree of complete mtDNA rooted with chimpanzee and bonobo mtDNA, showing geographic origin of mtDNA samples (Krause et al. 2010: 896) (Click to enlarge).

Meanwhile Krause et al. (2010: 896) provide evidence that the Denisovans split before Neandertal and AMH at around 1 million YA, whilst Neandertals and H. sapiens ancestors split around 690,000 to 550,000 YA (Jurmain et al. 2011: 270).  Pairwise nucleotide differences indicate that Neandertals differ from modern humans at around 202 nucleotide positions whilst the Denisovan individual differs at 385 positions (Krause et al. 2010: 895), which alongside the phylogenetic evidence (Figure 1), supports a deeper divergence of the Denisovan hominin than between the closer related H. sapiens and Neandertal species.

There is the distinct possibility of admixture; this is reinforced by the apparent coexistence of the surrounding area by Neandertals, AMH and Denisovans in the Altai region at roughly the same time periods, and by the fact that Denisova populations contributed roughly 4-6% present day DNA in AMH Melanesian populations; this suggests they interacted with Melanesian ancestors, but probably not in the Siberia region (Krause et al. 2010: 895, Reich et al. 2010: 1053).  The lack of complete remains and its physically limited location from this suspected new species at Denisova Cave limit our knowledge but tests are continuing.  If this hominin, as hypothesised, had a wide geographical range (Reich et al. 2010: 1059), the question must be asked why we haven’t noticed it before?  Interestingly Abi-Rached et al. (2011: 94) highlight that the fact that as the AMH Eurasian populations mixed with archaic hominids, adaptive introgression of vital immune system components (Human Leukocytes Antigen class 1) helped to provide a mechanism for rapid evolution.  The adapted introgression of the genes now represent more than half of the HLA alleles in modern Eurasians, and were later introduced into African populations (Abi-Rached et al. 2011: 89).  Therefore the definition of AMH must include evidence of interbreeding to some degree.  Future genomic studies in other archaic hominins should provide more information relating to the relationships between species; however it seems clear that gene flow was relatively common in the Upper Pleistocene (Reich et al. 2010: 1059).

Increased AMH demographic growth and geographic spread dated from 80,000 YA to the present, has led to rapid genetic evolutionary selective pressures on features including ‘skin pigmentation, adaptation to cold and diet’ amongst others (Hawks et al. 2007: 20756).  Some of the most dramatic have been associated with the uptake of agriculture during the Neolithic period, both in terms of our ability in coping with disease and changes from interaction via population density (Barnes et al. 2011: 848).  This is partly the result of cultural and ecological reasons (i.e. a biocultural pathway), and Hawks et al. (2007: 20756-20757) remark that in their study it was noted ‘new adaptive alleles continued to reflect demographic growth, (that) the Neolithic and later periods would have experienced a rate of adaptive evolution >100 times higher than characterised most of human evolution’.  Two examples help highlight the effects of biocultural change in modern population; coevolution of humans and cattle since the Neolithic has resulted in distinct populations of modern humans becoming lactose persistence, such as Europeans, whilst other populations, such as African and Asian adults, are largely lactose intolerant (Jurmain et al. 2011: 313).  This is through active selection of breeding cattle which ‘inadvertently selected for the gene that produces lactose persistence in themselves’ (Jurmain et al. 2011: 313); this example shows the geographical distribution of lactose persistence is often related to a history of cultural dependency on fresh milk products.  On the other hand, modern population pressures include the admixture of populations who have had the pressures of urbanisation, agriculture and gene selection for disease loading (such as Tuberculosis) who then interact with indigenous populations, such as Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guinea populations, who are not predisposed to deal with TB because of their lack of long term cattle coevolution (Barnes et al. 2011).  The importance is recognising that there is great variation at an environmental genetic level in modern AMH, and this is highly likely to be the case during the long and concurrent evolution of AMH (Jurmain et al. 2011).

In conclusion the definition of AMH comes to thus; either a strict definition of AMH present at around 40-35,000 YA onwards, with the full suite of the triad of anatomically modern skeletal elements, modern behavioural & cognitive functions, and similar genetics to today’s worldwide population (Tattersall & Schwartz 2008), or we can take the view that H. sapiens evolved with a mosaic of features that they themselves appeared at different times during the evolution of AMH (Jurmain et al. 2011, Pettitt 2005).  It is this author’s belief that the origin of H. sapiens species lies at the Omo Kibish site in Eastern Africa as the earliest evidence so far, and the definition of AMH must be taken with accord of the fossil record (Jurmain et al. 2011).  Throughout this paper, a long chronology has been presented and discussed of H. sapiens in the context of human evolution, and consideration has been given to the relatively modern genetic changes in modern human populations (Hawks et al. 2007).  This view belies the complexity of defining AMH, especially as new hominins are found (Krause et al. 2010, Reich et al. 2010, Wong 2012), as the consideration of the context is paramount.  There is inherent variation in the record, as evidenced between the distinct morphological variation between Omo 1 and Omo 2 fossils, leading up to the palaeogenetic and modern genetic variation and morphological in populations from inside and outside Africa (Briggs et al. 2009, Hawks et al. 2007, Harvati et al. 2012).  In comparison, the origin of the Homo genus is still in dispute (Wong 2012: 24) and the chimpanzee fossil record is distinctly lacking (Wood 2005: 69-70).  Only recently has SNP genotyping revealed the extent of Pan troglodytes ellioti as a genetically distinct species (Bowden et al. 2012: 1).  The importance of this is that we should seek to place the well discussed H. sapiens within a larger framework of where hominins (both extant and extinct) diverged, interacted and evolved (see discussion- Patterson et al. 2006: 1106, Wakeley 2008).  The definition of AMH is therefore but one fragment of our long evolutionary history.

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The Don Epic: Life Scatters Into Innumerable Streams

1 Apr
‘When swept out of its normal channel, life scatters into innumerable streams.  It is difficult to foresee which it will take in its treacherous and winding course.  Where today it flows in shallows, like a rivulet over sandbanks, so shallow that the shoals are visible, tomorrow it will flow richly and fully.’

Quoted from the Russian epic novel And Quiet Flows The Don (1934), by Mikhail Sholokhov.

The Don River. Photograph credit: Gorodnjanski 2007.

The Don Epic by Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984)

23 Jan

During the my gap year between university degrees, I volunteered heavily and looked longingly for paid employment.  Alas that was not forthcoming in any shape or form, and as I traveled the miles to and from York to gain valuable archaeological experience, I realised I needed reading material to occupy my mind (when no interesting passengers to engage with were forthcoming!).  During my early school years I hated learning to read, I loathed the minutes and hours spent trying to visualise and make sense of sentences and words; I wanted to be free, running in the back garden, digging up the dirt.  Now I won’t stop reading!  If I am bored, I’ll scan around and read everything in sight.  Now I only wish I could remember all of what I’ve read but such is life.

Scanning my dad’s book shelf high and low, I realised I had not read hardly any of Russia’s distinctive, world class and moving literature; from either the all encompassing and demanding Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or regime changers such as Solzhenitsyn, or any Nabokov or Pasternak.  I had made my way through the Beat writers alongside most works by Kurt Vonnegut, some Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Joseph Heller, a good dose of David Foster Wallace, plenty of Bernard Cornwall, and a good clutch of Will Self’s work; I gorged upon travel books (and still do); I’d read some of the classics such as Camus, Melville  & Shelley, and engorged on plenty of modern novels; but here was a whole swathe of literature to which my mind drew a blank.  Aside from a (mighty) Stalin biography or two, Imperial Russian and USSR literature classics were a mystery to me.

And so, I scanned the shelves and found novels by Tolstoy & Solzhenitsyn amongst others.  Possibly in a foolish move, I worked my way backwards, reading through Solzhenitsyn’s short stories and novels (Cancer Ward, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, Matyrona’s Place, and An Incident At Krechetovka Station), and found a movingly painted portrait of a country that had changed drastically, and a population who had been through much.

After reading through these books, my eyes fell onto a writer who was also producing books at the same time on the same subjects as Solzhenitsyn.  Mikhail Sholokhov, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a name I did not recognise but would come to love.  I stumbled upon his Don epics, consisting of two parts, firstly And Quiet Flows The Don & its  sequel The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and I was entranced by the comings and goings of the Melekhov family, center stage in a cast of gregarious Don cossacks in a country that is ripped apart before and during World War One, and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.

The story concentrates on this one family, and in particular on Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov, who falls in love with his neighbours wife, Aksinia Astakhov.  It is a moving family portrait, vast in scope and beautifully told, and rightly compared to Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.  Ultimately I cannot do it justice here, and so I implore you the reader to find and read the book yourself – I promise you will not be bored.

Since reading the Don epic, I have started to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was only slightly marred by the fact I had to hand my University library copy in 60 pages short of the ending (and the local libraries haven’t got a copy!).  Meantime I have picked up a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and finding his writing style very different from his near contemporary Tolstoy, and both  of the Soviet era writers Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.

I am intensely glad I have started to have uncovered the vast travel trove of literature that Russia has to offer, and long may it continue.  I have found novels that have since lain close to my heart (especially Cancer Ward by Sozhenitsyn) and characters that will stick with me throughout my life.