African Rock Art

African rock art
Just a short post to draw your attention to the British Museum’s African Rock Art image project. Dr A lost a large part of yesterday evening browsing through the images online.

Want to see giant fighting cat-people?

Galloping Camels?

Hair washing ceremonies?

Outstanding rock art?

It’s all there and more…

Many thanks to @ArchivistArch for drawing our attention to the site.

Dr A and Dr H


Want to read more? Browse the Prehistories Contents page.


Artwork for Annihilation (by Eric Nyquist)

Our local bookshop has Dr A and me hooked on the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.

The series is set in an unspecified point in the future, with the first book following a team of scientists as they enter the dangerous and carefully controlled Area X.

The landscape of Area X is dominated by lush vegetaion, but the ruins and remains of peoples lives and actions are to be found there too. Although she is a biologist, the narrator’s knack for observation and description would have made her an excellent archaeolgoist.

Near the start of the book, the team of scientists come across a structure – an inverted tower. Down the spiral stair case they find traces of living words written upon the walls.

The narrator describes  the writing and traces of former writing:

” there existed a ghosting of prior words…It was hard to read them – there were several overlapping strands that started and stopped and started up again. The number of such ghost scripts faded into the wall suggested this process had been ongoing for a long time.”

This passage made me think of Dr A’s paper on Irish passage tomb art. Discussing the art found inside the tombs he notes the “intense degree of superimposition” of images inside the tomb at Knowth, with primary images “providing a visual trace for subsequent reworking”.

Given a choice, I’d far rather take my chances with time travel and meeting the artists of Knowth and Newgrange than venture into Area X and risk meeting the author of the words in the tower.

Dr H







I’ve just finished reading another China Miéville book – Un Lun Dun.

This book is aimed at teenagers, but there’s plenty in it for adults too.

Set in an alter-London, the thing that most caught my imagination was Miéville’s description of Wraithtown (where the ghosts of Un Lun Dun live).

“Each of the houses, halls, shops, factories, churches and temples was a core of brick, wood, concrete or whatever, surrounded by a wispy corona of earlier versions of itself. Every extension that had ever been built and knocked down, every smaller, squatter outline, every different design: all hung on to existence as spectres. Their insubstantial, colourless forms shimmered in and out of sight. Every building was cocooned in its older, dead selves.”


As an archaeology student I was taught to see these spectral buildings and landscapes – ancient field systems, hut circles, hillforts, deserted villages. While digging at Clava, Richard Bradley taught us to look at landscape in a new way; to peel away the modern – the Victorian grove of trees, the towering aqueduct – to see the shape of the land, the way it might have been in prehistory.

For archaeologists, sometimes, it is the wraith buildings and landscapes that form the solid core, while the modern world flickers in and out of view.

Sketch 2014-02-19 14_59_38

Dr H

Ask an Artist: Garen Ewing

Garen Ewing – artist, author and creator of the Julius Chancer comics The Rainbow Orchid and The Secret of the Samurai – answers our questions about  archaeology, antiquarian sleuths and his artistic influences.

Dr A and H are both great admirers of Garen’s work. Set in the 1920s, The Rainbow Orchid charts the adventures of Julius Chancer as he races to find the mythical Rainbow Orchid ahead of Urkas Grope’s fiendish (but stylish) assistant Evelyn Crow. More recently Julius Chancer has been tracking down a lost suit of samurai armour. Antiquities, adventure, even attractive French aerobats – these stories have it all!


Jules & Lily off in the Mercedes

Ask an Artist: Garen Ewing

Your Julius Chancer adventures feature lots of references to archaeology – were you interested in ancient things and peoples as a child, or is it a recent interest?

I’m really interested in the concept of undiscovered things and places, and I think this has been a staple of the type of adventure story I’ve enjoyed since childhood. I really love the idea that an object or a place can reveal the story of people long gone … and I guess that is archaeology, though I can’t claim to have been specifically interested in that subject until more recently. Having said that, my first and longest-lasting comics love is Asterix, which encompasses ancient things and people quite nicely.

The Rainbow Orchid draws on the archaeology of Mohenjo-daro; what made you choose this site in particular?

About the time I was starting to develop The Rainbow Orchid I came across a series of travel books by David Hatcher Childress, a sort of self-styled Indiana Jones type figure who wrote about alternative historical theories while visiting the places in question. One of these was Mohenjo-daro, which included tales of ancient warfare and pre-historic super weapons. At the time I was open to the idea that some of this might be true, and it intrigued me greatly – as well as providing inspiration for some of the story elements I was developing at the time. In the following years, through lots of research and also through a process of me becoming a lot more rationalist and skeptical, I no longer found Childress’s ideas convincing, but I still enjoyed the premise as a basis for a good adventure story.

Sir Alfred Catesby-Grey and his assistant Julius Chancer are historical/archaeological sleuths (and researchers); how did you decide on their profession?

I think I just knew I’d need that kind of a character for the story I wanted to tell. At first it was only Sir Alfred, a kind of authoritative mentor who would be useful for background information and research. Julius’s initial role in the story was as Lily Lawrence’s chauffeur. I soon decided that Julius would be much more interesting as a ‘historical researcher’ himself, and the scope for further adventures would be far greater too. It’s a terrific character occupation for an author (me) who loves both detective mysteries and history.


Your work is often compared to the Tintin adventures, but are there other comics/artists that influenced your creation of The Rainbow Orchid? Do you currently have any favourite comics (on any subject) you would like to urge people to track down and read?

I’m a long-time fan, since about the age of 6 or 7, of Tintin, but it was discovering the work of Edgar P. Jacobs that really inspired me to take that route with my own story. His characters of Blake and Mortimer have a bit more science and history thrown in to the mix, and are a bit less cartoony than Tintin, which is probably closer to the template I prefer for Julius Chancer. Jacobs was a member of Hergé’s studio, and another colleague of his I’d very much recommend is Roger Leloup who created Yoko Tsuno, a young Japanese electrical engineer who has a number of exotic ‘scientific’ adventures – very good stuff.

I would also highly recommend the work of Jacques Tardi (Adel Blanc-Sec, amongst many other great works) and Lewis Trondheim (I like the ‘Dungeon’ series, but also his Lapinot character and the recent Ralph Azham). Away from Franco-Belgian comics I like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Osamu Tezuka (especially Black Jack and Dororo). My favourite British comic of the moment is probably Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series – but, really, there’s so much good stuff around at the moment.

You recently had a short Julius Chancer story – “The Secret of the Samurai” – in The Phoenix comic. Do you have plans for any more Julius Chancer stories (and are they likely to involve any archaeology?)

Yes, I’m working on the next Julius Chancer book now. I suppose it does include a bit of archaeology in that part of the story will see Julius travel to a lost island where some ancient relics are discovered – not necessarily all dead or inanimate! I’m also using a real local ruin, the remains of a seventeenth century manor called Brambletye House which I became very interested in after stumbling across it on a country walk one day, many years ago.


Thanks Garen!

Please head over to Garen’s website to find out more about his work and characters. There are sections of the comic to read online, an insight into Garen’s working process, and you can even join the Adventurer’s Society!

Dr H.

Future Pasts: A Canticle for Leibowitz

In my After the Snow post I mentioned my interest in literature discussing “future pasts”- that is societies less technologically advanced that those that preceded them. I’m especially interested in books, such as Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban and The Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve, in which people, and archaeologists, are actively digging up past remains, searching for lost technologies.

Fresca sent me off to the library to look for A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. Originally published in 1959, this book won the 1961 Hugo prize for literature, with its glimpse into a possible, post-apocalyptic future.

Set after a nuclear war, or the Deluge as it’s known, the story focuses on successive generations of monks whose job it has been to preserve and protect remaining documents that survived the “simplification” in which rulers, scientists, teachers and their books/ sources of knowledge had been destroyed by mobs who held them responsible for the nuclear war.

There is a great deal to be gleaned from the book, including its discussion of Church and State and the lessons to be learned (or not) from history. For more discussion of its major themes visit theSF and Fantasy Masterworks site.

In terms of archaeology and the unearthing of old knowledge, A Canticle for Leibowitz takes a familiar line in suggesting that stirring up the past can be a dangerous thing.

In one incident Boedullus, a monk and archaeologist, sends a letter to the abbot say they have found the site of an intercontinental launching pad. “His letter to the abbot was the last that anyone saw of the Venerable Boedullus, his party, his ‘launching pad’ site, and the small village which had grown up over that site; an interesting lake now graced the landscape where the village had been…

The leader of the Plains tribes is deeply suspicious of archaeology. He notes how the academic passing through his lands spends “half of his time digging in the earth down by the dry riverbed and the other half jotting mysteriously in a small book. Obviously a witch, and probably not to be trusted.

I especially enjoyed the depiction of the Abbey’s librarian “whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principle reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually. Usage was secondary, to be avoided if possible.” Possibly there are some museum curators out there who feel the same way.

Miller’s humour is bone dry – understandable given the subject of the book and the impending threat of nuclear war at the time in which he was writing.

Next up in my ‘future past’ reading was Railsea by China  Miéville. Train tracks, giant moles, philosophies, alt-salvage…

But that’s a whole different story…

Dr H