Monday, February 6, 2012

Mining the Past

We watched Neil Oliver's wonderful 'A History of Ancient Britain' (Episode One  - the Iron Age)* tonight and it reminded me all over again of what a treasure trove of inspiration there is to be found in the past. 

My dad's a historian, as was my grandfather, an uncle - oh and I studied history for my undergrad.  If I'd applied myself a bit more I would have done another semester of Latin and got a major in medieval studies rather than just plain history. Unfortunately, languages are not my forte.

In this episode Oliver explored ancient trading roots - going with the archaeologists to search for the copper ingots of a ship sunk of the coast of Cornwall and then going into an ancient copper mine. 

The copper mine was the thing that gripped me. 

a. it had me cringing because Oliver had to slither and twist through the tiny tunnels with all the weight of the rock above him. It turns out I'm claustrophobic. 

b. the mine was a running concern for fourteen hundred years. That is a serious length of time. That is longer than the English Language has been around. By quite a large margin. Think of all the stories that are to be found in that mine! (Hmmm. I will try to avoid all the possible bad puns about 'mining the past' - except of course the title!)

and c. There were a lot of coal miners in my dad's family in Scotland until the mines closed down. My great-grandfather died at 45 of coal miners lung and I saw on an old Scottish census that one of my maternal ancestors was listed as 'coal-miner'. The thing that really tore my heart was that she had a six month old baby who was being cared for at home by her teenage daughter. 

Working down the mines was horrible work. I went down a mine in Yorkshire when I was fifteen and seeing the tiny tunnels that the men, women and children crawled about in in the dark, sometimes with not even enough room to go on their hands and knees, was horrifying. (Rich people at the time complained about the conditions - it was hot down there and men and women used to work without their tops on - scandalous! I would have thought the explosions and 7 year olds working 14 hour days more scandalous but there you go.) 

Oliver's series is... imaginative - there's a funny criticism here
basically saying he's making up a whole heap of stuff about what the prehistoric people were feeling that there is no possible way of us knowing. 

But for those of us looking to be inspired for our writing - his grandiloquent eloquence (especially in that lovely Scottish accent... sigh)is very taking. 

Now I wonder... in which book can I use a labyrinthian copper mine? 

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