‘What can you see?’

The question was put to me by Valeri, the archaeologist who had been supervising my efforts since six o’clock that morning. The honest answer was that I could not see much at all. We were standing in a six metre square trench, part of an excavation site in central Bulgaria, looking at a layer of earth that contained the remains of a settlement from the Copper Age: about five thousand years ago. I had joined the dig as a volunteer, as research for a work of fiction I wanted to write about that time and place, an ancient society that had left no written records. I felt that I needed to see the place with my own eyes, and touch the remains of that time with my own hands.

Not only were my hands caked in ancient soil, but so was most of my body; as I scraped and sliced the vertical edge of the trench, the mud had worked its way into my clothes. But my untrained eyes could make out little as I stared at the patch of earth, lightly sprayed with water and gleaming in the midday sun. The water helped to bring out the colours, according to Valeri. But what colours? To my eyes the soil was a mass of barely differentiated brown. I pointed to the most obvious feature: a patch of earth that looked pale compared to the rest.

‘Yes’, said Valeri patiently, as if speaking to a child. ‘And what does that tell us?’

I was out of my depth. I knew no Bulgarian, and for more technical discussions Valeri often broke into Russian, which he spoke more fluently than English. My American trench-mate and fellow amateur excavator Jilly happened to have a PhD in Russian literature, so she kindly acted as interpreter. I was also clueless about the practicalities of fieldwork. No experience was necessary for us volunteers and we were being trained on-site. Most of the other volunteers were archaeology students or recent graduates, however, and had at least a theoretical grasp of what we were supposed to do. I was a student, too – but of literature, not archaeology. My training had taught me to dig beneath the surface of a text, to uncover narrative architecture, genealogies of influence, patterns of sound and symbol. It was the first time I had used a trowel to search the ground for artefacts. The pale patch of earth meant nothing to me. Not for the first time, I admitted that I had no idea what I was looking at. It was all just mud.

Valeri laughed and began to point out one feature after another, subtle distinctions of colour that were invisible to me. Grey-green, apparently, was distinct from ‘greeny-grey’ – I wondered at the time whether Bulgarian might have a more nuanced vocabulary for colours that does not readily translate into English, but now, consulting a bilingual dictionary, I am fairly sure that a Bulgarian layperson would be equally baffled.

Some of those marks and patches pointed to interpretations that were obvious to his eyes (though absent to mine) such as animal burrows, or the ash I had just pointed to, dotted with the ends of small animal bones protruding from the surface: millenia-old cooking remnants. Others were more ambiguous and could only be properly understood with reference to other finds, in previously excavated layers, or deeper ones yet to be dug up, or at other areas of the site. A round patch where a wooden post, long since disintegrated, had once been driven into the ground might indicate the wall of a building, but the dimensions and extent of that building would only be known when the other post-holes had been found. The fact that the site was divided into arbitrary square trenches being excavated separately, and at different speeds depending on the density of materials found, meant that accurately describing where that building had once stood might take place over months, even years.

The process of excavation is necessarily destructive. You only get one chance to dig up a patch of ground, so every significant find must be measured, bagged, labelled, and catalogued with its exact coordinates and relation to the surrounding context, so that it can be written up later in the painstaking detail of an archaeological field report. The word ‘dig’ does not adequately describe the activity: the ground is sliced, not with shovels but with small trowels, knives, and spoons, more carefully than one might cut a cake; and every bucket of soil is sifted in a large rectangular sieve. The fieldwork is only the beginning of the process; data analysis, modelling, and software-aided reconstruction leads, finally, to an interpretation that builds on and qualifies – or challenges – the body of existing literature. This work is then offered up as an article in an academic journal, a sacrifice of sweat and time that will only be smiled upon by the god of truth if the analysis is so rigorously airtight that other archaeologists can find no way to puncture its logic.

It was hard work. I had been on site for almost a fortnight and I had experienced a tiny sample of just the first part, the fieldwork. It had taught me two things: a deep respect for the skill and discipline of archaeologists, their ability to read the soil with such sensitivity, and the scrupulous, painstaking way in which they arrive at even the most provisional of interpretations; and the certainty that I was in every way unsuited to this kind of work. By the end of two weeks I was exhausted, irritable, and impatient. I was sick of the taste of five thousand year old dust, and the feel of sweat and ancient grit in my boots and clothes.

But I also had the kind of experience I had hoped for, without knowing exactly what it would be. Not finding a rare artefact: others on the site found some fascinating items that I will not describe here, as I doubt they’ve yet had the chance to describe them with the appropriate technical detail in the relevant academic publications. All I discovered were innumerable pottery fragments, animal bones and a number of objects I thought might be something special until Valeri dashed my hopes with a rueful smile and a phrase I had heard all too often that fortnight: ‘it is just a rock’.

What I encountered was something dug up years ago, and extensively documented – I had learnt about it, in abstract, in the required readings for the dig. But it only made a forceful impression when I saw it with my own eyes: a thick, uneven black line running horizontally across every wall of every trench. Below it, layer after layer showed the accumulation of Copper Age habitation over centuries, the detritus of each generation covering that of the previous one. The black line was a sudden terminus: every building burnt, the whole settlement snuffed out, leaving behind only a sediment of ash dotted with the skeletons of children and elderly people.

Prehistoric people left no written records. Bones are mute. We cannot know who was responsible for the destruction of the settlement thousands of years ago, or why it happened; but what happened seems clear enough.

On that hilltop, in the Chalcolithic (Copper Age), people lived for generations in houses built of wattle and daub. They were sophisticated craftspeople, making clay vessels and figurines decorated with fine graphite-painted patterns. They wore bracelets of shells and beads, used tools made from copper as well as stone and bone, and the presence of items from far away shows their social connections with other nearby regions. Not all their neighbours were friendly, however; a high, heavy earthen wall protecting an inner section of the settlement seems to have acted as a fortification against hostile visitors.

Then, in a single day or night, the settlement was burnt to the ground, the inhabitants killed, and the site left empty for more than a millennium. Above the black line there is a thick layer of plain, silty soil. When the site was eventually repopulated in the Early Bronze Age, the new inhabitants left behind very different artefacts. The pottery in particular seems crude and simplistic compared to the fine work crafted by the site’s earlier occupants.

From the professional perspective of an archaeologist, that black line is to be interpreted carefully, in conjunction with a vast amount of other evidence, and any description of the event that caused it must only be advanced cautiously. In the paragraphs above I have probably blundered into unwarranted speculation and loose statements without sufficient evidence.

On the dig, it was pleasing to learn that in person, archaeologists are happy to speculate casually, and discuss ideas of what might possibly have happened in the ancient past – whereas in print, their disciplinary commitments oblige them to stick close to the evidence and interpret it via theoretical frameworks. But I am not an archaeologist. I have neither the training nor the temperament. For me, the black line is an invitation to speculate, to embellish, to name the anonymous skeletons, to put flesh on their skulls and give them voices: to find a suitable literary structure to stage the inferno that engulfed them in their homes, and work backwards to piece together a story worthy of leading up to that event.

Since I returned from Bulgaria, I have been working on doing just that. I recently spent a week-long residency at Varuna, the writers’ house in Katoomba, experimenting with form and voice, working my way into the lives and subjectivities of the characters. (I say a week, but ironically – given that the focal point of my writing is the destructive fire indicated by that black line – catastrophic fire warnings in the Blue Mountains delayed the start of the residency by two days.) I am a single parent, and I work full time at a job that has nothing to do with literature, so it would be hard to overstate how valuable it was to work uninterrupted for several consecutive whole days, with the company of other writers in the evenings to break up the solitude; I am deeply grateful.

During that time, I realised some things about the direction and form of this piece that, since this essay series is called ‘Writers at Work’, I feel an obligation to describe; at the same time, there is a stronger, overriding impulse to keep them to myself until the work is fully formed and internally consistent. I do not know how true this is for other writers, but for me, writing mostly in stolen scraps of time between work, family life, and study. Thus, over a long period of time, the me that writes the first fragment of a piece is different in significant ways from the me who decides, at some more or less arbitrary point months or years later, that the collection of scrawls and scribbles across multiple notebooks constitutes a first draft, and sets the whole thing aside to mellow and ferment in the cool of a desk drawer; and it is someone slightly different again who opens that drawer and begins to pull the threads together, to form a coherent work out of that jumble of raw material. One changes, one grows. Even the idea of speaking about the work with any degree of specificity before it has solidified and become whole – when it is still in a fragile, embryonic state of becoming – fills me with a kind of superstitious dread. (Perhaps my commitments as a writer are not so different, after all, from an archaeologist’s. I too need to keep my work close to my chest until it is ready to be subjected to the sceptical gaze of peers – in my case, fellow readers of fiction.)

Writing does not proceed in a straight line but circles around some impression or intuition, attempting to arrive at a point that does not yet exist. I might have already said too much by naming the black line as my point of departure. As Maurice Blanchot observes, the originary impulse of a work is best understood not as a flash of insight but an error, from which what is valuable emerges as a kind of perverse fidelity:

Every artist is linked to a mistake with which he has a particular intimate relation… Every art draws its origin from an exceptional fault, every work is the implementation of this original fault, from which come to us a new light and a risky conception of plenitude.

To write fiction about people who lived thousands of miles away, thousands of years ago, and left no written accounts of their own, might be considered an especially quixotic endeavour. But I wonder – sitting outside my house in Blackheath, a faint scent of smoke drifting over from the still-smouldering Grose Valley fire – what people in the far future will make of us. We like to give our own era grand names: the Information Age, the Anthropocene. I suspect a future archaeologist, digging through bin bags and disposable cutlery, will be more likely to think of our time as the Plastic Age – or perhaps, if they have to unearth our landscape from beneath a thick sediment of burnt material, they might call it the Fire Age.

Works Cited

David W. Anthony and Jennifer Y. Chi, editors, The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC (New York: Princeton, 2010).

Vera Balabina and Tatyana Mishina, ‘Considering the destruction of the latest Eneolithic village at Tell Yunatsite’ in The Golden Fifth Milennium: Thrace and its Neighbour Areas in the Chalcolithic (Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 2011), pp. 39-56.

Maurice Blanchot, The Book to Come, translated by Charlotte Mandel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Yavor Boyadzhiev, ‘Ethnocultural interrelationships in the Lower Danube area during the second half of the sixth and the first half of the fifth millennium BC (according to evidence from cemeteries)’, Studia Praehistorica 14 (2011), pp. 205-244.

Jilly Lederman, ‘Dear Nikolai Seven’ in The Telling of Tell Yunatsite (2019).