Archaeology Meets Poetry: Writing A White Year

Archaeology Meets Poetry: Writing A White Year

Poet Anna Lewis walks us through the evolution of her latest collection, A White Year.

Among the starlings, swifts and whimbrels, the peat moors north and west of Glastonbury began in the late nineteenth century to receive a new influx of seasonal visitors. They were led by Arthur Bulleid, a 26-year-old medical student possessed by a deep interest in archaeology and pre-history. Around 1888, Bulleid had learned of an extraordinary discovery made some decades earlier on the shores of Lac Neuchȃtel in Switzerland: a whole village of Iron Age huts, along with the remains of a wooden causeway apparently used as a point from which to deposit valuable offerings into the waters. The village, La Tène, became famous around the world.

Arthur Bulleid was a local boy, whose father had founded the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society. He knew that the lowlands around Glastonbury had once been far wetter than they were presently: drainage of the Somerset Levels began in the Middle Ages, but in earlier times they were bog-like and subject to bouts of sea-flooding. Bulleid believed that a settlement like that at La Tène could have existed at Glastonbury, and for four years he spent his holidays and weekends walking the fields, systematically assessing the land for clues. It was an audacious idea, with no concrete evidence to underlie it, but Bulleid had a visionary’s conviction.

In 1892 he found what he was looking for. A kilometre to the north of Glastonbury he identified a field with an uneven surface, covered with low mounds. Moles digging there had brought up fragments of pottery, whetstone and bone. Bulleid assembled a small team, and began to excavate what would prove to be the richest Iron Age settlement in Britain. For six years they dug for six months out of every twelve, and brought in their wake a retinue of day-trippers from the south-west and beyond. After a gap in excavations for several years, Bulleid began work again in 1904 with the assistance of Harold St George Gray, a trained archaeologist; in 1911 and 1917 they published two epic excavation reports.

The Iron Age village was about a hectare in size, and consisted of a cluster of round-houses built and re-built between roughly 250 and 50 BC. At its maximum extent about 200 people lived there, in perhaps around 20 houses. Crafts including pottery, metal-working, spinning and weaving were carried out on the site, and despite its isolated location it was not an insular community. The River Brue provided a channel for trade, supplying lead and stone from the Mendips, copper and tin from mines further afield, and glass and amber from perhaps as far away as mainland Europe. Arthur Bulleid brought to light a village and, with it, a wider Iron Age world.

Growing up just a few miles away, in Wells, I was faintly aware of the ‘Isle of Avalon’, and of the disappeared lake and village, but I didn’t pay great attention to the site until I began studying for a PhD in Iron Age archaeology at the University of Leicester. There, I came across the Glastonbury excavation reports. In the autumn of 2014 I climbed Glastonbury Tor, and looked down on a sea of mist; I remember the heads and torsos of cows apparently swimming through the fields, their legs swaddled by a cloud which rose up from the ground rather than descending from the sky. This was after the floods of winter 2013-2014, when parts of the Levels were cut off for weeks and many people lost their homes. Then, the fields around Glastonbury were blue with water. These events illustrated dramatically the accounts I was reading in the excavation reports, of life on the Levels two thousand years ago: water levels began to rise some time before 100 BC, and the lake community had to contend with flooding, subsidence and storms. The village shrank as flood-water and silt took over the site, before it was eventually abandoned.

2013 and 2014 brought humid, overcast summers characterised by violent hailstorms and flash floods; where I lived the winters were rainy, but mild and devoid of snow. Writing in “real time” as the months passed, I began work on a long, cyclical poem recounting a year in the lake village, exploring the progress of the seasons and tracing the environmental impact of a changing climate. Details came both from the excavation reports and from the world I saw around me: a blackbird nesting in the bush outside my parents’ window, clouds of starlings billowing across the winter sky, and black liquid-filled craters down on the Levels where peat is still cut. One particular detail from the excavations impressed itself upon me: the fact that, although there is very little evidence for the disposal of adult human remains at Glastonbury, several infant skeletons were recovered from the hut floors. The sequence started to take shape around the figure of a child.

As I re-drafted and re-drafted, a connection began to build in the poems between the death of an infant, environmental decline, and certain beliefs and ritual practices suggested by details in the archaeology, such as the votive deposition of valuable metalwork into the marsh. The ambiguity of these connections was amplified by the narrator’s own status as a child, a person not fully privy to the secrets of the adult world, but also – as all children are – a keeper of secrets himself. But there was a risk where my imagined narrative met the archaeology. I wanted to tell a story with these poems, but in developing a sense of human drama and mystery, I was wary of exploiting or sensationalising the archaeological material. I wanted neither wild insinuations nor rigid conclusions. We know that the climate deteriorated; we know that the villagers lived a life close to nature, guided by the seasons; we know that children died, and after death were sometimes treated differently from adults. I drew these themes into a loose narrative, imagining a boy faced with the inexplicable reality of a playmate’s demise and death, and surrounded by a world of adult behaviour every bit as unfathomable as the movement of the planets or the phases of the moon.

The story is not told in a straight-forward linear way, but in a mixture of observations and memories moving through the course of the year. The result is a cycle of poems in four sections, corresponding broadly to the seasons. I hope that in some way the poems might contribute to an understanding of the lake village; but I say that with much caution. Although the sequence is based on specific archaeological detail, it is not so much a direct interpretation of the evidence as an impression of the world the evidence suggests – a plausible fiction. In this sense the poems can also be read as depicting events outside linear time, part of a larger story: that of environmental forces still at work today, and of human responses to a world we only superficially control.


A White Year is available now from Maquette