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Beyond Stone & Bone

How Henry VIII’s Racy Sex Life Turned Me into An Archaeological Writer
by Heather Pringle
July 30, 2010

Yesterday, British blogger Ed Yong put out a call in cyberspace asking science writers to fess up publicly to how they had arrived at their chosen line of work. As you can see over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, dozens of my colleagues began instantly pounding their keyboards: within 9 hours, Yong had 49 responses. New York writer Carl Zimmer said he’d lucked into the job thanks to a stint he did as a fact-checker at Discover magazine: Steve Silberman traced his love of science to, among other things, blowing stuff up with a childhood chemistry set.

In the spirit of these disclosures,  I thought I’d divulge how it was that I became an archaeological writer. I wish I could point to something really glorious, say a brilliant grade-five school project in which I learned to recreate the Elgin Marbles with just toothpicks and Wite-out. Or that I spent my summers as a child in the south of France,  mastering Mousterian flint-knapping.

But the truth is considerably more humble. I grew up in an oil-boom city in northern Alberta where all the architecture looked as if it had just been shaken loose from packing crates. Everything was bright and new and oh so determinedly modern.  There wasn’t a single building standing in my home city that dated back more than 100 years. As a result,  I grew up thinking that Alberta had very little history, and no prehistory at all.

I loved to read, however, and I was fascinated by the past. And as a young teenager, I stumbled upon the shelves of historical novels in a little local library, and began hungrily quaffing these books down. Before long, I had devoured stacks of novels on Tudor England (I particularly loved Henry VIII’s complicated  sex life), Renaissance Italy, ancient Egypt, classical Rome, and classical Greece.  I read just about every book Mary Renault ever wrote.

I didn’t know it at the time, but many these novels were often thinly disguised social histories, lovingly detailed tableaus of  royal court life, say, or ancient Greek temples. At university, I majored in history and studied English literature, particularly Victorian novels, with their detailed portraits of 19th century British life. When I finally graduated, I snagged one of the coolest jobs on the planet–as a research assistant in the history department of a major museum.

As historical archaeologists know, it’s a very small jump from history to archaeology and when I finally began freelance writing in the early 80s, I gravitated to writing about archaeology: I’ve never looked back.  I guess the conclusion to be be drawn from all of this is that there is no set career path to becoming a science writer.  Nearly any road can lead to Rome.

Today, after nearly three decades of laboring in the trenches (literally and figuratively) as a archaeological writer,  my view of the world has changed radically. I now see invisible worlds–of the Minoans when I walk in Crete, the Nasca when I drive the Pan-American, and the Lapita people when I fly over the turquoise waters of the  South Pacific.

I know now that Alberta has a long and rich prehistory, stretching back nearly 11,000 years. Thank you, Mary Renault.  Thank you, Henry VIII,  for opening my eyes.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

8 comments for "How Henry VIII’s Racy Sex Life Turned Me into An Archaeological Writer"

  • Reply posted by Cherie (August 1, 2010, 7:01 pm):

    Thanks for your “how I got interested” story. Well done!

    Hmm-this “comment” section doesn’t like one liners!

    I write Archaeology stories about my adventures and misadventures over the past 20 years-all are true!

    I got into archaeology when I was about 9 years old and dug up my grand mother’s back yard. I spent my adult career as an RN then at 40 years of age I took archaeology classes. Retired I am into it full blast. And what a blast!

         

  • Reply posted by Maria Eliferova (August 17, 2010, 3:06 am):

    Well… I read a lot of Jules Verne when a child. That what I believe made me convert finally to cultural anthropology. Now I see I was doomed! Jules Verne and Fenimore Cooper did it.

         

  • Reply posted by Rachel Bowman (August 17, 2010, 2:42 pm):

    Thanks for this little peek into how you started writing on archaeological topics! I’ve enjoyed and admire your writing and it’s good to know someone else reads historical fiction (although I’ve found some novels less “historical” and more “fiction,” especially romance-based novels!). You give me, a features writer and editorial assistant at a mid-sized daily newspaper, hope that someday I’ll be able to follow my archaeology dreams and put my writing to good use at the same time!

         

  • Reply posted by Kat Atkins (August 26, 2010, 9:41 pm):

    I love hearing how people got into their choice of careers. Ever since I could remember, I would prowl the shelves of my public library for historical fiction books…particularly on ancient civilizations and the Tudors. Though still working my way through college, my dream of discovering more of these cultures through archaeology has never diminished through the years. Glad to know that childhood passions can evolve into long-term careers!

         

  • Reply posted by keth (September 29, 2010, 6:17 am):

    Got into history as a child – like you, I always loved the Tudors and Henry VIII’s complicated love life! Currently studying at college to try to get the grades needed to start a history degree next year – doing Greeks, Romans, Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and Archaeology, which is all new to me! Having so much fun with it – and doing research for this, i found your journal – fantastic!

         

  • Reply posted by Rebecca (November 9, 2010, 4:26 pm):

    I also got my love of history/archeology from my first book about Henry VIII. I was fascinated by the power he had over a kingdom ruled by his passions & whims.

         

  • Reply posted by Laz Green (December 29, 2010, 3:14 pm):

    Why did I get into Archaeology?

    Two words.

    Indiana Jones.

         

  • Reply posted by A.J (March 11, 2011, 12:26 am):

    I just remembered memorizing war dates and the names of pharaohs for history test in junior high and it didn’t feel like studying at all, and finished the whole text book on the first two weeks of school, I guess that’s how I realised archaeology is what I want to do.

         


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.

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