Our Kindred

A Christmas gift I’ve received for the last few years is a subscription to ‘Current Archaeology’, a monthly magazine which is full of articles, reviews, reports on… archaeology! It’s interesting, well written, varied, very current, has a nice engagement with readers, has great photographs and illustrations and diagrams, and is the sort of magazine that takes a good long while to read because it has so much in it, and also one you can go back to if you develop[ a new interest in a particular period. One useful thing it does is refer back to articles in previous copies with a reference number of the particular edition.

In the current edition there is a fascinating article by Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes entitled ‘Neanderthal neighbours – tracing evidence for our closest hominim relatives in Britain.’  It’s a period of history I am fascinated by and I was fascinated by Rebecca’s article which was so engagingly written that when, at the end of the article I saw she had written a book, I mentioned it to my husband. It was just a casual conversation but he secretly went and bought it for me! It is ‘Kindred:Neanderthal, life, love death and art’. I read in bed before I go to sleep, so that night I dived in, knowing that I would find it interesting and well-written, but never guessing that it would be so interesting and so beautifully and fantastically well written, that I think it is now topping the list of my favourite best-ever books.

It’s physically a beautiful book to hold and the quality of the cover and pages and the style is lovely – plus the illustrations at the head of each chapter. The chapters cover the areas the title suggests but from an interesting perspective, as their titles indicate:

  1. The First Face
  2. The River Fells the tree
  3. Bodies Growing
  4. Bodies Living
  5. Ice and Fire
  6. The Rocks Remain
  7. Material World
  8. Eat and Live
  9. Chez Neanderthal
  10. Into the Land
  11. Beautiful Things
  12. Minds Inside
  13. Many Ways to Die
  14. Time Travellers in the Blood
  15. Denouements
  16. Immortal Beloved

At the beginning of each chapter there is a small line drawing, for example, for the introduction there is an image looking out of a cave, down over the countryside with a single small figure in silhouette.  There is a brief prologue I guess you might call it to each chapter, which is a beautifully written imagining of some aspect of what we will read. For chapter two, the reader is invited to imagine themselves ‘in the place before time’; our mother is before us, and then with a rustle of footsteps, our grandmother appears, ‘maybe you spoke to her last week, or twenty years ago, or maybe you only know her from a blurred photograph.’ Our grandmother holds our mother’s hand, and then turns and behind her is her mother, and then her mother and so on, a line of women linked and bonded. It is a wonderful, startling and yet moving image. After the brief imagined scene as an introduction, the rest of each chapter is a mixture of archaeology, science, forensics, history, geology – some of it is really tricky and complex stuff, and to be honest, some of it I don’t quite understand or follow! However, I do understand most of it and the beauty of the way it is written keeps me engrossed so I do follow the sense of what is being said even if I don’t fully comprehend each little detail.

I almost wish I kept a commonplace book, and maybe I will start one, because there are so many lovely phrases, comical and amusing turns of speech, interesting observations and thoughts and speculations, that I keep thinking I should jot them down. Maybe when I finish the book, I will read it again, and make note of some of the things which I have read out to my husband – as we do when we find something special in whatever we are reading. I’m on Chapter 10 now, I’m not hurrying, it’s not a book I can gallop through, but I am enjoying every page – and I hope my book club is too because I have recommended it as our next read!

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