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24 May 2016 ·

Touching history

I’ve just spent a day with the archaeologist Sabine Beckmann in Gournia, Crete. I’ve found and held sherds of pottery that are more than 4000 years old, held a stone tool that a potter probably used, and stood on the clay floor that she would have sat on to work. The rest of the town is rock, but the potters’ work field is clay, from the years of clay spilled as the potters worked. Somehow, that makes it more real than if an entire ornate pot was sitting in the middle of it.
piece of a Minoan pot, found at Gournia, Crete
I fell in love with archaeology when I was 12.  Out riding in the Colorado foothills, I spotted Native American beads in an ant hill. Later I found cowrie shells, which, as we were about 2100 m (7000 ft) above sea level, and thousands of miles from the sea, were a mystery until an archaeologist explained that I’d been riding on a trading route: the cowries had been currency. What a call to adventure – finding treasure! Or at least links to the past. Maybe I should become an archaeologist as well as a writer – Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault’s novels, set in Roman Britain and Bronze Age Greece, had already made me determined to become a historical novelist.
The  outdoor space where the potters worked,
It’s taken a while, but those dreams have been bubbling away and germinating in the way that ideas do. I’ve been working on Dragonfly Song, set in the Aegean Bronze Age, for a few years, and the next book will be set in the same era and region. And now, I’ve had that concrete link – the reminder that whether or not there’s any truth in the stories we create for them, real people made these pots, these tools, these homes. They worked away at them, were frustrated when they made a mistake, proud when they created something beautiful. They were just as real and alive as we are now.

the Minoan town of Gournia, Crete
sacred stone
Archaeologist suggesting how offerings might have been arranged in the depressions in this stone
It’s humbling. And inspiring. My head is buzzing, and the new story is simmering…


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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Dragonfly Song, a novel in free verse and prose of an outcast girl who becomes a bull-leaper in Bronze Age Crete. Read full bio