Haunt This Place: Fantasy, Archaeology, and the Ghosts of the Land

Haunt This Place: Fantasy, Archaeology, and the Ghosts of the Land

Penelope Foreman (Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, penelope.foreman@cpat.org.uk)

Katy Soar (University of Winchester, katy.soar@winchester.ac.uk)

The landscape looms as a character in the depths of our imagination, mercurial and trickster in nature. It can be home, warm, welcome, fertile, mothering – or harsh, unforgiving, unknowable, untameable, othering. From folk horror to fairytale, it leaves us with a deep impression of temporality and tradition, the lingering hint of things broader, deeper, wider than ourselves.

Derridean “hauntology” provides us with a framework for looking at this contradictory, complex creature. We cannot see the true nature of the landscape: it has become haunted with the ghosts of pasts, presents, and parallel places that are created in our own personal memoryscapes. Michael Bell calls this the ‘ghosts of place’, the felt presence of certain sites, ‘an anima, geist, or genius … that possesses and gives a sense of social aliveness to a place’ (Bell 1997: 813-814).

Archaeology and literature work in different ways to address this haunting. From Alan Garner’s drenching of place with human action and emotion, to assemblage driven discussions on the agency and materiality of the landscape-as-thing, archaeological interpretation and fantasy literature attempt the same mental sleights of hand to suspend our instinctual and postmodern landscape perceptions, and challenge us to see the ghosts.

We invited speakers to examine ways that haunted landscapes are presented, developed, and explored in either fantasy or archaeology, or a blend of both.

Bell, M. M. 1997. The ghosts of place, Theory and Society (26): 813-36

Keywords: ​landscape, hauntology, Derrida, materiality, fantasy literature



“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls”. Alan Garner, Archaeologists, and the Fearful Art of Storytelling

Penelope Foreman (Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, penelope.foreman@cpat.org.uk)

“…we have to tell stories to unriddle the world”

So wrote Alan Garner, setting out his belief in the role of storyteller-as-medium for the time deep, psychic energy redolent landscape where myth weaves a common thread through human experience in a constantly changing, eternally persisting pattern. His works are rooted in landscape, and his belief in a tangible energy of place that he remolds as “pure energy, in a new form, which will be the book” places him squarely in the same territory as archaeologists. Whether it’s exploring myth, steeped in local tradition, being haunted by experiences of being in the landscape, excavating sites, analysing finds, or interpreting results for myriad audiences – we are telling stories and reclothing old ghosts in new guises. This paper examines how landscapes haunt Garner’s works, and what we can learn from the way he has translated old ghost stories into new mythologies.






Pausanias, Modern Folklore, and Literal Ghosts of Place

Juliette Harrison (Newman University, Birmingham, Juliette.Harrisson@staff.newman.ac.uk)

Pausanias shows an interest in all sorts of ‘ghosts of place’ throughout his description of Greece during the Roman period. For almost every location, he cites myths, folk tales and historical tidbits about the area, and so every location is haunted by folk memories of heroes, villains, builders, monuments, battles and other echoes of Classical Greece. Pausanias also tells six stories about literal ghosts, that is, about appearances of deceased mortals to the living.

Pausanias’ stories are, of course, tied inextricably to particular places. This paper will compare Pausanias’ ghost stories with superficially similar modern narratives. It will ask to what extent we can see continuity in oral traditions about ghosts tied to specific places from ancient Greece through to the modern world, and in what ways Pausanias’ reporting of ancient Greek folklore differs from modern oral, written, and online traditions.​


M.R. James and the Ghosts of Archaeology

Martyn Barber (Historic England, Martyn.Barber@HistoricEngland.org.uk)

The ghost stories of M. R. James, written with the aim of instilling “a pleasing terror in the reader”, drew heavily on James’ own interests and experiences as a scholar, which focused mainly on biblical and medieval matters. Encounters with objects, manuscripts and places led his all-too-curious protagonists into the path of some distinctly supernatural unpleasantness, or worse.

Between the two world wars, British archaeology – and particularly prehistory – underwent a process of increasing professionalisation. James will have been well aware of the tensions arising from this, particularly through his status as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and as a Commissioner of the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England (RCHME). These tensions are particularly evident in some of his later stories, which seem haunted by the spectre of archaeology itself. Meanwhile, those same stories also suggest he may have been aware of just how ghost-ridden contemporary, ‘scientific’, archaeology actually was.


Haunted Futures and Alien Archaeologies

Philip Boyes (University of Cambridge, pjb70@cam.ac.uk)

While often associated with the new and the futuristic, science fiction and science fantasy frequently concern themselves with the past, especially its material remains. Within ‘hard’ science fiction that strives for scientific verisilimitude, the idea of alien ruins, huge derelict ships and devices or other abandoned spaces that must be explored by humans has long been one of the key ways writers have addressed the Fermi Paradox – the apparent absence of alien life in a galaxy that ought to be teeming. These material remains and invented landscapes are haunted by, and serve as proxies for, the imagined species and cultures that created them. Such fiction is fundamentally archaeological, inviting us to recontruct lost cultures through their material remains, but for all its scientism, it also frequently expresses a hauntological ambivalence towards the ruins it concerns itself with: the past is frequently unknowable, dangerous, prone to recurrence: while the material culture remains, the aliens are rarely completely gone.


Unpicking the Stitches in Time, or being Charlotte Sometimes: the Haunted Landscapes of Children’s Literature

Krystyna Truscoe (University of Reading, Krystyna.Truscoe@pgr.reading.ac.uk)

Travelling in time is a particular theme in 1960s and 1970s children’s literature, associated with haunting landscapes, archaeological sites and historical artefacts. The protagonists are often lonely and removed from their everyday lives through personal or family circumstances. The influences of the place that they find themselves or objects they encounter throw them into the past leading them to experience terrifying adventures or uncover tragic stories. They are either helpless bystanders or given a direct role in the action. These periods of time travel can be foreshadowed by ghostly apparitions and unexplained sounds. Landscape is a key element of these stories frequently reflecting the isolation of the main characters, from bleak coastland to a deserted village hidden in woodland. This paper will touch on other authors but focus particularly on the work of Robert Westall and Penelope Lively.


Cherishing the Past: The Ghost of Xuanzang in the Nineteenth-Century Rediscovery of Buddhist Sites in India

Paride Stortini (University of Chicago, paride@uchicago.edu)

The literary imaginaire of ghosts of the past have played an important role in motivating and directing the archaeological enterprises of the nineteenth century. Modern archaeology, in turn, has conferred factual value to religious imaginaire, thanks to its scientific authority. In this paper, I will focus on the haunting function that both the historical and literary figure of the seventh century pilgrim-monk Xuanzang had in the way East Asian Buddhists imagined India, the cradle of their religion, and how the account of his travels in India also influenced the rediscovery of the Buddhist sites in British India.

The case study for this analysis will be offered by the travel accounts to the Buddhist sacred sites of the nineteenth century Japanese priest-scholar Nanjō Bunyū, where modern philological and archaeological knowledge is combined with the imaginaire of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage and the literary conventions of huaigu poetry, Chinese poetry of ruins contemplation.


The Goose is Loose; Awakening the Spirit at Crossbones Graveyard: Myth, Mystery, and Gendering Space

Lucy Talbot (Winchester University, L.C.Talbot@unimail.winchester.ac.uk)

Here and now, by The Clink, at Liberty

We dance to a different tune,

Tonight John Crow dance in Cross Bones Yard

With Goose by the light of the moon…

– John Constable, Spark in the Dark (2014)

On the 23rd of November 1996, playwright John Constable claims to have been led to the gates of an urban wasteland by the spirit of a medieval prostitute, who told him of a major injustice. She had worked in the Liberty of the Clink but been denied a Christian burial. The spirit’s name was Goose and the wasteland, the forgotten Crossbones Graveyard. While Constable’s vision has certainly shaped the mythic identity of the burial site both physically and within public perception, little attention has been granted academically to understanding the Goose. This paper will examine representations of her and other spirits at Crossbones, including the Crossbones Girl and the Outcast Dead. Artistic and literary responses, rituals, the material culture found on-site will be explored, demonstrating how the presence of these spirits has weaved myth into historical fact. Myth that has aided in saving Crossbones from commercial development.


Strange Tales of Ancient Hillocks and Peculiar Stones

Nela Scholma-Mason (University of York, nelascholmamason@gmail.com)

What turns a field into a ‘haunted’ landscape? How does a large stone become a petrified giant? How does a grassy knoll become the abode of a capricious spirit? Why are people on Orkney to this day apprehensive of disturbing certain sites? Above all: how is it possible for such beliefs to last for centuries, if not longer?

This paper, based on my doctoral research (2017), discusses the representation of ancient sites in the folklore of the Orkney Islands, and what this can reveal about past ideas about an even earlier past. The discussion will range from medieval attitudes towards prehistoric sites to the narratives hidden in Victorian excavation reports. The talk adds to a growing field of research, highlighting how folklore can add an invisible layer to the topography of a place, and the value of considering local lore in archaeological research.


The Wilderness Savaged and Shared

Alicia Colson (Goldsmiths, University of London, alicia.colson@gmail.com)

Archaeologists working with pictographs located in the Boreal Forest (in the Canadian Shield) find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. For that landscape has two different meanings: to largely European settlers, and to the indigenous peoples, both of which are migrated there over the last millennia. Settlers largely drawn from Northern Europe see the Forest as stark, unforgiving, ‘relatively remote’ ‘pristine’, lacking the ‘civilization’ of the cities, yet industrial, demanding massive infrastructure. Labelled as “the North”- it was something to be ‘tamed’. By contrast indigenous peoples have shared this landscape since the Pleistocene with non-human persons, spirits, and animate objects in hunting and gathering, food preparation, consumption and discard, crafting and use of technology, settlement and household organisation, caching, burial, and ritual. This complexity is often missing from the literature on these pictograph sites. They appear ‘stuck in time’, in voids of their own.