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Heaney’s Hauntings: Archaeology, Poetry and the ‘Gendered Bog’

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Abstract

In this paper we discuss the entangled relationship between literary creation, archaeology and representations of gender in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, in particular the ‘bog poems’ The Tollund Man and Bogland. We trace the early formative connections between the poet, peatlands and ‘bog body’ research, in which both literary critical and archaeological scholars have analysed themes including ‘the bog as archive’, theory and practice of archaeology and the process of poetic creation and imagining in Heaney’s writings. We discuss archaeological perspectives on Heaney’s poetry, and outline literary critique that has problematised the representation of gender in the ‘bog poems’. Finally, we consider the poem Bogland and read this through the lens of Irish peatland archaeology, in particular its destruction by industrial peat extraction. To conclude, we reflect how Heaney’s poetry as a form of archaeological knowledge and narratives must continue to be subject to ‘excavation’, contextual readings and critique.

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... There is a pressing need to radically reorient national attitudes towards these landscapes, requiring a multidisciplinary approach that marries the relevant science, which establishes and outlines the crucial environmental role of peatlands, with a cultural analysis offering ways of valuing 'the bog' historically and aesthetically that do not reinforce a 'masculine' instrumentalist relationship with the natural, which regards it solely as inert material to be exploited. Seamus Heaney's writing often draws directly on the remarkable preserving and hoarding powers of 'the bog', alongside the act of digging and peat cutting as potent metaphors of creativity and identity, but fails to consider the irony that 'the past' is being literally erased through the excavation of peat (Everett and Gearey 2019). In contrast, O'Brien's fiction alerts us to the historical damage this kind of appropriative attitude has caused to both humans and nonhumans, while championing in its place qualities historically coded as 'feminine': humility, vulnerability, and receptivity. ...
... Peatlands are exceptional archaeological resources due to the fact that the saturated conditions preserve organic remains that rarely survive on dryland sites. A remarkable range of sites and artefacts have been recovered from Irish bogs (Everett and Gearey 2019), but the processes of exposure and hence discovery (drainage and peat cutting) are also ultimately the agents of destruction, as very few sites are preserved in situ. Ironically, this process, which is described in Heaney's poem, The Tollund Man, as revealing a: "Trove of the turfcutters'/Honeycombed workings', may act to erase material forms of cultural memory. ...
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In this paper, we discuss ‘turf-cutting’, or the ‘harvest’ of peat, a centuries-long agricultural practice in Ireland. Although healthy peatlands are known to be carbon sinks, calls for the end of peat cutting are controversial in a country still largely defined by rural traditions. We consider the relationship between peat, peat cutting and identity: the ‘bog’ features significantly in literature and has played a central role in notions of a specifically gendered version of ‘authentic’ Irishness. The cutting of peat exposes and destroys cultural heritage in the form of the archaeological record, and we contrast this reality with the representation of peat cutting in the poetry of Seamus Heaney. We then focus on the fiction of Edna O’Brien, for whom the bog is precious, meaningful, culturally and aesthetically, when left in its undisturbed state, or when explored to connect to the past rather than fuel patriarchal desires.
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Chapter
Introduction The waterlogged and anoxic conditions within peatlands can result in the exceptional preservation of a diverse range of material, which provides a unique record of past societies and the environment. Organic remains which are entirely lost from the record on dryland sites may be preserved for millennia within peat. Certain of these finds are among the most vivid and also the most vulnerable evidence of past people and cultures that archaeology is able to provide the world over. Peat also preserves a wide range of ‘fossil’ material that has long been central to understanding patterns of vegetation change and human impact on the environment. Recent work is now beginning to realise the full potential of peatlands as records of climatic change that may be regarded as the terrestrial equivalent of ice core records. Both the archaeological and palaeo-environmental records are fragile, finite and unique resources, the future survival of which is inseparable from the fate of peatlands. Three interrelated aspects of peatlands as knowledge archives (archaeology, palaeoecology and conservation ecology; Figure 6.1) can be broadly defined which have synergies but has generally different research agendas, although knowledge transfer between the areas of archaeology/palaeoecology and conservation ecology has increased in recent years (see below). One aim of this chapter is to illustrate the distinctive value of the peatland archive for each of these agendas, but also to highlight the specific value of such work within the context of ecosystem services. In particular, by providing long-term records of ecological processes that cannot be attained through ‘real-time’ monitoring projects, palaeo-environmental data have the potential to inform the future restoration and management of peatlands. Finally, the archaeological and palaeo-environmental archive is also vulnerable to a range of threats, and this chapter discusses the importance of integrated restoration and management to best protect this fragile resource. The archaeo-environmental record of peatlands The archaeological and palaeo-environmental (archaeo-environmental for short) record of peatlands is included in the ‘Cultural services’ section of the peatland ecosystem services framework within the ‘Physical and intellectual interaction with biota, ecosystems, and landscapes’ division and the ‘Intellectual and representative interactions’ group (see Chapter 1; Table 1.1).
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In 2003, the discovery in Irish peat bogs of two well-preserved Iron Age bodies provided an opportunity to undertake detailed scientific analysis with a view to understanding how, when, and why the two young male victims were killed and their bodies consigned to the bogs. Research also looked at other Iron Age objects deposited ritually in peat bogs, including other bog bodies. The locations at which the bodies were discovered were researched and a wealth of historical, folklore, and mythological material was consulted to assist interpretation of the finds. A theory was developed that appears to explain not only the ritual killings in question but also the deposition of bog bodies and other objects in peat bogs in proximity to significant territorial boundaries. The theory links the bog bodies with kingship and sovereignty rituals during the Iron Age.
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Within the narrative poetics of the archaeological find, accounts of the discovery of beautifully preserved Iron Age bodies in the peatbogs of Northwestern Europe constitute a particularly complex, well-defined and resonant subgenre. A reading of the genre's founding text, P.V.Glob's The Bog People , reveals a repertoire of tropes and topoi that will inform subsequent fictional treatments of bog body finds. Arguing that the poetic specificity of the bog body lies in its extraordinary capacity to abolish temporal distance and mediate between past and present, this article seeks to define the figure as a special kind of chronotopic motif, or mnemotope : a site of temporal compression, a space in which one time comes alive within another, manifesting the presence of the past. Fictional texts by Margaret Atwood, Anne Hébert and Margaret Drabble provide the focus for an analysis of the complex exchanges, both narrative and symbolic, mediated by the mnemotope in the memory work of cultures and individuals.
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New Literary History 30.1 (1999) 239-262 A certain spatial turn," Fredric Jameson tells us, "has often seemed to offer one of the more productive ways of distinguishing postmodernism from modernism proper, whose experience of temporality -- existential time, along with deep memory -- it is henceforth conventional to see as a dominant of the high modern." He is too circumspect -- too cagey, some might say -- to have written, "Time is to modernism as space is to postmodernism," but clearly this is something like what he means. Stripped of its Jamesonian qualifications, the hypothesis of the postmodern spatial turn looks vulnerable to all kinds of objections: that it mystifies the categories of time and space, that it defers to the structuralist logic of binary opposition, that there is too much slippage in all four key terms for us to get a semantic fix on the proposition. And yet, and yet. . . . Flawed as it is, the spatial turn hypothesis continues to seem worth entertaining for its heuristic promise, for its potential to illuminate a whole range of postmodern phenomena, not least (as I hope to demonstrate here) postmodernist poetic practice. Think of it, then, as a heuristic tool. Like other tools, heuristic and otherwise, it needs calibrating. For there is at least one respect in which, well before the onset of postmodernism (by anyone's account), modernism had already undergone a spatial turn of its own. High modernism conspicuously privileged the spatial dimension of verticality or depth; indeed, the figure of depth was arguably one of modernism's master-tropes. However, to assert this is not to contradict the thesis of the modernist temporal dominant, but rather to corroborate it. For "depth" in modernism is spatialized time, the past (whether personal and psychological or collective and historical) deposited in strata. The sources of this master-trope are many, but they certainly include the actual archaeological discoveries that coincided with the onset (with the various onsets) of high modernism: the discovery of the painted caves of Europe, beginning early in the nine-teenth century and continuing at an accelerated rate into the twentieth (Altamira, 1879; Les Trois Frères, 1916; Lascaux, 1940); Schliemann's finds at Troy (1873) and Mycenae (1876); Evans's at Knossos (1900); Carter's opening of Tutankhamun's tomb (1922); and so on. Arguably the most important figure to have registered the imaginative impact of the archaeological discoveries of the modernist era was, of course, Sigmund Freud, and Freud's use of archaeological tropes for the "stratified" structure of the psyche and the "excavatory" work of psychoanalysis is a second major source for the modernist master-trope of depth. We know of Freud's preoccupation with archaeology not only from his writings but also, perhaps even more revealingly, from his own personal collection of antiquities. Ringing him at his writing-desk and mingling with his patients in his consulting-room, these synecdochic figures of archaeological "deep time" even followed Freud into exile in London at the end of his life. Freud evidently found the archaeological metaphor for the psyche and its products (for example, dreams), and for the work of psychoanalysis itself, irresistible, returning to it throughout his career, early and late. In doing so, in the view of Freudian critics of Freud, such as Donald Spence, he did both psychoanalysis and archaeology a disservice: psychoanalysis, because he burdened it with a master-trope that has subsequently hardened into an ideology; archaeology, because he attributed to it a kind of "scientism" a good deal less sophisticated, hermeneutically speaking, than archaeological procedures and archaeological thought really are. Other critics, more sympathetic to Freud, have observed that the archaeological model of psychoanalytic process alternates in his writing and thought with other, more constructivist models, whereby truth is not recovered by excavating the deep strata of the patient's psyche, but rather constructed in the therapeutic encounter -- not so much an archaeological dig, then, as a kind of collaborative novel. Nevertheless, the archaeological model, whenever it appears in Freud's writings, belongs to the positivist side of his intellectual makeup, underwriting a discourse of epistemological mastery. Intellectually dubious though it might be, the Freudian appropriation of archaeology has proven to...
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