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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Controversial Bones in an English Archaeological Mystery

Elly Griffiths has been writing a mystery series about English archaeologist Ruth Galloway.  So I keep on hoping for some interesting archaeology in these books.  So far there hasn't been, but there were other aspects of A Room Full of Bones that piqued my interest.  My review is below.

First, let's get my historical problem out of the way.  Ruth Galloway finds herself dealing with the remains of a fictional medieval bishop named Augustine Smith.  For me, the biggest mystery was how someone with that name got to be a bishop.  Bishops were normally selected from noble families.  Many had French names because they were descended from the Norman conquerers like the Kings of England themselves.   Someone with the surname of Smith was descended from a smith, and would definitely be a commoner. Commoners didn't usually advance in the church during the medieval period.   In the novel itself,  we are told that this fictional Smith family was ennobled by Queen Elizabeth I.  That would have been a century or more after Augustine Smith became a bishop.  It wasn't impossible for someone named Augustine Smith to become a bishop in the 14th century, but it was improbable.  For Griffiths, the name of  this character is apparently not problematic, so she doesn't offer an explanation for Augustine Smith's elevated status.  I know that I'm being picky, but novelists who deal with historical content need to do basic research.  That way when historical amateurs like me review their books, they won't be including a paragraph like this one.

The sub-plot dealing with the repatriation of Australian aborigine bones was actually much more interesting to me.    For those who are interested in the Australian government's policy about repatriation, you can read it at Repatriation Policy August 2011 .  The UK co-operates with this policy. 

This novel mentions an aborigine who turns out to be the only poet to have written a poem on a sick bag aboard a hijacked airplane.  See Aborigine Poet Hijacked By Palestinians . If I hadn't seen this poet's aborigine name in this book, I would never have known about this 1974 incident.

 In the context of repatriation of bones, Ruth Galloway was reminded of a painting called "Can These Bones Live?"  I was intrigued enough to do a search for it because I wanted to see what Ruth found so striking about it.  The link is from the BBC website. It was painted by George Frederic Watts and can be found at the Watts Gallery in Surrey.  According to the George Frederic Watts article on Wikipedia, Watts was a Victorian painter who was known for the symbolism in his work.   

Frankly, Griffiths often invests more drama in the personal life of her protagonist than in her cases.  As a mystery fan, I find this disappointing,  Yet this particular novel did concern itself with some weightier matters that gave it more substance.


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