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Grappling with the Dark Ages: Max Adams at the Edinburgh Book Festival

How can we understand the past? It is a question that stretches from philosophy to biology, yet still seems infuriatingly unanswerable and is a problem that Max Adams is without doubt consumed by. The archaeologist-come-novelist has spent the past year exploring how we might come to understand people who we know so little about; that is the men and women of Dark Age Britain.

It is a period in history that is famously mythologised and romanticised, from fairy tales of King Arthur, to Christian propaganda surrounding St.  Columbus, the common perception of the Dark Ages was the it was just that: Dark.

Max Adams begins his talk with a tantalisingly leading title: The Dark Ages. For Adams the title is wholly underserved, born out of gothic romanticism of the fall of Rome as some sort of apocalypse. In terms of culture and art, Britain still flourished, being in the centre of both the Catholic and Norse empires, this was not a time of despair but great cultural growth, with national identities, such as Scottish, English and Welsh becoming prominent from one another.

The reason such a label exists is to do with a lack of context in the archaeological context; alongside incredible texts from the Catholic strongholds in Northumbria and Wessex are gaping holes of information about the movement of people, the economic growth and the social structure of Early Medieval Britain. It is for Adams both the problem and the intrigue of the period.

However, Adams has envisaged a new alternative way to treat the period and it is the reason for his being at the Book Festival is the concern of his latest book, The Land of Giants. Rather than relying on his background in Archaeology to guide his research, the author has taken to following a different line of investigation; that of walking.

At first I confess I was a little incredulous; the notion sounded a tad gimmicky, as well as adding even more imagination to a period that is already defined by conjecture, however after an hour of listening to Adams talk I was intrigued.

What he is trying to achieve is not any sort of theoretical conclusions or ground-breaking research. He is attempting to normalise the period and counter-intuitively ground it in reality: That is the reality of what one can see. In roaming the British landscape, from Devon to Iona, Adams has complied a book of personal accounts that weave certified history in with observations of what the Dark Age traveller would have seen themselves.

The idea of understanding the past through experiencing it is an attractive one and its an idea that Adams talks about convincingly. His charm and passion do make the idea of roaming Britain to ‘find’ the Dark Ages an entirely plausible notion, however the ideal of this is a little misleading. It isn’t history that Adams is engaging with but a sort of creative anthropology, where the landscape and its imprints are understood in an experienced way. It’s fascinating and definitely a worthwhile endeavour but it does have to be kept separate from history and archaeology

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