Archaeologist Sarah Milledge Nelson, alumna of the University of Michigan, distinguished university professor emerita at the University of Denver, and award-winning author of scholarly works, has just published Ancient China’s Tiger Queen, her third novel. In it, Nelson tells the story of a real queen of the Shang dynasty in ancient China, who was also a general, a shaman, a landowner, and the mother of three children. Nelson talked with UMMAA about the whys and hows of writing fiction as an archaeologist, and what novels can accomplish that archaeology cannot.
Nelson’s first and second novels are Spirit Bird Journey and Jade Dragon. Although the three books are not a trilogy, they are connected, explained Nelson.
“The theme that relates them is strong women leaders,” she explained. “And they go in chronological order: Early Neolithic, Late Neolithic, and Bronze Age." Tiger Queen takes place in the Shang Dynasty, which was during the second millennium BCE.
Though they are fictional tales, her novels all have unassailable foundations in archaeology.
“I have invented as little as possible,” she said. “I made use of both archaeological and written materials. I wanted to be able to reply to those skeptical of the women leaders in the stories. To those who have asked, “How do you know the chief was a woman?” my reply is simply, how do you know it’s not so? Using the archaeological evidence, a story with a woman chief is just as plausible as a story with a male chief.”
Nelson’s first two novels are based on excavations she participated in. Spirit Bird Journey is based on her work at Osanni on the west coast of Korea. That novel was translated into Korean, and for those who want to visit it, there is a museum at the small village nearby. The second novel takes place in northeast China, at Niuheliang, which is called the Goddess Temple for a sculpture fragment made of unbaked clay: a female face inset with green jade eyes.
Ancient China’s Tiger Queen is based on the first readable Chinese writing—that of the oracle bones—and the grave of Fu Hao, a consort of King Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty. Although Nelson was not part of the crew at this site, she visited it three times and spoke with Dr. Zheng Zhen Xiang, the director of the first excavation of Fu Hao’s tomb, and two Anyang archaeologists still working there, Jing Zhi Cheng and Tang Ji Gen.
Nelson read and taught for years about the Shang dynasty and King Wu Ding’s most important queen, and she wrote and rewrote the novel over a decade.
The main character of Ancient China’s Tiger Queen is Lady Hao (fu is the Chinese word for lady, Nelson explains), who (in the story) introduces horses and chariots to Shang from her homeland to the north, and thus allows her husband, King Wu Ding, to establish an empire.
To help guide readers who are not familiar with the history of Shang, each chapter begins with a quote to situate the story in the archaeological discourse about the site. Author’s notes are added at the end to explain some debatable interpretations of the evidence and to allow students to critique those choices. For example, nobody knows why or how horses suddenly appear in Shang.
“The origins of horseback riding in China are still in dispute,” Nelson wrote. “In fact, there is still controversy over the earliest horse riding in Central Asia, which presumably antedated that of China by thousands of years… Horse bones are found in several sites in the Chinese Neolithic, especially the north and west, regions that would have been in touch with horse breeders on the steppes. This is the region where I have imagined Lady Hao to have been born and raised. But no one has yet studied how Neolithic horses were used, or even whether they were wild or domesticated.”
It’s not hard to see the dominant theme in Nelson’s work. In addition to three novels, Nelson has published ten scholarly books—including the classic Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige, which is still selling and still cited after more than twenty years—and edited eight other volumes.
Nelson believes that archaeological explanations will always be about males until archaeologists are able to show that women were an important part of cultural evolution, and the agency of women is established and taken for granted. For the most part, when you say “the leader,” people think of a male, Nelson points out. She wants to put a dent in that assumption.
But despite her efforts, and those of fellow archaeologists, the rate of change has been slow.
“In terms of archaeology, I don’t think [gender] has been taken seriously by those who write grand theory,” Nelson said. “Very few women have made an impact on the field in terms of theory. Feminist/gender archaeology is still considered a fringe endeavor in many places.”
Frustrated with the lack of progress in gender archaeology, Nelson decided to try a different tack: try to connect with the public through novels about women in archaeology.
“The novels—I’m trying to say something I can’t articulate in a scholarly book,” she said. “Their purpose and their audience is different.”
After many years, she believes there are signs of a change—not necessarily in the field of archaeology, but in society at large.
“In American culture, I think the landscape has shifted a lot,” said Nelson. “There are women leaders in many fields. Women are being accepted as equal to men.”
Nelson’s interest in archaeology began when, as a child, she read a classic work on world civilization.
“A series about civilization by Will and Ariel Durant, beginning with Babylon, left me totally entranced—I had to read every word, even the tiny footnotes. That was when I knew I wanted to study the ancient world, but I didn’t yet know archaeology was the way I would do it.”
The next piece of the puzzle fell into place a bit later, when the right work of fiction found its way into Nelson’s hands.
“The Source, by James Michener, showed me that archaeology was really about stories,” she recalled. “It made me want to be an archaeologist.”
Nelson’s books are available at Amazon.com.