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A Prehistorian at large in Robert Harris’s new thriller

Robert Harris’ characteristically gripping thriller about the race to locate the launch sites of the deadly German V2 ballistic bombs that rained on London in 1944 includes a cameo by the celebrated prehistorian, Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968).

Dorothy Garrod in the WAAF

Dorothy Garrod plays the mentor of one of the principal characters in Harris’s story. She comes across as benign and thoughtful as well as punctiliously diligent. What Harris doesn’t let on is that she was Britain’s premier palaeolithic archaeologist at the time. Having studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and following major cave excavations at Gibraltar, in Kurdistan and on Mt. Carmel, Garrod was elected to be the Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, the only woman to hold this post.

Garrod had served as a front-line nurse with the Catholic Women’s League in the First World War, and so, very much in character, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and until 1945 oversaw a section at RAF Medmenham concerned with analysing air photographs. It is in this discrete country house setting that Harris places Garrod, along with the erstwhile pupil who, in late 1944, gets close to identifying the V2 bases near The Hague.

Harris describes the technique of overlaying photographs and using a binocular magnifying glass to trace likely military targets such as the rocket launch sites. The very same technique was subsequently used by archaeologists to locate sites and cultural landscapes until the age of satellite imagery. Millions of wartime RAF reconnaissance photographs

for a long time were the premier aerial resource for archaeologists in many parts of Europe.

How I wished Harris with his elegant phrasing had dwelt a little longer on Garrod and her extraordinary academic career. Her life like many pioneering women archaeologists merits a novel or more.

Robert Harris, V2, (London, Huthchinson, 2020)

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