• Spirit Bird Journey

  • Time travel to the archaelogical past
    Time travel to the archaelogical past

    Adopted from Korea as an infant, Clara journeys to Korea and finds more than she expected. She has left her partner, Ed, because his parents look down on her as “oriental.” In Korea, Clara’s face fits right in, but she can’t speak the language and doesn’t know the customs. In her journey to learn about Korea and seek her place in the world, she enters the ancient past as a bird. A baby girl of the Golden clan is born just as Clara appears, and she is named Flyingbird for this event. Clara as a golden bird becomes the spirit protector of Golden Flyingbird.


    Flyingbird was born to be the leader of the Golden Clan but she must find six amulets and learn the songs and rituals to earn the approval of the spirits. Her journeys take her by boat and on foot around Korea, and by dancing to the spirit world. She raises a bear cub for sacrifice, makes a household with two husbands, has four children, and becomes village leader.


    Clara’s many teachers include a suave Korean tutor, an eager archaeologist grad student, and other foreigners.She grows to understand Korea, as well as herself, and finds the lattice door of her only memory of Korea.


    Clara is excavating at the site of  Bird Mountain Village. In her visions she visits many of the places Flyingbird goes in the past. Details of the story are based on real archaeological sites in Korea and China.

  • Reviews

    "In Spirit Bird Journey, the author casts an astute eye on foreign encounters with Korea, and on the tricky question of what it means to be “Korean” or “American”. She provides an unromantic but thoroughly entertaining portrait of archaeologists at work."

    - Laurel Kendall, Asia Curator, American Museum of Natural History


    "Thoroughly delightful. . . Informed by some of the most sophisticated modern scholarship on ethnic identity, gender issues, reconstructing history from myth, and recreating prehistoric lifeways [which are] some of the key issues in contemporary anthropology. . . gripping and entertaining."

    - Lothar von Falkenhausen, UCLA


    "Nelson’s story is a multi-layered, complex study of identity, gender, archaeology, and adoptee issues. . . The story is seamless and well paced."

    - Andrea Lee, Korean Quarterly


    "A lyrical novel, which both entertains and informs without being self-indulgent."

    - Brian Fagan, Asian Perspectives


    "Nelson has given us a creative and full-of-life set of images, a truly ‘peopled past’”.

    - Margaret Conkey, American Antiquity


    "This intoxicating and poignant novel will grip you as it floats between the worlds of modern and ancient Korea."

    - Jared Diamond, UCLA, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel


    "This is a delightful book, whimsical yet based on solid scholarship"

    - James G. Patterson, Bibliophilos

  • Jade Dragon

  • This novel is an archaeological suspense story set in northeast China at a site that is called the Goddess Temple. Clara, protagonist of Nelson’s Spirit Bird Journey, begins work at an excavation at the Temple, only to discover the problems of contemporary looting, government meddling, and excavation interpersonal dynamics. Nelson’s story also describes the lifeways of the Neolithic people who used the temple thousands of years ago-- their economy, social structure, gender relations, and religious rituals-- through the eyes of a young woman living there. Written by a leading American archaeologist specializing in these topics, this volume is both a good read and good archaeology. An ideal starting point to introduce archaeology to college students.

  • Reviews

    "The people of the ancient past come alive through Nelson's novel . . . Jade Dragon is a good read-- and parts are extraordinarily rich in both emotion and ethnographic detail."

    - Adrian Praetzellis, Asian Perspectives


    “Dr. Nelson has done it again, with a novel featuring the young archaeologist from her previous novel "Spirit Bird Journey." Set in China, it is a skillful combination of archaeology, travelog, prehistoric fable, and this time around, even a ripping good adventure mystery. What a treat, to be edified and entertained at the same time. (We even learn some fascinating things about archaeoastronomy.) We grateful readers will eagerly await the next outing.”

    C. Leon McGahee, M.D.

  • Shamanism and the Origin of States

  • Sarah Milledge Nelson’s bold thesis is that the development of states in East Asia—China, Japan, Korea—was an outgrowth of the leadership in smaller communities guided by shamans. Using a mixture of historical documents, mythology, archaeological data, and ethnographic studies of contemporary shamans, she builds a case for shamans being the driving force behind the blossoming of complex societies. More interesting, shamans in East Asia are generally women, who used their access to the spirit world to take leadership roles. This work challenges traditional interpretations growth of Asian states, which is overlaid with later Confucian notions of gender roles. Written at a level accessible for undergraduates, this concise work will be fascinating reading for those interested in East Asian archaeology, politics, and society; in gender roles, and in shamanism.

  • Reviews

    "In this book Sarah Milledge Nelson suggests that shamanism was a significant building block for state formation in East Asia, and that women, who often had the shamanistic access to the spirit world, played an important role in this process. She shows how this would have been the case, by systematically going through archaeological, historical and ethnographic records of various regions of East Asia and surrounding areas, from Palaeolithic through early historic times, unravelling and rewinding various strands of mythological, ideological, documentary, and simply anthropological. Very convincingly, [Nelson] demonstrates the fun and value of an alternative approach to East Asian archaeology. "


    - Fumiko Ikawa-Smith, McGill University

  • Publications

  • Nelson, Sarah Milledge, editor, The Archaeology of Northeast China. Routledge Press, London, England, 1995;
    Nelson, Margaret, Sarah M. Nelson and Alison Wylie, editors, Equity Issues for Women in Archaeology, American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC, 1994;
    1993, Archaeology of Korea. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England;
    1990, "Diversity of the Upper Paleolithic "Venus" Figurines and Archaeological Mythology," in Powers of Observation, Alternative Views in Archaeology. S.M. Nelson and Alice B. Kehoe, eds., pp. 11-22;
    1990, "Neolithic Sites in Northeastern China and Korea," Antiquity, 64: 234-48. (also translated into Chinese)

  • Academic Literature

This portfolio last updated: 16-Jan-2018 2:53 PM