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The best books on Archaeology

recommended by Neal Ascherson

The journalist, author and editor of the journal Public Archaeology, explains why the history of archaeology is a surprisingly bloody affair - 80% of the Polish archaeological profession died one way or another during WW2

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Tell us something about the early figures in archaeology, such as Christian Thomsen.

Christian Thomsen (1788-1865) was the first to to invent the idea of the three ages: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. He, and later Oscar Montelius (1843-1921), were both patriotic Danes who cooperated with the King and the court and who wanted to create a national narrative and create a glorious past that Denmark could allude to and be proud of. Several kings in other Scandinavian countries were keen archaeologists: getting down there in the mud and digging away themselves.

These Scandinavian kings encouraged the development of a professional Archaeology?

Yes. Generally speaking archaeology as a profession could never have emerged without the state nurturing it, fostering it, and shaping it as a structured profession. With the spread of subsidized national museums throughout Europe and the appointment of curators came the beginning of national archaeology services, often structured almost militarily – like tax collectors or police – with ranks, hierarchies, and local officers in each region or district. Also we see the spread through universities of chairs and professorships of ancient and pre-history. These, of course, continued to spread and served not only national but imperial interests.

I was surprised to see a book by Agatha Christie on your list: Come, Tell Me How You Live.

Agatha Christie was married to a man named Max Mallowan, a well-known archaeologist, particularly in the near east. She wrote Come, Tell Me How You Live in 1946. It’s a tremendously chirpy account of absolutely colonial archaeology: of expeditions in Syria or parts of Iraq and digging up mounds.

It’s a fun read, very cheerful, but one of the difficulties archaeology has is to try to extract itself from being a colonial profession and one of the very big questions now is what does archaeology mean to indigenous people in post-colonial continents? Does it really mean only the material relics of the past, or does it mean something broader and quite different from old-fashioned Eurocentric archaeology? Could it be that indigenous perspectives are more valid, more interesting than ours?

I notice that your next book is a Marxist book?

Yes, Vera Childe’s Progress in Archaeology, published in 1944. Childe became one of the great archaeologists of his time and his account of cultural evolution is very powerful and convincing. Although people have moved away from these ideas in many respects it is still a very important and influential book.

Childe was someone who originally believed in something called the Culture-Historical approach, but subsequently moved to a more liberal perspective. Can you explain what the Culture-Historical approach is?

Yes, it was invented in the very early 20th century and was associated with the German prehistorian Gustaf Kossinna. Culture-Historical theory or, sometimes Settlement Archaeology, roughly says that where you find a given assemblage of material culture there you are dealing with a given people. If say, 300 miles away you dig another hole and find the same pots, the same sort of sickle blades, the same way of constructing a thatched hut you know the same ‘biological’ folk lived in both places and were speaking the same language and probably looking similar too.
But there is a great big hole in the theory: similarity of material cultures does not necessarily mean similarity of ethnicity at all, otherwise every time in the future archaeologists dug up coca cola bottles they would say “oh Americans lived here”. See what I mean? There’s a big hole in the theory. However it was hugely influential. Kossinna died just before the Nazis came to power, luckily for him. They built a ferociously nationalistic pre-history out of this. They said: “We are going to show that the Germans were once predominant all over Europe. We’re going to dig a pit and find this Germanic culture and we will know that once the Germans were here and speaking this language”. So in the end Kossinna’s idea became an expansionist political gospel based on archaeology. Essentially: “All you have to do is dig a hole, if you find traces of Germanic culture that means the land once belonged to us”.
Central Europe has never really recovered from the Kossinna method. Even the people who hated the Germans adopted exactly the same methods. The Slavs, the Czechs and the Poles for example, none of whom were independent until 1918, said the German archaeologists are telling vicious lies and we shall use the spade to show that we the Slavs were here before the barbaric Germans and so on and so forth.

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Then came 1939 and the invasion of Poland. The SS moved in and, surprise surprise, they discovered that early Germanic people had been there first. They also shot Polish archaeologists. I think something like 80% of the Polish archaeological profession died one way or another during WW2. They were murdered because they thought the wrong thing about ‘priority’ – who got there first. That’s what archaeology can do when it gets completely out of control. And the difficulty is that, although a lot of fences have been mended, a great deal of the central and eastern European world still believes in those terms.

By the 1960s we have seen the emergence of American ‘Processualist’ Archaeology. Can you tell us a bit about these so called ‘New Archaologists’ and your next book, Method and Theory in American Archaeology by Gordon Willey and Phillip Phillips?

Willey and Phillips said: “American archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing”. It was a huge breakthrough in archaeology, it was really breaking out of a narrow field and saying archaeology is about people. The archaeological purpose is to answer questions about humans and human society, not just to build up artifact classifications.
The thing about these New Archaeologists, Lewis Binford most prominently, is that they were cultural evolutionists. Binford was an American processulist, and was keen on something called ‘ethno-historical’ information, and went to live with Inuits to try to more deeply understand what life in upper Palaeolithic France was like, what mattered to them, and he considered that you can only do this by living a life that was similar, in some ways, to the European Palaeolithic.
They were interested in cultural evolution: the process by which human groups advanced from one stage of development technologically, and through the mastery of their environment, to another. But the processualists were always fairly definite that environment set limits to what humans could do. They liked to discover environmental reasons for the success or failure of particular groups. It’s a very deterministic way of looking at things.

Your fifth book, Shanks and Tilly’s Reconstructing Archaeology is part of the post-processual movement. Can you tell us a bit about the field?
Post processual archaeology is very much to do with the application of postmodernism to archaeological thought and the study of the past. Its an untidy bag of ideas, including neo-Marxism, feminist archaeology, cognitive archaeology, contextual archaeology, etc. But the most striking thing is that it is relativistic: Archaeologists are asking themselves “Who do we think we are? Why do we think that we, mostly American and European, largely white, male archaeologists, have the right to lay down the law and say that this is significant and this isn’t? Why should we assume that we own the past, because we have degrees in archaeology? Let’s listen to some other perspectives”.
What did Shanks and Tilly bring to the field?
Well Shanks and Tilly are excavating archaeologists as well as theoreticians. Tilly is associated with the Institute of Archaeology at University College London and he and Shanks wrote Reconstructing Archaeology in 1987 which was again a strongly post processionalist approach. The same team produced Social Archaeological Theory and that carries it on. Some of it is very Frenchified and theoretical – impenetrable playing with words rather than ideas. But some of it is extremely interesting. All through it runs this thread of relativism which is typical of post modernist thought.

Some of these ideas have developed into a movement known as World Archaeology. Is this a mission statement for Archaeologists today?

The emergence of World Archaeology is something that happened in parallel, quite suddenly and has roots in a lot of things we’ve been talking about. It’s actually a group of theories – in part a reaction to traditional colonial archaeology, an attempt to de-colonialise archaeology and produce a post-colonial approach to the past. But it’s more interesting than just being politically correct about imperialism. It has a vision, which comes quite close to post processualism, about the validity of many contesting interpretations. It started particularly with Peter Ucko, a Brit who worked for a long time in Australia in the institute of Aboriginal studies: an experience which really scarred him as it was just a bunch of whites telling Aboriginals what their past was. When Ucko finally left in a rage, he appointed an Aboriginal as his successor.
Ucko’s basic perception was that archaeology is not just about the past it’s about now. Archaeology is not just about the dead it is equally about the living. It is highly political. The idea you can put archaeology in an ivory tower of academia, totally unpolitical and in complete scientific detachment, is crap. It is hugely political. It always has been.

Tell me about your final book: Peter Ucko’s Academic Freedom and Apartheid

In 1986 in Britain something very dramatic happened; the result of which was to institutionalize the ideas of Peter Ucko.
At the time the official world organization of archaeologists was an ancient, very decrepit, frightfully Eurocentric organization called the IUPPS, which stands for International Union of Proto and Prehistorians, largely centered in Western Europe and France. They were largely indifferent to the archaeology and archaeological theory of North America and post-colonial continents and stubbornly Euro-centric. Peter Ucko had come back from Australia and had accepted reluctantly the request of the IUPPS to hold their next congress at the University of Southampton where he become a professor. But he made a condition.
The condition was that the central topic should not be the usual “How many flints have you found my dear old boy?” Instead he demanded the inclusion of indigenous archaeologists: practitioners who were themselves Native Americans, Inuits, people from different countries in Africa, Aboriginal Australians. They should come. We should use the congress funds not for the usual jollies and feasts but to pay for their air tickets because they come from poor countries and they can’t pay the fare. So the IUPPS grudgingly consented to let Peter Ucko have his way, but a couple of months before the congress was due to start, something happened.
This was 1986, and there was an academic boycott of South Africa, but Peter Ucko had invited a number of South African archaeologists. Word spread rapidly and students said that they were not going to help and rooms and facilities were withdrawn. It spread all the way to public services and civil service unions in Southampton and there were threats to withdraw accommodation, public transport etc. The situation was rapidly running out of control, presenting Ucko with a dilemma. He could either dis-invite the South African archaeologists – a pretty awful thing to have to do – or he could invite them and the world congress as he had planned it wouldn’t take place. The delegates of other countries wouldn’t come if the South Africans were going to be there.
So he dis-invited them and all hell broke loose. Most of the archaeological establishments from North America, Europe and Britain withdrew in horror shouting that he had violated academic freedom and that he was unscrupulous and an enemy of liberal democracy that he brought politics into science and research in an unforgivable way. However Ucko stuck to his guns. The IUPPS cancelled its congress and withdrew its support saying they were outraged at what Ucko had done. But Ucko still stuck to his guns and the congress did take place.

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And it was a huge success; over 1000 people came from several continents including many indigenous archaeologists. The congress was such a triumph that it produced no fewer than 22 books. Out of the end of the congress emerged a new organization called the World Archaeological Congress. WAC, which then became, and still is, the main global organization of archaeologists and it standing for all those principles that Peter Ucko and his colleagues formulated.
He died unfortunately 2 years ago but his ideas live on in WAC, which continues to hold its large congresses every year in different parts of the world. The WAC has never had any doubts that archaeology is political. Its general principles are that public and world archaeology are really about the living as much as the dead.

October 8, 2009

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Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and author. He was editor of the journal Public Archeology from 1999-2009 and is an Honourary Professor of UCL's Institute of Archaeology.

Neal Ascherson on Wikipedia
Neal Ascherson in The Guardian
Neal Ascherson in the LRB

Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and author. He was editor of the journal Public Archeology from 1999-2009 and is an Honourary Professor of UCL's Institute of Archaeology.

Neal Ascherson on Wikipedia
Neal Ascherson in The Guardian
Neal Ascherson in the LRB