I’m an historical archaeologist, which means I’m interested in capitalism, modernity, and the complex constellations of people, spaces, and things that make up the world we live in and its immediate antecedents. Much of what follows represents my own predilections and strange scholarly tangents, and shouldn’t be taken as any kind of canon. Before being shipwrecked, I completed a PhD at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and I was an honorary research fellow at Durham University, working on an archaeology of the Great Depression in England.
Foucault’s pendulum by Umberto Eco
I read this in high school, and will read it again every few years for the foreseeable future, so it had better make it to the island. This was the first book where the grand sweep of history grabbed me, even as it was being deconstructed and reconstructed by the novel’s protagonists. The plot involves the wholesale creation of a vast historical conspiracy by some French intellectuals, involving the medieval Knights Templar, psychogeographical ley lines, and mickey mouse. It taught me postmodernism and its criticisms in the same breath, and introduced me to the complex social and political climate of Europe in the Medieval and late Medieval periods- I almost became a medievalist in order to explore it’s subject, if not its themes. It has some profound lessons about the role of intellectuals in political and social life, which I’m still grappling with. Finally, it’s also about objects, and their secret meanings.
In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz
A book I often find myself writing against rather than trying to emulate, but still a strong influence on me. Deetz is the father of historical archaeology, in large part because he pushed it from a particularistic and descriptive discipline to a theoretical, humanistic one. He drew on his excavations in Massachusetts and Virginia to locate the relationship between seemingly prosaic material things such as house forms, gravestones, and dining settings and larger structural-cultural frameworks. Indeed, the book’s rigorous internal coherence and organization is part of what continues to inspire me. His pioneering studies of African-American life are equally deft and insightful, and have had a profound impact on the discipline (as has his tutelage of African-American students). Since its publication, Historical archaeology has largely been a series of arguments about or against the terms he set. This will remind me of the importance of keeping a good dinner table, while I’m waiting out my time.
The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey
I included Marx’s Capital on this list below, but this is really the book that taught me how to think about Marx in an archaeologically useful way. Ostensibly about the spatial implicaitons of the shift from Fordist Modernism to Neoliberal post-modernism, the book is really an object lesson on the constitutive role of space in human societies, and the impact that shifts in productive relations have on material and symbolic spatial formations–a very archaeological analysis! Plus, it has one of the best discussions of the film Blade Runner I’ve ever read, helping me to conjure the images from one of my favorite movies while thousands of miles from the nearest theatre..
Critical Traditions in Contemporary Archaeology Edited by Valerie Pinsky and Alison Wylie
This is a fairly obscure edited volume, but I found it at the right time in my archaeological career. I was struggling with a nascent political consciousness brought about by the election of George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks, and the various anti-globalization movements that were becoming too massive to ignore. At the same time, I was finishing my archaeology degree at Boston University, and trying to figure out if what I was doing had any relevance beyond my own idiosyncratic interest. Essays in this volume, particularly Tilley’s piece on archaeology as a political project, made me realize that archaeology, no matter its subject, should always have something to say to the world of the archaeologist, not just reconstructing chronologies or evaluating theories. It was a real pivot for me and gave me the inspiration to go on to graduate school. There are also great chapters on V. Gordon Childe, Stonehenge, and New England “beehive” stonepiles.
The Dunwich Horror and Others by H.P. Lovecraft
I’ve loved the early 20th century pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft since finding his outrageously designed paperbacks on my parents bookshelf when I was younger. His prose is electrifying and his cosmology is genuinely terrifying, but what really stood out for me were his depictions of the New England landscape–space is almost a character itself in his stories. I was so entranced by his descriptions of rural New England that I made it my business to attend University there, and eventually write an archaeological PhD dissertation about the place. He has some questionable political and social views to say the least, but his understanding of the relationship between things, spaces, people, and time is worth chewing over. Plus, he still scares the crap out of me, and it’ll be good to have something else to be afraid of besides crushing alienation of being trapped on a desert island.
Europe and the People without History by Eric Wolf
This is the kind of “big” synthetic social-historical analysis that I’m constantly drawn to (see Graeber, below). Wolf’s magnum opus is so relentlessly inventive, deep, and broad that it’s hard to even pin down how important it was to me as a graduate student. The book recasts the history of the modern era of colonialism and capitalism through the lens of anthropology’s knowledge about the people impacted by that history. Wolf, being a central figure in anthropology in the 20th century, has an amazing breadth of knowledge to draw on–the book is worth the price alone for the bibliographic essays in the back. But most importantly, Wolf’s focus is often on the commodities that travelled with Europeans to and from their colonies, and he has long, very archaeological discussions on the fur trade, slavery, and mineral wealth extraction in South America. Plus, its global scale will give me a sense of my place on a tiny island in the vast oceans of the world. .
Capital: A critique of Political Economy (3 Vols) by Karl Marx
If I’m on a desert island, I’m going to need to find ways to kill lots of time, and slogging through Marx’s masterpiece is probably about as slow of a grind as one can have. Realistically though, every social scientist should read Capital, if only to understand its dialectical method of analysis. I’ve read volume 1 two or three times and am just starting to grasp how cleverly he makes all of his pieces fit together. Plus, the first chapter on commodities presents a very interesting theory of materiality, prefacing many of archaeological debates by 150 years, and still relevant for the discipline. And actually, it’s not as difficult as people often say it is–get through the first few chapters and it really starts to sing. Plus, Marx uses lots of Robinson Crusoe anecdotes and metaphors, so there may actually be some practical information about surviving on a desert island.
The Country and the City by Raymond Williams
I grew up in Iowa, and have always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way that rural life in the United States is discursively represented-either as a timeless, folksy, “authentic” place, or as a land of ignorant bumpkins. Raymond Williams gave me the language to think about that discourse as part of a broader tension in modernity, what he would elsewhere call a “structure of feeling”. Williams used English literature to chart how people have understood themselves and others along a continuum of urban and rural life over the last 500 years. Along the way, he closely read pastoral poetry, Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other famous and not so famous names, looking for insights into how urban and rural life can be understood as constitutive, dialectical social locations within capitalism.. Archaeologists have a long history of thinking about urbanization, peasant life, core periphery relations, and numerous other topics about which Williams has profound insights. His opening chapter, using the metaphor of an escalator to seek out a literary golden age, is one of the funniest, most brilliant, and most well-written scholarly text I’ve had the pleasure of encountering.
Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige
I read “Subculture…” right as I transitioned to graduate school. I had become comfortable with the idea of objects having meanings beyond their functional attributes, but Hebdige went further, arguing that the recontextualization of material things was in itself a form of social production. And, he located that act of recontextualization within the confines of the emergence of Punk rock in England and the economic and social upheavals of the 1970s. Safety pins and torn clothes became materially loaded objects, and points of contention and conflict within a social field. This will be a good reminder of the multiple uses to which the stuff on a desert island (coconuts, driftwood, twine, etc…) can be put, if properly reconfigured.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
The most recent book on this list, but no less important. Graeber rewrites the history of civilization (the title is not even a little bit overstating it’s reach) to locate the role of debt in the constitution of state societies. Along the way, he makes important and interesting commentaries on archaeological mainstays such as the Rosetta stone, reconfigures the great religions of the world as competing debt ontologies, and reminds us that we are all part of a long series of social processes that transcend our immediate (or even immediately historical) experiences. It’s already found its way into my publications, and I know I’m going to rejigger my Ancient Civilizations course around its insights.
Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory by Bruno Latour
I haven’t read this yet, so it gets an honorable mention at number 11, but I want to wrestle with it as the newest generation of archaeological theorists seem to keep singing Latour’s praises. I’m more skeptical about his analysis, particularly his possibly problematic (nonexistent?) politics. Additionally, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had the problem (subject-object duality) that his boosters say this work solves. Still, it’ll be good to have someone to wrestle with as I wait for rescue.