If I had to choose 10 archaeology books, I would definitely prioritise books that made me think, that inspired ah ha! moments, and that it what I have reflected in this list. These are all books that have sent my brain spinning, over and over and over again. There is also a heavy focus on sensual archaeology and the Near Eastern Neolithic, as that is my wheelhouse!
Ian Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale
I think I would be tossed out of the Neolithic scholarship if I didn’t include this book. This book is a really well-written analysis of the Çatalhöyük material. The book is interesting and engaging, while also presenting the results of the more recent excavations. While it is quickly dating itself, the easy style of the writing means that it is where I turn to again and again. Also the structure of the book focussing on daily and community life really lays the focus where I feel it ought to be.
Flannery and Marcus’ The Creation of Inequality is a really wonderful, recent book looking at the emergence of inequality and complexity across the world and through many time periods. It is extensive and engaging, and highlights the wonderful variability in human society. The reader is encouraged to note similarities, but still focussing on differences. An excellent book for anyone interested in some of the wider world-wide connections in human culture.
Skeates’ An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta
A phenomenological masterpiece, this book weaves together detailed archaeological data with imaginative narratives to bring the reader into the past. This is archaeological writing the way it should be done, sacrificing none of the data and analysis we love, while including the view of daily life that the public desires.
Lewis-Williams and Pierce The Mind in the Cave and Inside the Neolithic Mind
These books. These books make me …. I don’t know, they make me laugh. I don’t agree with them. At all. But Lewis-Williams and Pierce had a really interesting original idea and the wrote two really interesting books about it. Who doesn’t want to read about shamanism and Palaeolithic caves? I love these books because they are so original and well argued. This is what scholarship should be about, even if you don’t agree with it! (For the record, I object to their treatment of the Neolithic – as I would – in the second book).
Kuijt’s Life in Neolithic Farming Communities
I think I have referenced every chapter in this edited book more times than I can count. I love this book. I would have it’s babies if I didn’t have some of my own already. I think I almost love the title more than any of the articles found in it – it brings the focus around to the daily experience of living. The chapters are classics in many different aspects of life (subsistence, architecture, ritual), but the daily life aspect is most strongly drawn out in the title. Since I would need one general source for the Neolithic Near East on my desert ‘holiday’, then this is it.
Croucher’s Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East
Well, obviously I need more than one sourcebook for the Neolithic right? Now, full disclosure, I consider Karina Croucher a friend, but she has written a really excellent book looking at ritual and mortuary practices evidenced in the archaeological data from the Neolithic Near East. What I love about this though, is the fact that she is interested in the lived experience of the practices the data represent, rather than looking to social organisation or cosmology or any of the other things people often try to glean from mortuary data. I find the emphasis on the people and the relationships these people would have had with the dead very refreshing and reminds me that we are dealing with agents of their own lives, with emotions and feelings.
Ingold’s The Perception of the Environment
This book makes me think like no other. No matter what issue I’m currently thinking about, Ingold’s book will give me a new perspective and make me excited about approaching it from a new angle. Refreshing help for those stuck in theory-land.
Gavriel Kay The Sarantine Mosaic
Guy Gavriel Kay writes lush, wonderful, evocative, and lovingly researched historical fiction. He writes what he calls historical fantasy, writing alternate worlds based on real-life historical time periods where beliefs of the people are actually true. Anything by him would be welcome in my steamer trunk (Lions of al-Rassan recommended for those interested in the crusades, Moors, and Jews is medieval Europe). The Sarantine Mosaic duology focusses on a mosaicist from the provinces called to the capital, Sarantium (alternate-Constantinople during the time of Justinian I) to decorate a massive dome for a new church. Kay’s work reminds me that the beliefs of people are true. They had a direct, measurable, and indelible impact on their lives and none of our modern science can, or should, take that away. This is important for me to remember when I’m looking at the fantastic art found in the Neolithic. Maybe Lewis-Williams and Pierce should read some Guy Gavriel Kay!
Auel Clan of the Cave Bear
I’m sure 3/4 of the people similarly stranded with their archaeological trunk will bring Auel with them, and I will not shy away from the stereotype. I came to Clan of the Cave Bear quite late, only discovering the story of the anatomically modern human child orphaned and adopted by a Neanderthal woman a few years ago. I had the chance to discuss this book with Ofer Bar-Yosef, and he told me that a number of academics, including himself, had convinced Jean Auel to host a conference on Palaeolithic art at her house, and this to me really crystallized just how well researched this book was. What most impressed me was how creatively she had interpreted the evidence though. I was particularly struck by how she had addressed the now-outdated, but at-the-time-of-publication-accepted theory that Neanderthals would not have been capable of the same range of sounds as anatomically modern humans. Instead of therefore assuming less communication, she invents a wonderful gesture-based language. I want to be this creative in my archaeology.
Dr. Alexis McBride