Spencer Gavin Smith

My ten books are presented in the order of their discovery by me, with their year of publication in brackets. Number one is Wheelie in the Stars by Nicholas Fisk (1976). The year is 1997 and two teenage boys stuck on a distant planet are rebuilding a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle they found on Earth. The only problem is that what they are doing is illegal because Oil and all the by products from it are banned substances. Replaced by Rad, a galaxy wide web of power which can be tapped into with a code. Which is fine, until the Rad on their planet stops working, and the Rad Module that needs restarting is on the other side of the planet… A book which for me at the age of seven, launched a thousand dreams of owning and rebuilding a Vincent Black Shadow. When launched in 1949, this was the world’s fastest production motorbike and continued to be so until 1973. I still don’t own a Vincent, but the story, beautifully told, brought a piece of mechanical machinery to life and encouraged a fascination with such things that I’m sure will never really leave me.

Book two is The History of Aircraft Nose Art: WWI to Today by Jeffrey L. Ethell and Clarence Simonsen (1991). I didn’t want to be an archaeologist when I was growing up, I wanted to be a fighter pilot in my Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning. However, changes in my ideology and the fact they retired them just before my 16th birthday put paid to that dream. The nose art on aircraft ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the crew in joke to sweeping statements of intent against the enemy. It catalogues how a certain class of men feel about their situation and how they can make the best of it. If you want some idea of just how brutal life could be, the poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ written by Randall Jarrell in 1945 encapsulates it:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

My paternal grandfather, who served in World War II, saw an identical event happen during his time in the RAF in the Western Desert. Sobering stuff indeed, but it makes the colour, thought and vibrancy of the aircraft nose art all the more important to document.

Book three is Archaeology: A Brief Introduction by Brian Fagan (1991) After leaving school I went to college to study Land and Building Management. Although I enjoyed it, I found myself more and more interested in how buildings stayed up and fell down and the legislation surrounding keeping old buildings from falling down. So, I decided to change tack and went off to a different college to take A levels in Archaeology, History and Law. The Law text book reading list was very straightforward – anyone else have ‘Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company’ stuck in their head? – and the history was all 19th century orientated, so Corn Laws and politicians getting run over by railway trains. Archaeology however, was a completely different matter. There was no defined reading list, so I read everything! I bought this book and learnt all about antiquarians and cabinets of curiosities and Cultural Resource Management and…well, so many different aspects of what archaeology was. Thanks to my A level tutor Mr Gunning and this book I decided I wanted to work in the heritage industry and went to Bournemouth University to do their ‘Heritage Conservation’ course. I lent my copy of this book to someone years ago, so I don’t have it anymore, but I hope they get as much pleasure out of it as I did.

Book four is Seeing Beneath the Soil: Prospecting Methods in Archaeology by Anthony Clark (1996), Whist I was studying Building and Land Management, a new television programme started on Channel 4. ‘Time Team’ was a must see event in our house in the early years and I was fascinated by the geophysical survey, a machine that could see through the ground! When I got to University I found out that geophysical survey was part of the University excavation project and immediately volunteered to learn how to carry out this type of work. This let to four summer seasons of surveying my way round the Isle of Man and this in turn influenced my choice of undergraduate dissertation topic. This book is deftly written and helped me understand what I was doing and why I was doing it and how to combine different techniques to give the best results. Again, I no longer have my copy as I gave it to an Undergraduate, but good books have a life of their own, don’t they.

My fifth book is The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies (1997). One day in my University bookshop I saw this newly published as a paperback. Having been to a Welsh language primary and secondary schools I knew who Owain Glyn Dŵr was and had some idea of his place in the history of Wales, so I bought it for something to read. By the end of the first chapter I was hooked, not just by the story, but by the beautiful writing of R. R. Davies. I also didn’t understand how in 401 pages there were only one and a half pages about the house – Sycharth – in which he lived and most of what was known was described in a contemporary poem. I was away for all of that summer of 1997, working on two different excavations on the Isle of Man and in the town of Monmouth and also at a ‘Cathedral Camp’ in St. Leonards – teaching conservation skills to Duke of Edinburgh students. That book looks dreadful now, all spine broken and cover creased (something I can’t bear doing to books – I prefer mine pristine and perfect ) but I remember its fresh unbroken condition like it was yesterday and how much I enjoyed reading it as I rode trains and buses and boats from new experience to new experience, both figuratively and literally.

Book six is Timber Castles by Robert Higham and Philip Barker (1992). I decided after reading the previous book, and based on what I had learned on the University excavation project I would carry out a geophysical survey of the land around Owain Glyn Dŵr’s house Sycharth. I thought I had better see what had been written about motte and bailey castles and found this in the building studies library. I kept renewing the book time and again, occasionally having to pay overdue fines as I tried to understand the variant forms of ringwork, motte and everything in between and how archaeological evidence could be interpreted in variant ways. And I found I disagreed with the authors about their interpretation of Sycharth. At University you are taught how to disseminate information and begin to write papers for submission as part of your coursework, but I struggled with the problem of how do you disagree with leading authors on the topic you are attempting to make your mark in? A sign that I succeeded in what I set out to achieve was that in the 2004 second edition, my research got a mention in the revised introduction.

The seventh book is Fairweather Eden: Life in Britain Half a Million Years Ago as Revealed by the Excavations at Boxgrove by Michael Pitts and Mark Roberts (1998). Archaeology, as we all know, goes through phases of different periods being fashionable, and for me, at the time I was at University, prehistoric archaeology was the fashionable archaeology. I’d read bits and pieces in ‘Current Archaeology’ and ‘British Archaeology’ magazines about Boxgrove and was fascinated…how old?…how deep are the excavations?…what do you mean you dig in barefeet? The book, when I bought it, did not disappoint and I loved every single page. From William Buckland’s pet hyena, crunching bones under the dinner table through the many different shrews identified by Simon Parfitt and how the excavations, directed by Mark Roberts changed the way we perceived the use of this part of what is now Southern England. Well written and sweeping backwards and forwards in time it made me think about the actual context for my own research work and how thinking about the big picture is vitally important.

Book eight is The Mound People: Danish Bronze-Age Man Preserved by P. V. Glob (1973). After University I went to work as a topographic surveyor and spent my days surveying everything from foot and mouth carcass disposal pits in County Durham to the flood defences of the River Nene between Northampton and Peterborough . I spent a lot of time on the road and when I had a free weekend I’d go hunting for archaeology books in random bookshops. I found this book in a small shop in Betws-y-Coed and I love it. It tells the story of the discovery of a series of incredibly well preserved bodies found across what is now modern Denmark. Translated from its original Danish by Joan Bulman it is an excellent read, placing people in their archaeological context. I worked long hours, staying in a whole smörgåsbord of places and books like this made it easier to unwind after a long day and think about getting back to working in archaeology.

Book Nine is Mediaeval Gardens by John Harvey (1981). In 2003 I began working for a TV company as their archaeologist and researcher. The aim was to produce a seven hour series on the history and archaeology of the medieval princes of Wales through the medium of Welsh. Entitled Tywysogion ‘Princes’ when it was broadcast in 2007 it pulled in nearly 60,000 viewers, behind only the rugby matches and the principal soap opera, receiving a BAFTA Wales nomination. Whilst I was researching for places to film, I had the opportunity to attend conferences and this led to me signing up to undertake a PhD at the University of East Anglia on ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’.

This of course meant reading all about the topic and I found a copy of this book in my home town library in Wrexham. I think I managed to keep this book out for so long because no one else was interested in the topic, and it got to stage where the librarians were wondering why I just didn’t copy what I needed out of it such was my devotion to it. I told them it was such a limited print run I wasn’t letting it out of my sight! This book gathers together pretty much every reference to a medieval garden in English Royal records that could be found, and importantly set it in a European context. In the end I bought my personal copy from America a couple of years ago (it was cheaper!) and I recommend it to anyone who wants to wants learn more about what is still a very under researched topic.

The tenth and final book is Between the Hedges: a celebration of 40 years of road racing by Stephen Davison (2010). Everybody needs an off switch from their research, and for me my off switch is watching motorcycle racing. I don’t ride, but I’m fascinated by the engineering advances of racing motorcycles and this book is an anthropology of the progression of the sport from the 1960s onwards. Perhaps only one or two of the names in the book are what could almost be termed household names, but that doesn’t take away from their talent as riders, nor from Stephen Davidson’s talent for photographing them. Archaeologists work on frozen moments in time, and these photographs work in much the same way, capturing individuals and their moment in the sun for posterity.

I hope you find something of interest to read in here, as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed choosing them – difficult though it was.


Spencer Gavin Smith – too many hats, not enough heads for them all at the same time.

@S_G_Smith on Twitter

Sue Greaney

Here are my choices for Desert Island archaeology books – you can tell I’m hoping that it’ll be quite some time before I’m rescued and have to face the real world again!

Mark Edmonds – Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments and Memory
A favourite of mine, I love the brave decision to use fiction in alternate chapters, made after loosing the first manuscript on the train. Admirable just for the fact he started again! Mark was my dissertation supervisor at Sheffield – he inspired my love of landscape archaeology. I once overhead some first year Oxford student in the library dismissing it roundly to one of her friends – I wanted to jump up and defend it wholeheartedly.

Simon Schama – Landscape & Memory
This is a book that I bought second hand a few years ago and have been meaning to read ever since. One reason is it is too difficult to hold up in bed. It would be useful to stand on to look for passing ships too.

Francis Pryor – Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain
Just a great story, full of interest and the real life of an amazing archaeologist. Francis is a great writer and from the beginning where he describes Maisie and him eating spaghetti during hard times you just feel like you’ve been allowed to peek into his world.

John Barrett – Fragments from Antiquity: Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC
One of my set texts at university – maybe with all that time on an island I might finally understand it all. Rather embarrsingly our household copy is a photocopied one – it was so in demand at university! Might need to ask the dolphins for a real version. I do need to understand for my PhD.

Anne Michaels – Fugitive Pieces
This is a novel, so a bit outside the usual realm of archaeological books. But one of the main characters is an archaeologist, a wood preservation specalist who worked at Biskupin and there are lots of amazing sections about bog bodies, decay, change etc – usually as compelling metaphors. The book is very beautiful – the author is a poet and you can really tell.

Ronald Hutton – Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain
Again, this is a bit of a tome, and I’d like to re-read it. It’s a great example of huge scholarly intellect creating something readable and engaging. The story, particularly the recent history, is fascinating too. Who wouldn’t want to read more about William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg and Dr William Price?

Richard Bradley – Prehistory of Britain
This is such an important book, each page stuffed with new and interesting discoveries from the world of commercial archaeology. It’s quite overwhelming to read in one sitting – you need to read a little bit and then mull over what he’s said, comparing it what we thought we knew from all those better known sites.

Leslie Webster – The Franks Casket
This my favourite from the series of ‘Objects in Focus’ books that the British Museum have published. The Franks Casket, an extraordinary box made of whalebone from 8th century northern England, is full of intricate carved details – you can look at it for hours and still see new things. This book reproduces each side and facet of the casket in full page photographs, allowing you to do just that.

Seamus Heaney – Beowulf
I’ve read this once and would love to go back and read it again. It’s full of exciting adventure (dragons, warriors, mead-halls…) and Heaney’s poetry brings the story alive in his brilliant but distinctive way.

Julian Richards – Pop Up Book of Stonehenge
A classic, loved by everyone who sees it, and yet accurate and interesting too. I’d use it to impress the locals.


Sue works as Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage. Since 2009, Sue worked on the exhibition and interpretation planned for the new Stonehenge visitor centre, and has this work has recently included meeting the site’s most famous recent visitor, the President of the United States, Barak Obama.

Matthew Champion

Well writing down my most influential top ten books relating to history and archaeology is obviously an opportunity for pretension. A chance to make myself look far more intellectual and interesting than I am, or could ever hope to be. However, I’m a realist. Those of you that know me would laugh in scorn if I listed anything to do with archaeological theory, or anything that even suggested I had a clear understanding of the current debates. Those who don’t know me would probably just laugh at the typo’s. As a result I have found myself being honest. It doesn’t happen often – and frankly you shouldn’t get used to the idea – but this list is simply a diverse collection of the books that I love, and hate, the most. They are the books that find their way on to my desk and bedside table on a regular basis and, in most cases, have been read and re-read. I’m sure that some people might expect there to be more of one type of book, or less of another, but these are the books that led me to where I am today – for good or ill. My only word of advice to potential readers would be – if you buy the Duffy – for God’s sake get the paperback.

1. English Medieval Graffiti – Violet Pritchard
This book was actually published in the year that I was pretty busy being born, so for most of you it probably counts as ancient history. Something to be bound in leather and gently caressed upon the bookshelf. The book too, if the feeling takes you. However, the book has weathered slightly better than I, and remains the only full length work on English medieval graffiti. It is flawed, as the author herself freely admits, but it forms the foundation of all the work on the subject currently being undertaken. A very dog eared copy tends to travel with me, in my graffiti bag swamped in torches, batteries, photo scales and odd bits of blue-tack. It is, at one and the same time, a gem and a curse.

2. The Stripping of the Altars – Eamon Duffy
Lots of books get described as monumental studies – but this really is the granddaddy of them all. Duffy’s analysis of the late medieval parish church, and the effect that the English reformation had on them, is just such a detailed piece of research, drawing upon thousands of documents and evidence of material culture, that it is difficult to think of any other book in the same area of study ever matching it. Of course it has its faults. Duffy has a ‘view’ that most certainly appears in the pages, and is difficult to ignore. However, this book is largely responsible for me now finding myself bogged down in the minutia of the medieval parish church. It was given to me as an engagement present by a family friend and has been a repeated visitor to my bedside table ever since. Probably hasn’t helped the marriage much – but the size of the book along makes it a useful place to rest a cup of tea and a full English breakfast.

3. Image and Devotion in Late Medieval England – Richard Marks
This book changed the way I looked at churches. Simple as that. Previously they had been artefacts; to be deconstructed and broken down in to their component pieces, dated, mused over and catalogued. No more than that. Marks’ book made me question my own views and look afresh at the material I was looking at. It added the ‘human’ element. For that I will be eternally grateful. I’ll leave it at that.

4. Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
If you haven’t got a copy – buy one now. It’s been around for… well, forever actually. Probably. I remember reading my grandmother’s copy as a young boy; a well thumbed, black cloth bound, post-war economy edition. I’m sure she only used it for help with the crossword clues, but to me it was a window into a different world. A world of myth and mythology that came as a blaze of light upon a young mind. The origins of words, phrases and concepts that make our world the one it is today – whether you acknowledge it or not. Over 19,000 entries including everything from the origins of the term ‘Happy Clappy’ to a summary of Gnosticism. Really useful for completing crosswords too (thanks Gran).

5. Religion and the Decline of Magic – Keith Thomas
I just LOVE this book. It’s like all the areas of history that interest me all rolled in to one! Another study of the late medieval and early modern church – but with a twist. Thomas takes you on a magically mystery tour of the late medieval/Tudor/Stuart world – looking at witchcraft, superstition, prophesy and religion. What the hell isn’t to like! A superbly referenced work that has stood the test of time. My own copy is now so dog eared that I keep thinking of buying a new one – but then look at all the underlining’s and marginalia in the old copy and can’t bear the thought of parting with it.

6. The Archaeology and Ritual of Magic – Ralph Merrifield
As Merrifield states in the preface to this 1987 work, “Ritual and magic were formerly part of everyday life, but by association with fantasy fiction and occultism they have now acquired an aura of sensationalism that has discouraged investigation”. By the time Merrifield was writing, and I was beginning my first forays into archaeology, the idea of looking at superstition, ritual and folklore was really not something that archaeology as a discipline encouraged. Any mention of folklore as an aid to interpretation was most definitely left for a late Friday night session in the pub. However, this book marked the beginning of a long overdue reassessment of the role of individual beliefs and superstitions and how they might be interpreted and represented in the archaeological record. For me it was an eye opening volume, that awakened my interest in the evolution of practice and belief throughout the centuries. It is now long overdue a follow up work, but the book still finds its way often on to my desk. For me this book was really the very first step on a journey.

7. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? – Martin Carver
Sutton Hoo is just a special place. An odd place. It has a magic all of its own. In terms of landscape it just feel oddly disjointed in its East Anglian setting. It sits above the river, staring out across the water and wet embankments, and feels more of Devon that it does of Suffolk. Perhaps that’s why East Anglians chose to bury their Kings there, and later execute their criminals in the same spot. If you ever wander across the site as the mist begins to rise above the river you will soon realise how detached from both time and space this place really is. I knew the site long before I knew it’s archaeological history. Oh, I knew it was the place of ship burials and gold – but didn’t really understand the archaeology. I didn’t understand just why the site was so special. Then I came across Martin Carver’s work in a 2nd hand bookshop whilst on a wet holiday upon Hadrian’s Wall (sorry Martin, didn’t pay full price) and read about the excavations of an Anglo-Saxon sacred site whilst surrounded by Roman imperialist rubble. It gave my imaginings substance, and added a solid underpinning of archaeology to a long held gut feeling. When I returned to the site a few months later it was with new eyes and new insights. And it is the feeling that a well written archaeology book, aimed at the great unwashed such as myself, will continue to inspire – I hope.

8. Beowulf – Seamus Heaney
I’ve always been fascinated by East Anglia and its Anglo-Saxon past, ever since I first saw pictures of the Sutton Hoo treasure in the BM. It struck me that here really was a history of the region that I had grown up in, walked across, and fallen in love with that I really knew far too little about. Growing up inside the borders of a kingdom that was a complete enigma to me. Several academic types had suggested to me that I should read this book, had to read it to understand the connections. Given that the original poem has nothing to do with East Anglia I rather rebelled against the idea, failing to see any connection whatsoever and bloody-mindedly ignored them. Then, undoubtedly in desperation, a friend dragged me in to a London bookshop, bought me a copy and thrust it in to my hands. She told me that, when I read the first section, I was to think of Sutton Hoo. I did… and won’t spoil it for you. The original A/S is largely beyond me these days, and I always sound like a drunken scouser when attempting the pronunciation, but Heaney’s translation/interpretation is spellbindingly readable. Buy a copy, take it to the beach and read it staring at the waves… then look for the burial mounds on the headland.

9. Pilgrim Badges – Brian Spencer
When I was a teenager I was very, very interested in pilgrim badges. They seemed to offer a route in to the medieval mind that a good deal of art history and archaeology simply didn’t offer. As a result, and always being a ‘crafty’ sort of person, I began to attempt making replica badges – in the hope, I suppose, that it might offer insights in some way. Brian Spencer encouraged me and, as ‘the’ authority on the subject, spent wayyyy too many hours on the phone to me discussing the iconography, technical details and symbolism. He was generous to a fault, even leaving his beloved garden and flowers for long discussions with a callow youth from the back of beyond. He had a passion for the subject that I shared, and still do, and it shone through in all his works. He WANTED people to understand why he thought these tiny and tinny artefacts were important, and I have always felt that his untimely death left a stunning book yet to be written. Every time I return to this book, looking for obscure references and inspiration, it open up new ideas to me. The marginalia of material culture – and a reminder of a friend and mentor to the gobby teenager I once was.

10. A Month in the Country – J.L Carr
And I DO know that this is just SO predictable, and probably seems too contrived, but I really love this book. It probably helps that it’s short and I have the attention span of a gnat… Seriously though, this is a gem of a book that I first read as a teenager and then returned to after getting ‘involved’ with medieval wall paintings. It has sod all really to do with archaeology, wall paintings or the medieval church – but it is a beautifully written work of lost opportunities, redemption and the salvaging of lives. So, I suppose, it does at least work as a metaphor for most archaeology… or is that just me?

Well there you have them. My ten desert island archaeology/heritage books. No archaeological theory – but at least I didn’t list Clan of the Cave Bear…

Matthew Champion is the Project Director for the Norfolk and Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Surveys