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