Victoria Clayton

Adventures in Archaeology and Archaeological Theory in the Ancient Near East

It’s Christmas Day; I’m 16 years old. Having declared my intent to become an archaeologist my parents, Carter-like, cried ‘’Aha” and bought me The Adventure of Archaeology, by Brian M Fagan (National Geographic Society, 1985) a romp through the history of our profession. Global in its coverage and spanning centuries of interest in the past from ancient times to the then present day, The Adventure of Archaeology opened my eyes to the broad-ranging nature of the discipline. It also introduced basic concepts such as how archaeological sites are formed, how time is measured and to different ‘types’ of archaeology from maritime to historical. Finally, the coloured illustrations, historical drawings and photos of people ‘doing’ archaeology around the world thrilled and inspired me.

adventures of archaeology

Australia has an ancient landscape and an indigenous culture dating back thousands of years. It also has a brief post-European contact history which we often visited on caravan holidays. Every small country town seemed to have its historical society and little museum filled with rusty agricultural equipment and the ubiquitous Cherry butter churn. But my heart was firmly in the ancient Near East and I blame the church. For this reason, I have chosen the Bible as my second book, especially for all those wonderful names: Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, Assyria, Babylonia, Amorites and Elamites. My school Bible had a picture of three Arabs on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem; I was helpless against the Hittites, feeble against Philistines, driven to donkeys and Damascus and dusty deserts.

Caravan holidays also included visits to second hand book stores and I was always on the look-out for 50c Agatha Christies. So when I discovered that my favourite author had been married to Max Mallowan and accompanied him on his excavations at Chagar Bazar, Syria, my excitement went off the Richter Scale and Come Tell Me How You Live (the Akadine Press, 2000) joined The Adventure of Archaeology on the bookshelves. It is a wonderful memoir of excavating in the Near East in the 1930s, described by Mallowan himself as ‘so happy a record of archaeology’. It’s very dated, of course, and for me perhaps its attraction was because it was written by Christie, but as a young would-be adventurer and archaeologist it continued my education about the Near Eastern ‘big-dig’. Two other similar and greatly enjoyed memoirs of field work include Clare Goff’s An Archaeologist in the Making (Constable, 1980) about her experiences of excavating in Iran in the 1960s and Digging Beyond the Tigris: An American Woman’s Story of Life on a Dig in the Kurdish Hills of Iraq, (Henry Schuman 1953) by Linda Braidwood.

Once I started my undergrad degree, James B Pritchard’s The Ancient Near East Vols. I and II (Princeton University Press, 1973 and 1975) continued to fire my imagination with their pictures of well-chosen artifacts and translations of significant texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Assyria. This collection of myths, as well as legal, personal and religious writings from the third millennium to the 5th century BCE formed an excellent resource to which I returned again and again even through my postgrad research.


Throughout my years at university I was nowhere more comfortable than in the basement of the library among the journals. Oddly enough, I went to uni to learn stuff, particularly archaeological stuff and I loved methodically going through the journals: Iraq, Anatolian Studies, the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Iranica Antiqua, World Archaeology and so on. I realise it’s a bit cheeky to include entire series of scholarly journals in a steamer trunk (dolphins are now undergoing serious back surgery) but honestly, I spent so many hours in the basement of that library scouring those tomes that they are truly part of my archaeological experience.

In 1996 I began my journey as a PhD candidate investigating the Iron Age clay figurines from the Upper Euphrates site of Tell Ahmar. My supervisors were keen on a typology and I knew I would need to catalogue the assemblage, but somehow a typology did not a thesis make and thereby ensued some heated departmental debate about my sudden and unexpected interest in gender theory. You see, I had read an article, a dangerous article by Alison Wylie called “Feminist Critiques and Archaeological Challenges” (in D Walde and ND Willows (eds.) The Archaeology of Gender: Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Conference of the Archaeological Association of the University of Calgary, 1991) which started all sort of brazen ideas about whether figurines were evidence of a fertility cult after all. Meetings were convened, phone calls were made, power relations played out in all their academic glory and eventually, a tentative agreement was made that I could pursue this trés unorthodox, off-the-beaten-culture-history-track theoretical framework.

It all seems so silly now, that the adoption of gender (and post-colonial) theory in archaeological interpretation should have been so feared. Nonetheless, the fertility cult theory still holds sway in a fairly gender-free Near Eastern archaeology even today, at least, in relation to figurines.

In a dream-come-true experience I studied figurines from other Euphrates sites held in the British Museum and on the final day, browsing the book shelves of the museum shop, came across a volume entitled Ancient Goddesses, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (British Museum Press, 1998). I confess, I smirked as I opened the cover, but sarcasm was replaced by delight as I read the contents. Article after article of figurine studies questioning the figurine-as-goddess theory. Scholars who became my heroines were all there; Lynn Meskell, Ruth Tringham, Margaret Conkey and more. The significance of this book in my development as a theoretical archaeologist attempting to look at Near Eastern material in a new way is inestimable.

Similarly, Roberta Gilchrist’s Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women (Routledge, 1997) was extremely influential as I continued to grope my way towards different ways of thinking about objects. One phrase really stood out for me “…it’s not a matter of [the archaeological data] being mute, but that we seldom ask it the right questions or understand its answers” (p.10) and caused me to stop and think about how I should be interrogating the figurines.

Because some of the figurines from Tell Ahmar represented horses and riders and were made at the time of Neo-Assyrian domination over the Upper Euphrates region, I spent considerable time browsing through photo books of the amazing sculptures found in the various capital cities of ancient Assur in search of evidence that my little clay figurines might actually represent the might of the Assyrian war machine. My favourite was Assyrian Sculptures by Julian Reade (British Museum Press, 1998). Beautiful photographs helped me compare the little clay horses with those fabulous images.

Finally, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, (Yale University Press, 1992) by James Scott was seminal in my interpretation of the figurines and my overall thinking about how people use material culture to manipulate social relationships both in private and public. I adopted gender theory with its accompanying theories of agency and individual identity to think about the figurine makers and through Scott’s ideas, post-colonial theory to guide my thinking about how the figurine makers and others might have used those little clay images to potentially recreated their realities. A much more exciting picture emerged, of resistance, subversion and feisty women unlikely ever to be encountered in the fertility cults of our own imaginations.

Victoria Clayton received her doctorate in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Melbourne in 2001. Figurines, Slaves and Soldiers: The Iron Age Figurines from the Euphrates Valley, North Syria is the result of five years of research into the collection of figurines from the site of Tell Ahmar and explores issues of gender, identity and the negotiation of social relationships within a post-colonial context. She has excavated in Syria, Turkey, Tasmania and Victoria and is a keen traveller, having also visited France, Britain, Bahrain, Egypt, China, Vietnam and Laos. She blogs about Near Eastern archaeology and figurines at

David Mennear

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI tend to draw my inspiration for archaeology (and human osteology) from all sorts of influences, not just the archaeological literature. You never quite know what you are going to find in the ground or in buried in the archives, but it is the way you approach the record, whether paper or physical, that can be enhanced not just by the archaeological knowledge but also by creativity. As such the below is just a small selection of some of the books and texts that have inspired me to both ‘do’ archaeology and to try and interpret what it is that we have found. In it are some classic literature texts and core archaeology books, but it is not a substantial list and I find that my favourite books are changing all the time as new editions are released or new books published.

We start with a novel, as they have been an ever present force throughout my life. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude is a simply beautiful book, describing the trials and tribulations of a nation through the focus of a single family and multiple generations. But it is also about love, life and death, something that applies deeply to the archaeological record, even if we cannot always understand it or uncover it in the material remains. Marquez, and a mountain of other authors, continually remind me that the skeletal remains of people we find in archaeological contexts were once individuals themselves, that they lived and loved, hated and felt pain, as we that are alive do now. Marquez is, along with Javier Marias, one of my favourite authors.

From magical realism we move onto a historical tour de force in a book called Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum. This is a book that goes hand in hand with A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck and the photographer Robert Capa, who sought do document the USSR through a simple lens of observation in the late 1940s. Having studied history at AS and A Level at college, and having undertaken a history and archaeology degree at the University of Hull, I have always appreciated that history and archaeology can go hand in hand. In Steinbeck and Applebaum’s texts it is the personal mixed with the historical that is important. Both document the changing face of the East and West after the Second World War and the enlarging of the soviet system and the effects that this had over a variety of culturally different countries. Yet both offer individual stories, of how people reacted to these immense changes in a variety of ways.

In the same vein is the work of the Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi, who captures a personal view of the horror of the holocaust in WW2 in his book If This is a Man. There is very little that needs to be said of this book but, as recent archaeological investigations at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland show, the buttressing of evidence with personal documents and physical remains can lead to an addressing of the crimes of humanity with fact and evidence.

I’m a pretty big fan of travel literature as it is the second best way of seeing a country or a continent; it is as if you are in the pocket of the traveller themselves as you hear their thoughts and reactions throughout the adventures that they undertake. It can also be a fantastic experience to help understand the historical and cultural context of a country. This is something that the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom does to great effect with Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Not that this is a typical travel piece as it also delves deep into the reflective and fictional to present a lyrical and compassionate view of Germany before and after re-unification. Nooteboom books have made me reflect deeply on the way in which archaeology is itself engaged, from the academic text to the personal reflections. Personally it also reminds me of the time I spent with an archaeological project in eastern Germany, helping to excavate and record medieval burials.

Which, conveniently, brings me to my next desert island book in the form of The Human Bone Manual, by Tim D White and Pieter A Folkens. It is indispensable for the osteoarchaeologist either in the lab or in the field. My own battered copy has survived several excavations both in England and in Germany, and it has remained a constant by my side ever since I first got a copy. It is a source of continual inspiration, and represents the very best marring of the photographic and the descriptive in providing a concise guide of the skeletal anatomy of the human body. For me personally this book has allowed me to specialize within one area of archaeology, and has enabled me to be able to read deeper from the archaeological record itself.

Clark Spencer Larsen’s Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour from the Human Skeleton is, in my opinion, a perfect partner for the White & Folkens Bone Manual, espousing as it does the wealth of information that the skeleton holds for both archaeological and forensic investigations. Having come across the book before starting the Masters in human osteology at the University of Sheffield, the book presented an engrossing picture of where bioarchaeology, as a field, was at. It also paints a very clear and distinct picture of why bioarchaeology is of paramount importance to the field of archaeology itself. In captivating and clear text Larsen describes a host of methods and applications used, from the basic aging and sexing of skeletal remains to the biogeochemical and trace chemical analysis methods that have become so prevalent in the modern bioarchaeological field.

My next book goes beyond human skeletal anatomy and places Homo sapiens within their evolutionary context. The Essentials of Physical Anthropology book provides a clear grounding for any student in understanding the importance of biological evolution and the contextual placement of Homo sapiens with the hominin family. It goes wonderfully well with the classic archaeology undergraduate text book is Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice by Paul Bahn and Colin Renfrew, which really highlights the vast field that archaeology has become and developed into over the past century and a half. Continually revised and always updated it really does provide an index of the techniques and approaches that the field has used to understand the material remains of the human past. Although I do have a number of books that I love in archaeological literature (Zvelebil’s tome on the Mesolithic and Tim Taylor’s The Buried Soul: How Humans Created Death are also favourites and offer fresh thoughts and controversial views), it is this introductory book that engages the audiences and highlights the many fascinating facets and values of archaeology.

Finally it is a book in which I continue to read and delve into on occasion is The Rebel by Albert Camus, a book that grapples Camus contextualising the period that he finds himself in, documenting the history and philosophy of rebellion and the nature of mankind. It is a tough book and, when reading it, I can often be found pondering over a paragraph for a good while, trying to understand Camus, his views and the relevance to me. What does it mean to resist? It is a strong question, yet Camus has provided a humane volume in documenting the history of rebellion and personal understanding. This would be the book that would keep me up at night on the long desert island evenings.

Any-who, these are just a few of my favourite archaeological books and they way in which they have inspired me!

David Mennear blogs about bones, archaeology and human evolution at These Bones of Mine ( He can be found dreaming about field work, burial digging and writing about archaeology at an administration desk in the north.

Tom Cromwell

Hmmm. My trunk would contain a small satchel in which are only three truly indispensable works. I find most books on archaeology fall into one of three broad categories – basic site data, repetitive but practical “handbooks”, and pointless philosophising – none of which make sense as essential to own or indeed cart around. Sure, the data books (including many journals, as well as excavation summaries for popular consumption) are very useful references when they coincide with my current interests, but they would take up a whole ship, let alone a measly steamer trunk. The handbooks are helpful for those just starting out, but I’m happy to leave them in the library. As for the third kind…

First up in my satchel is Volume 84, no 2 of American Anthropologist (New Series), wherein resides Kent Flannery’s wonderful essay “The Golden Marshalltown: a Parable for the Archaeology of the 1980s”. Not only is this a great antidote to bouts of self-importance, it is also a fine reaffirmation of the need to treat Archaeology as a whole discipline based around hard evidence won by the skilful hands of those dogged folk, the field archaeologists. While it certainly stabbed close to the bone, it made me realise why I was drawn to Archaeology instead of its less hands-on siblings Anthropology and History.

The second must-have book out of the bag would be Motel of the Mysteries, by David Macauley. Lavishly illustrated by the author’s own line drawings, this book punctures the pretentiousness of blind interpretation that is all too often a feature of archaeological reports. Sure, it’s a satirical future excavation of a seedy 20th century motel several millennia from now, but it is based on the hype of the King Tut exhibitions that were sweeping the known world in the late 70’s and shows the dangers of seeing too much importance and “ritual” in artefacts that we don’t otherwise understand. As an undergrad, I attended a field school with an excellent teacher who frequently had the misfortune to receive obviously weather-worn natural stones from keen students who thought they’d found a rare stone axe on their first day of digging. But instead of immediately crushing their hopes with the harsh truth, he’d heft it a bit before saying “You know, it fits right in your hand…”

My third book is far more practical – Surveying, by Bannister & Raymond. No philosophy, no storyline, just hard formulae and utilitarian explanation of the principles of measuring with all sorts of survey equipment. Unlike most handbooks with their wealth of obvious logic that doesn’t need reading more than once, this one is crammed full of exactly the sort of information I have needed on a regular basis while planning out a survey task or even while writing software to process raw data. Granted, much of this has been superseded by the push-button magic of GPS, but it is still handy to know for those occasions when the satellites are on strike and you need to go “old school”!

Tom Cromwell has been around the block as an archaeologist, with toes dipped firmly in the (often cloudy) waters of Academia, the Civil Service, and the gritty mud-filled trenches of the Trowel Line.