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”!