I 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 (www.thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com). He can be found dreaming about field work, burial digging and writing about archaeology at an administration desk in the north.