Compiling this list was an interesting exercise on a number of levels – the first thing it did was highlight to me how out of date a lot of my reading material is. That said, while Harwood’s Historic Environment Law (2013, with 2014 supplement) is possibly my most useful book at work, it would be neither useful nor particularly distracting on a desert island. And it is only 400 pages, so if I needed to light a fire in a hurry, that is a limited burn time compared to the likes of Banister Fletcher…
Of course, the other factor is that if I am stuck on a desert island, a weighty tome on early medieval brooch typologies might be a good thing to read professionally, but it would also run the risk of driving me out to take my chances with the sharks. These books stand out for the quality of their writing, as well as the quality of their content.
Trigger, B (2006) A History of Archaeological Thought CUP
This is the book that set archaeology in context for me, and opened my eyes to the possibilities and consequences of archaeological interpretation. This book should be a required, regular read for anyone who claims an interest in the past. This would be the book I would save in a storm.
Biek, L (1963) Archaeology and the Microscope Lutterworth Press
The first book published on scientific analysis of archaeological objects. While many of the analytical methods in this book have been superseded or refined well beyond the examples given, this book opens the door on the possibilities of archaeological analysis. On top of that, Biek is an object lesson in scientific writing – the principles are clear, without being dumbed down in any way, and the writing style is the closest to poetic that science gets.
Clifton Taylor, A (1987) The Pattern of English Building Faber and Faber
From Biek to Clifton Taylor… There is a large part of me that cannot stand this book. The writing style is patronising at best and downright snobbish at worst. However, it is extremely well informed, and despite the above statement, a surprisingly entertaining read. An excellent background to materials and techniques in English architecture prior to the 20th Century.
Rudenko, S (1970) Frozen Tombs of Siberia University of California Press
This book represented a turning point in my archaeological career. I was interested in the tattoos of the Pazyryk chieftain, so went to the source material, and in reading started to pull in all sorts of connections – with Herodotus, with concepts of trade and theft, unified artistic styles and chronology. And, of course, the book contains some of the most beautiful iconography in antiquity.
Fletcher, B (1996) A History of Architecture Athlone Press
I have referenced the 20th edition of this, as it is the most recent (I have the 18th edition), though far from the most popular. It is THE sourcebook for architectural history. A massive book, that covers the architectural history of north west Europe (with a few diversions to pre-Conquest Americas, ancient Egypt, Japan etc.). Worth it for its size alone, for it would make a handy pillow.
Scollar, I (1990) Archaeological Prospecting and Remote Sensing Cambridge University Press
I am a big believer in the principle that you should not use a technology unless you understand the physical principles of what underlies it. This book covers aerial photography, magnetic survey, electromagnetic survey and data processing in great depth – it is not for the faint hearted. However, it is invaluable for anyone with an interest in geophysics or image processing.
Bell, M and Walker, M (1992) Late Quaternary Environmental Change: Physical and Human Perspectives Prentice Hall
Human activity is driven by its surrounding environment, and so it is impossible to even attempt to understand an archaeological site without trying to understand its physical environment. This is particularly true of early prehistory, and Bell and Walker is the classic sourcebook for that.
Aitken, M (1990) Science Based Dating in Archaeology Longman
Dating is a bit of a blind spot for me. I deal with the most common techniques through work (predominantly 14C and OSL dating, occasionally archaeomagnetic dating), but other techniques are mostly just names. The 1990 edition of Aitken is what I used at college, so to update my knowledge I have to go back and work on the techniques I am not so secure with. Or get a more modern edition and update all round (probably a better idea – can I have the most recent edition, please?)
Schofield, J and Cocroft, W (2007) A Fearsome Heritage: Diverse Legacies of the Cold War Left Coast Press
The archaeology of the Cold War is one of my specialisms, and it covers a variety of fields, from the architecture of defence through to the archaeology of protest. Schofield and Cocroft is the broadest study of the period, covering all aspects. A collection of papers, rather than a learned tome, there are a number of viewpoints and a number of styles here, all highly relevant to a fragile and rapidly diminishing resource.
Herodotus – The Histories
My copy is the Penguin edition, but it could be any. The Father of History/the Father of Lies, depending on your viewpoint, but Herodotus seldom fails to entertain. There are some undoubted porkies in here, but who cares. It has incest, death, sex, violence and intrigue on a scale that Game of Thrones could only dream of, and because it is classical literature, it is all in the name of improving the mind… it was this or the Iliad for my non-technical book, but the Scythian/Siberian connection means that Herodotus wins.
Dr Ken Hamilton is the Senior Historic Environment Officer (Planning) in Norfolk County Council’s Historic Environment Service. You can find him on Twitter at @fen_ken