I think I’d want a combination of qualities in my ten books, while I’m on the desert island waiting for rescue. There’d be the ones that I could read over and over and just enjoy, to pass the time, and others that would inspire new thoughts, so that when I got off the island I would be bursting with things to research and write.
1. Ancient Man: The Beginnings of Civilizations (1922) by Hendrik Willem van Loon.
When I was in primary school, this was among a batch of books about archaeology given to me by an old family friend. I was absolutely entranced reading about the discovery of Neanderthals and Neolithic Swiss lake villages, and I still love this book today. First of all, the author’s name is actually VAN LOON: how can you not be impressed by that? He did his own illustrations, which are kind of shit but also charming and quirky. Somehow he hit just the right balance of explaining things simply and inspiring you to want to know more. This is what he says in the introduction:
I shall show you mysterious rivers which seem to come from nowhere and which are doomed to reach no ultimate destination.
I shall bring you close to dangerous abysses, hidden carefully beneath a thick overgrowth of pleasant but deceiving romance.
This was what I wanted my life to be, full of mysterious rivers and dangerous abysses that would be revealed by the pure light of reason and a trowel.
2. Diving to Adventure (1939) by Hans Hass
Dr Hans Hass was a pioneer in the development of scuba gear and underwater photography. (Sadly, he died last year, aged 94). For a while, inspired by his marvellous books, I wanted to be a maritime archaeologist. Diving to Adventure was Hass’ first book, a combination of autobiography, stories of his early expeditions, and science. It’s written in a gently humorous style that is a pleasure to read. He relates his adventures with sharks, and provides some useful techniques for scaring them off – that could come in handy on the desert island! It’s just great fun all round.
3. The Poetics of Space (1958) by Gaston Bachelard
For me, this was one of those iconic books which you know you ought to read but never seem to get around to. Finally, last year, I did. Given the date of its publication, (Sputnik 1 had been launched just the year before) I had hoped there would be far more than terrestrial space in it. And there is, if you read between the lines, but the stronger theme is the relationship between intimate spaces and the infinite:
Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
When I’d finished it, I resolved to write a “New Poetics of [Outer] Space” that would be a phenomenological/archaeological exploration of all the thoughts that one pushes to one side because they’re not strictly archaeological or scientific. The desert island would be a perfect place to read The Poetics of Space again, and think about the New Poetics.
4. The Early Mesoamerican Village (1976) by Kent Flannery
You can’t beat this classic of the New Archeology. As well as great discussions of sampling and scale, there’s the dialogue between the three fictional characters, the Great Synthesizer, the Skeptical Graduate Student, and the Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist, that captures so perfectly the tensions between generations and approaches to archaeology. The Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist was “a beer drinker, hell raiser, pub crawler, satyr, nymphomaniac and great story teller” who thought theory was a waste of time; this stereotype still resonates in Australia, where in some circles theory is a dirty word …..
5. Ancient Evenings (1983) by Norman Mailer
I’m not really a fan of the hypermasculine pretensions of writers like Mailer, Hemingway and Bukowski, but I make an exception for this book. It is an incredible evocation of a period of Egyptian history, the reign of Ramses the Great (1279–1213 BCE) – and a worldview that you become completely immersed in. He makes you work hard for it, especially in the early chapters, but it’s absolutely unputdownable. Plus it’s a really thick book and would last a good while on the desert island if reading material became scarce.
6. A History of Archaeological Thought (1989) by Bruce Trigger.
This book is so fascinating, and I go back to it again and again. Sometimes half a sentence indicates an incredible depth of research which you only realise after you have read dozens of papers on the same topic. It continues to provide new insights even though it’s over 20 years old. It would be great to have the leisure to read and think about it while lying under the shade of a coconut palm. (I do hope some bottles of gin and tonic have made it into the steamer trunk).
7. The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour (1991) by D. Michael Stoddart
This was a very influential book for me when I was writing my PhD on body modification. I learnt that incense uses pheromones derived from pig urine (ick). I learnt about the vomeronasal organ, that plays a large role in the fertility and sexuality of some animals, but a lesser one in human behaviour. It made me wonder if there might be something to the crackpot theories of Fliess, Freud’s colleague who performed the infamous surgery on Emma Eckstein’s nose. In short, it was a book full of revelations and I should read it again even if I’m not stranded on a desert island.
8. Theatre/Archaeology (2001) by Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks
Another one of those books that is so dense in ideas you think about it long afterwards. I’d want this in my desert island stash because I could see myself (in a fetching sarong which has miraculously survived) trailing along the beach and contemplating my footprints in the sand as the ephemera of an archaeological performance. It would facilitate reflection on the trace fossils I create, and my conjuring of the island as a cultural object by my presence as a castaway. I feel that reading it again in such a completely different context would bring me new understandings of space, bodies and time.
9. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (1887-1927) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes could easily have been an archaeologist, with his axe-sharp forensic mind, ruthless logic and boundless imagination. It’s all about making behavioural inferences from material clues: what could be more archaeological than that? Added to the mix you get fine writing and a window into the Victorian world. There’s even a short story featuring an Andaman Islander, which appeals to me as my PhD was based on flaked glass artefacts from the Andaman Islands. By the time you’d finished the sixty odd stories that form the complete works, you’d have forgotten the first one and could start from the beginning again. Perfect desert island reading!
10. A book that doesn’t exist yet
Or at least, I don’t think this book exists, but if it did, it would be my tenth choice. I would like a book that was an edited anthology of the best archaeological writing from the 18th century to the present. My definition of ‘best’ would cover:
• Beautiful clear prose which was also redolent with deep meanings and could be read aloud just for the pleasure of it
• Narratives that used material evidence to tell compelling stories of life in the past
• Accounts of where archaeological evidence turns what we knew on its head
• Integration of archaeology with literature, psychology, biology, physics, history, culinary arts, fairy tales and I don’t know what else. Everything.
• The beauty and wonder of artefacts
Alice Gorman is a space archaeologist from Flinders University in Adelaide, where she teaches in the graduate programme in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management. Her research focuses on orbital debris, planetary landing sites and the history of space exploration. She publishes the blog Space Age Archaeology and tweets as @drspacejunk