Matt Ritchie

My archaeology is of places and structures. While I appreciate and understand the importance of connecting and empathising with past lives, I unfortunately lack the imagination to do so and must rely on others. So I have tried to choose ten books that have inspired my interest and guided my approach.

250px-Asterixcover-10The adventures of Asterix the Gaul have had a huge influence in my life. With more historical and archaeological accuracy than they are often given credit for (although always ready to bend the truth for a good storyline), Goscinny and Uderzo skewer national stereotypes with a truly unique perspective. My first (and favourite) book was Asterix the Legionary (1967) – but I will always remember explosive Corsican cheese, the joyous cry of “into the lake with weights tied to his feet!” and the Prospectus for the ‘Mansions of the Gods’. Asterix brought the past alive in a way seldom bettered and has been chosen to represent my love of historical fiction – from Wolf Brother to Wolf Hall.

Uderzo loved a bird’s eye view and his depictions of the Gaulish village, Caesar’s desert camp, chaotic Lutitia and of Rome itself were particularly fine. A fellow Gaul, Jean-Claude Golvin, is the genius responsible for my next book: Ancient Cities (2007). My favourite reconstruction drawings always focus on structures and landscapes – and Golvin specialises in creating the urban overview. Like Uderzo, Golvin’s overviews are richly detailed but, rather than chaotic and fun, they are austere and serious. His reconstructions are as close to objective as is possible, using detailed research and archaeological plans and surveys.

I believe that good design, well chosen illustration, a clear framework and engaging writing are essential components of any archaeological communication. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: fifty islands I have never visited and never will (2010) exemplifies all of these traits and more, exploring concepts of exploration, aesthetics and accuracy within the context of a beautifully crafted atlas. Inspiring and engaging, it is never clear where the bounds of fact and fiction are drawn. There can be no better description of archaeology itself (although many would deny it).

okladkabig_zamki_newI love finding out how other countries explore and present their archaeology. Taking the philosophy of good design, considered content, innovative illustration and exemplary fieldwork to dizzying new heights is Zamki państwa krzyżackiego w dawnych Prusach (Małgorzata Jackiewicz-Garniec and Mirosław Garniec, 2009). This is a Polish study of the brick-built late medieval castles of the Teutonic knights in Pomerainia. Essentially a guidebook, the authors are professional photographers and artists. Each castle is illustrated by exemplary photography, detailed architectural floor plans and elevations (often incorporating archive material and old maps), reconstructed architectural line drawings and wonderful artistic reconstructions in a medieval manuscript style. It doesn’t matter that I can’t read it – this book is truly innovative and inspiring.

However, I believe that the BBC and British Museum collaboration A History of the World in 100 Objects (Neil MacGregor, 2010) is the absolute pinnacle of the popular presentation of the past. A landmark radio series (and supporting book), each and every description has been carefully crafted and considered. The series is an absolute pleasure to revisit (whether as audio or on the page).

A good history provides a window of understanding, the size and magnification chosen by the author. Although archaeology strives to be objective, we must never loose sight of the importance of subjective opinion. Two books that successfully blend a multi-disciplinary approach of archaeology and history with one overarching theme are Facing the Ocean (Barry Cunliffe, 2001) and Empires and Barbarians (Peter Heather, 2009). Both are fascinating overviews with huge chronological and geographical scale, presenting a range of evidence and ideas with an engaging narrative style.

Choosing one book to represent my archaeological ethos is difficult – but Making Archaeology Happen (Martin Carver, 2011) is a fascinating insight into Carver’s approach: that “doing archaeology demands both art and science… a scientific adventure in pursuit of a story, observation in harness with imagination, precision in record, persuasion in prose” (p. 12). I am not an excavator and would not presume to tell others how to dig. Reading Making Archaeology Happen confirms that with good project design, a framework can be agreed and the process of fieldwork, analysis and communication begun. Anyone can make archaeology happen.

Archaeological measured survey and landscape archaeology is as much about experience as it is about methodology. Visiting every monument one can and thinking about their form and function is really important. Enabling this study requires good historic environment records and regional guides – and, in particular, detailed records and good illustration. Choosing one representative from my bookshelves was difficult – but Colonsay & Oronsay (RCAHMS, 1994), an extract from the Inventory of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Argyll, has definitely seen the most use. It has been carried, over the course of several fantastic family holidays, up hills and down cliffs, over moors and bogs, across beaches and burns, to reach every dun on the island. But to do so I needed one more bit of kit…

Trying to adequately express my admiration for the Ordnance Survey 1:25k Explorer map series is nigh on impossible. As a country we are truly blessed with the quality and precision of our map-making tradition. So my final desert island choice (and probably my most important choice) would be a crisp new folded orange OS Explorer map of the island, ready to be spread out and enjoyed. Essential equipment for body and soul.

Matt Ritchie is the Forestry Commission Scotland Archaeologist and is based in Inverness. He provides advice and guidance in relation to the protection, conservation and presentation of the historic environment on Scotland’s national forest estate. His particular interest is in the methodology and practice of measured archaeological survey – and its use in promoting the conservation of significant prehistoric monuments. He is also interested in the use of creative use of archaeological visualisation. He learned his trade at RCAHMS, Historic Scotland and Cadw. He likes Lego, records, brochs and beer. His only fear is that the sky will fall on his head.


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