Here are my choices for Desert Island archaeology books… I’ve picked a variety of books, but most focus around my research interests – prehistoric archaeology (especially the Neolithic) and anthropological analogy. Some books inspired me to get into archaeology in the first place, some life changing books which have influenced my worldview, and others which I pick up time and time again when I’m writing something or need inspiration. I like thinking big, and these books go over some big ideas. What’s not to love when lying on a beach with plenty of time to pour over them?
Andrew Sherratt – Economy and Society in Prehistoric Europe: Changing Perspectives.
I think it was Andrew Sherratt who really got me interested in archaeology, properly. When I went to university to study archaeology at undergraduate level, I was pretty lucky, as I just got the UCAS prospectus, closed my eyes, flicked the book open and decided I would go and do whatever it landed on. It landed on archaeology.
Andrew’s work has really influenced me, but I also just enjoy his writing. One paper is a must-read for any archaeology student – that one he wrote about wool, milk and cheese – the ‘Secondary Products Revolution’ (plus I just love Akkadian cylinder-seals). Even though perhaps a little old fashioned now, much of his work is concerned with the longue durée, but some of the chapters in this book are really forward thinking, and against the establishment. This is especially true of Section V, where he talks about ‘cups that cheered’ – the beaker folk and the introduction of alcohol into Europe, and ‘sacred and profane substances: the ritual use of narcotics in Later Neolithic Europe’ – a key paper, if you know anything about my research, you’ll see where I get it from.
Mary W. Helms – Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance.
A classic book for anyone who is interested in the ways archaeologists use anthropology in their work. This book is a great read, and I just love the subject matter. In it, Helms explains how various cultures interpret space and distance in cosmological terms, and why they associate political power with information about strange places, peoples, and things. This is really relevant, let’s say, when you’re trying to ‘get into the mind-set’ of prehistoric people. It also links to the big question in Neolithic debate – was it people or ideas that travelled? The core of Helms’ argument is the association of geographical distance with the value attributed to ideas and goods obtained through travel. This relates to the basic concept that in many societies across the world metaphorical connections exist between geographical distance and time, or horizontal distance, linking great journeys with ancestors, gods or the sphere that acts as the final resting place. Exotic or prestige goods are valued because they have been acquired from great distances and can, metaphorically, be associated with this ‘otherworld’. Think Neolithic jadeite axes from the French Alps, turning up next to the Somerset sweet-track.
Tim Ingold – The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill.
When I saw Tim Ingold give a talk at an archaeology conference, I was in awe. He was so articulate, presented big ideas in intriguing, complex, fantastical ways – but by using normal, day-to-day objects and practices. I remember him talking about agency and animacy – and the example he used was flying a kite. He used the analogy as a way of handling the mind/body duality and its interface with materials. The person acts on the kite through the wind in kinaesthetic relation. Flyer, wind, line, kite are ‘reciprocally intertwined’ in the same way that makers and their materials are interdependent. He also uses a fungal mycelium as a metaphor of a ’meshwork’ and a ‘relational constitution of being’, and I’m pretty crazy about mushrooms! I could go on and on. This book, and the papers within it will twist your brain in ways you never thought were possible.
Philippe Descola – La Fabrique des Images.
This book accompanied an exhibition at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, but it brings together Descola’s ideas in a lavishly illustrated, French language book. He looks at the differences between nature and culture, classic Descola – but then goes further and uses images to explore how diverse cultures represent the similarities and differences they see in their surroundings. The images in the book correspond to four greatly contrasted views of the world, from five continents: animism, naturalism, totemism, and analogism. Reading through the pages, you get to discover how images, from the most familiar to the most enigmatic, depict the many ways people can experience the world, and you come out the other end with the realisation that our way of seeing the world is only one tiny way of understanding it. Food for thought when trying to interpret an archaeological site.
Piers Vitebsky – Reindeer People.
Piers Vitebsky is another talented writer, writing complex ideas in a compelling, easy to digest ‘can’t put the book down’ kind of way. This particular book is a gem. I am a bit biased as I am obsessed with deer and the human-deer relationship generally, but if you like Siberia, anthropology, and nomadic lifestyles this is a book for you. It’s written as an anthropological diary, and tracks Vitebsky’s journey to Siberia where he travels and lives with a nomadic family of reindeer herders. A magical, vivid, often heart-wrenching account of the problems, as well as the triumphs of living in vast landscapes of snow.
Julian Thomas – The Birth of Neolithic Britain.
This book was published recently in December 2013, but I’m yet to really read it – so it would be a great addition on a desert island! Julian’s previous book ‘Understanding the Neolithic’ is one of those books I just come back to again and again. A massive bibliography, and lots of detail if you’re into the Neolithic period in Britain. ‘The Birth of Neolithic Britain’ – has a similarly massive bibliography, and I look forward to reading it.
Chris Scarre – The Human Past.
Another one of those books. Packed with information, a well written marvel, and a must-read if you’re an archaeology student, plus it’s a brilliant book if you’re writing a course or trying to find a reference for something specific. A bible. And you learn something new every time you pick it up.
Sian E. Rees – Cadw Guides to Ancient and Historic Wales
I know, I know, it’s technically four books, but Wales is only small, right? The four books focus on the four regions of Wales: Glamorgan-Gwent, Dyfed, Gwynedd and Clwyd-Powys, and are my go to guides for anything in Wales. From getting there, to images, to short descriptions – I go to these first before I hunt down a more detailed book on the specific site I’m interested in. If I were on a desert island, I could swat up on even more Welsh sites, before exploring them on my return! They are out of print, but you can pick up copies on the internet.
Michael Thompson – Ruins Reused.
Since working for Cadw (the historic environment for the Welsh Government), I’ve had to move away from prehistory, and I’ve been stretched back into more recent times. This book has helped me see heritage, or the history of heritage in a different light. It looks at monuments in a way that takes them as composite expressions of time, never standing still. A monument is always changing with changing styles, and this book looks at the changing attitudes of key figures such as Richard Colt Hoare, to the works of Ruskin, Morris, Lubbock and Pitt Rivers. Rather than looking at the people who lived in or used the monument in question, this way of deciphering a historical or archaeological monument looks to the people who actively change it and present it to the public.
Alasdair Whittle, Frances Healy and Alex Bayliss – Gathering Time.
I had to include this. Not only because Alasdair is a don, was a great PhD supervisor and has been a huge influence on my work – but basically, I come back to this book to check I got things right. I dip in to it, when the time comes round, and I always pick up a new piece of info. Oh, Alasdair, you are obsessed with dates, but I still love you.
Dr. Ffion Reynolds is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University and is part of the Guerilla Archaeology collective. Her main research interests are in the Neolithic of Britain and in prehistoric worldviews more generally. She works as Cadw’s Heritage and Arts Manager and oversees its public programmes, outdoor arts projects and leads on Open Doors – which encourages visitors to explore the heritage of Wales for free in September each year. You can also find her on Twitter @caws_llyffant