My first book is a work of fiction, Andy Weir’s The Martian (2015). I came across this book entirely by accident online, and immediately fell in love with it, reading it multiple times since then, which is highly unusual for me. Although a work of fiction, like much sci-fi I find it deeply archaeological in its humanistic approaches to material culture and how humans adapt to, and make often unexpected adaptations upon, their physical environment. The sarcastic humour of the eponymous ‘Martian’, astronaut Mark Watney, also reminds me of much of the slightly grim humour of many archaeologists. Plus, the book is an ideal primer for any newly marooned individual, a reminder of what can be achieved given time, hard work, a bit of luck, a lot of excrement and a few rolls of duct-tape.
A very different book that I find myself regularly returning to is Keith Muckleroy’s Maritime Archaeology (1979). Muckelroy wrote the book as an undergraduate at Cambridge in his final year (intimidating or what?), and he is incredibly well-known within the small global maritime archaeological community but very badly known outside it, largely because he died in a diving accident only a few years after publishing this book, meaning that he never went on to a distinguished career like many of his contemporaries at Cambridge. The book is undeniably dated in its at times unashamedly ‘processualist’ approach to site formation and archaeological exploration strategies, but much else still remains of great worth as regards the nature of how human behaviour impacts upon the formation of wreck sites, something that I suspect would be of great use to the recently stranded islander.
Once settled in my new island home and looking around for something to while-away the hours, days, months and perhaps even years before rescue, I’d want to have a copy of James Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten: an Archaeology of Early American Life (1977 and 2010) to hand. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in self-analysis (of the beneficial sort), and also hopefully undertake some archaeological excavations of the material culture of previous remote island dwellers, then this legendary book of historical archaeology is unquestionably the perfect starting point for the sorts of detailed analyses you’ll likely have time for. Deetz’s writing is also so engaging, its simply a joy to read in and of itself.
Deetz’ provides the micro-archaeology; for the macro, I’d want to turn to Josephine Flood’s Archaeology of the Dreamtime: the Story of Prehistoric Australia and its People (1983 and 1995). I was introduced to this book as an undergraduate by Stephanie Moser, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It was my first journey into the extraordinary world of Indigenous Australian communities, and since that time I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time and do some work in Australia, seeing just a few of the sites mentioned in the flesh. Flood’s book is another work that manages to blend hard science with a profoundly respectful approach to the humans she’s discussing, something that is very important to me as a heritage practitioner. Such respect for, thoughtfulness about and identification of the reality of individuals and communities lives must always in my opinion be central to our work.
Moving from one environment to another, for contrast I’d also want Vicki Szabo’s Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic (2008) with me. I came across this book when asked to review it when it came out in 2008, and have been lucky enough since then to meet Vicki and learn more about her work on North Atlantic whaling sites. This is a beautifully written book and also one full of rich insights about a massive variety of topics – it’s so much more than ‘just’ a book about what could be a potentially dry (sic) and technical topic. As a medievalist at heart it also provides a crucial touchstone to this first true intellectual love of mine, blending medieval archaeology, history, iconography and ethnography in a manner that absolutely appeals to me.
Another book in this intellectual spirit is Colin Platt’s Medieval Southampton: the Port and Trading Community, A.D. 1000–1600 (1973). Colin was my mentor as an undergraduate, and I was lucky enough to remain in contact with him until his death last year. His teaching about medieval and Renaissance art and archaeology lit the intellectual light in me that led on to my MA and then PhD in archaeology and art history, so it’s not overstating the case to say that I owe, in large part, my career to him. He also began the painful process – still ongoing – of teaching me how to write and crucially how to edit work! I think of Colin pretty much every day as a consequence: ‘how would Colin have approached a piece of writing or editing?’ is a constant mental refrain for me, as I know it is too for many of the other archaeologists he mentored over so many years. This is not one of his best known books, but it is the summation of his many years leading fieldwork in the pre-PPG16 days of ‘rescue’ archaeology in the medieval port of Southampton. I’ve long harboured a desire to revisit his work in the light of the massive developments in that city since the 1960s, as there remains so much to say about this crucial port, in its own way one of the great cities of the medieval world.
Turning in a totally different direction, I’d then want a copy of Richard Bradley’s Image and Audience: Rethinking Prehistoric Art (2009) around in my island exile. Bradley is such an exciting thinker and such a good writer that I cannot imagine living without at least one of his books around. Which one is a tough choice (there are an intimidating number), but after a long think I’ve come down to this one, because it really challenges the reader to rethink how we’ve approached prehistoric art in the past. That in turn makes us challenge lots of other preconceptions – perhaps misconceptions – about both the past and the present. In other words, this is the book that I’d keep to ensure that I kept intellectually sharp on my island.
If Bradley is there to keep me grounded in archaeology, I’d also want Elain Harwood’s Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945 – 1975 (2015) around to push my mind in other directions. Thanks to my wide-ranging work commitments at Historic England I’ve learned a huge amount about architecture of late, especially 20th century architecture, which is not something I have an intellectual background in. Elain’s book is a brilliant, many-limbed monster in every way, intellectually and physically, and this work ought to be read by all archaeologists: it raises huge questions about the human transformation of the landscape far beyond the immediate ‘ brutalist’ urban horizons that might be expected. In a different manner, its wonderful photography of these incredibly exciting post-war buildings would also remind me of the urban environment that lies beyond my new island home. Plus, it’s also simply a bloody huge thing about two inches thick, so if nothing else I could drop it on any scary insects or animals that disturb me in my island eyrie.
Another book that I think all archaeologists ought to read is Simon Bradley’s The Railways: Nation, Network and People (2015). Like Elain Harwood’s work, on first impressions a lot of archaeologists might ask – ‘what’s this got to do with archaeology?’. Bradley’s book though is once again a multifaceted work of history, art history, archaeology and ethnography, covering a vast range of subjects in impressive speed and with tremendous verve. Few other books have excited me more of late – it’s extraordinarily well written and edited, barely a word or sentence out of place, and is genuinely gripping, as well as being huge fun: I laughed out loud on repeated occasions while reading it. It is therefore a masterclass in good writing and synthesis, making what could be a dull and technical subject flash into life. Although about the 19th and 20th century emergence of British railways, it is in fact so much more, being about science, economy, art and technology as well as more intangible issues like intellectual process, social relations and behaviour. Everyone should read it – my hope is that he now writes a companion volume on other railways around the world…
My final book is an undeniable luxury, but everyone needs a a few luxuries in any life. It is the book that I co-edited with my old friend and intellectual collaborator Marcy Rockman, Archaeology in Society: its Relevance in the Modern World (2012). Before you think that this sounds like the most awful self-aggrandisement, let me explain; I’d like a copy on the island not out of some misplaced sense of narcissism, but because I know I’d be very lonely at times in my exile and would want something to remind me of all of my family and friends out there searching (I hope!) for me. The book is dedicated (in my part) to my wife Jennifer, and is full of the most brilliant observations by a wide range of heritage practitioners from around the world. Stemming from a Society for Historical Archaeology conference session that Marcy and I organised years ago, it’s effectively our dream party guest-list of all the coolest and most interesting people that we know, and resulted in a series of friendships – and awesome dinners, drinks and parties – that I love to remember. So I’d sit eating my part-cooked rat or whatever other food I manage to capture or forage on the island and dream of the amazing meal I’d have with all of these people plus other friends and family after my successful rescue!
Joe Flatman is the Head of Central Casework and Programmes in Historic England’s Designation Department