Jens Notroff

jensOkay – so, I made it to that island. Safety. Well, kind of (or is this some kind of Dr Moreau Island?). Wait, what’s that trunk over there? Food? A satellite phone? Or even the ship bar’s supplies? Aha, yeah – books. Archaeology books mostly. Well, not that bad. Could’ve been worse, actually (vector analysis for instance … no offence, dear math enthusiasts). Alright, since we’re now here already, we could as well have a closer look into this trunk then, right? So, what do we have in there?

1. C. W. Ceram, Gods, Graves & Scholars: The Story of Archaeology (New York 1949).
Sure, it may be a bit dated and its author’s reputation might be overshadowed by his participation in a German ‘Propagandatruppe’ during WWII, but it was the book which started it all for me – when I discovered it sitting in the upper shelf of my grandfather’s gigantic book-rack. It’s a popular book – Ceram (whose name actually is Marek) named it a ‘non-fiction novel’ himself. It is even said to be the prototype of the now so famous genre of popular science literature. Covering a variety of cultures, finds, and explorers it draws a colourful picture of archaeology and archaeological research (probably romanticising one or another facet) – and clearly attracted me to the field (thus spoiling me for any other well-paid job from thereon).

2. H. J. Eggers, Einführung in die Vorgeschichte [Introduction to Prehistory] (Munich 1959).
If Ceram’s book was the bait to get me to archaeology, Eggers most certainly reeled the line in. Also somehow dated in the meantime, this book on methods and elementary basics of Prehistoric Archaeology (that’s actually how the German title translates: “Introduction to Prehistory”) still has its place and authority for the freshman (I know it did in my first university year) – explaining some of the very essential concepts in a crisp and comprehensible way.

3. Y. N. Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York 2014).
A bit exaggerated here, a bit too oversimplifying there maybe, but still one of the books one reads with great pleasure – and benefit. A ‘tour de force’ through geology, archaeology, and history. A biography of our species, covering three big ‘revolutions’ in our cultural history: a cognitive one about 70,000 years ago, a subsistence one at the end of the last Ice Age, and a scientific-industrial one in the last millennium. All this written in a language which makes it easy to read the book on the train. Or a lonely island …

4. St. Mithen, After the Ice: A global human history, 20,000-5000 BC (Cambridge, MA 2003).
At the end of the last Ice Age – when glaciers slowly retreated – shifting climate, landscape, and fauna were fundamentally changing the world of our ancestors. This actually is a period of major importance in the history of humankind, of ‘culture’ as we know it today: A time, when emerging innovation did not only changing our ancestors lives but shaping our very own lifestyle. Mithen’s book tells of all this in a didactic yet still entertaining way; making the reader following the journey of an imaginary traveller through culture and cultures, landscapes and time.

5. T. Taylor, The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (Boston, MA 2005).
Death. That final frontier and the eternal question: What comes behind the curtain? It’s this and related issues, like: What happens to spirit and soul once the body stops working? Is there actually something like a soul? Could it be harmful once it leaves a body?, which are found at the very basis of a many spiritual and religious concepts, influencing how people, how we, are dealing with death. And the dead. This is an archaeologist’s playground and Taylor, who turns out to be a fantastic storyteller, has it all: from multi-killings to vampires, revenants, and human sacrifices. A fascinating collection of examples and comparative analyses – to make one rethink a topic rarely addressed in this profoundness publically these days: death.

6. A. and B. Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (London 1977)
Oh, what a gemstone. I definitely need to admit having a weakness for this (rather little) book – reading it once a year. This is how I imagine the field of xenoarchaeology, well it’s beginnings as methodology it basically describes the old school ‘grab-and-run’ approach.

After several extraterrestrial visits to our planet the landing zones these visits have taken place a littered with alien artefacts and strange physical phenomena – both turning out to be either miraculously helpful or terribly deadly (the latter ones thus being the equivalent of booby traps in your favourite fancy ancient temple). Adventurers and soldiers of fortune are entering these ‘zones’, trying to uncover and retrieve (and, of course, sell) these artefacts. Exactly, like in the good old days of pulp archaeology.

7. E. A. Reeves (ed.), Hints to Travellers scientific and general (2 volumes) London 1906.
The Royal Geographical Society’s essential handbook for any expedition since adventurous women and bold men set out to clear those white spots on the map. Without these instructions it would be absolutely impossible to venture any deeper into the hinterland of this desert – this book advises how to measure and map those mountains in the background (and how to correctly name them after some British Royalty), how to observe the weather, how to deal with big game and smaller critters, and all the other little but necessary challenges coming with any expedition. Definitely useful around this place, I think.

8. A. Christie, Come Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir (Glasgow 1946).
This ‘Archaeological Memoir’ by Agatha Christie, published in 1946, gives a quite amusing and thoroughly entertaining account of her days in the field together with her husband Max Mallowan (esteemed British archaeologist and excavator of Tell Brak, Tell Arpachiyah, and other sites) – describing the daily routine of an archaeological excavation. It is a witty and spirited little book; one I’d personally recommend not only to archaeologist-colleagues. It perfectly illustrates how much archaeological fieldwork has moved on from the old days … and how little actually still has changed. Christie Mallowan (indeed identical to the well-known crime novelist you just may have thought of) slipped quite some of these archaeological adventures and experiences into her better known ‘Whodunits’: “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “Death on the Nile” (1937) evocating long and colourful journeys to these sites and “Murder in Mesopotamia” (1936) even depicting an extraordinary dramatically case of ‘excavation fever’ – not at all unknown to those who can relate such a situation (minus the murder though, most likely) – which brings us directly to the next book on the list …

9. A. Christie, Murder in Mesopotamia (Glasgow 1936).
Murder in an excavation camp in 1930s Iraq. Anyone having been penned up with the same people for 9 weeks, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day could easily relate to the point of departure of this crime story (yet few would seriously consider the solution … I hope). Turns out it must have been an ‘inside job’, so one of the colleagues must be more into mortuary ritual than would have been healthy. What a happy coincidence that Hercule Poirot is around to ask the right questions.
Great read for long excavation evenings, although I would advise to hide it under your pillow from the rest of staff.

10. My battered, coffee-stained journal.
Good thing this found its way into the steamer trunk. I rarely ever leave without journal and sketchbook as this is a great way to keep up with … everything. Just sitting down for 10 minutes each evening really helps to reflect the day. It also is a pretty good way to work as ‘extended memory’, bringing together everything from grocery lists, quick sketches of sights, sites, and discoveries, as well as important notes. And I seriously got the feeling this island here was not always as deserted as it appears now and here at the beach. I mean – that strange mountain over there, all covered in scrub and twiners … looks suspiciously like a crumbling pyramid or something.

Think I’m going to have a look. See you later.

Jens Notroff is a Berlin-based archaeologist (also holding a degree in history and journalism) involved in research projects from Scandinavia to the Middle East. His research interests include the Neolithic period and Bronze Age, with a particular concern for the representation of power and social hierarchy in prehistoric societies, places of cult and ritual together with the question of their archaeological evidence as well as burial customs and mortuary ritual (with a peculiar curiosity for so-called deviant burials).

He is long-time staff member of the Göbekli Tepe research project, reporting on ongoing excavations and archaeological research at this Pre-Pottery Neolithic site in southeastern Turkey at the projects official weblog “The Tepe Telegrams” and probably spends to much time on Twitter.