This is not going to be academic. I’m sure I could usefully use the time on a desert island to finally read the stack of monographs I keep putting off, but I think I’d want comfort, enjoyment and things evocative of home, friends and family. Honourable mentions for books I’d be overjoyed to see in the trunk go to Orientalism by Edward Said, Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, anything by William Dalrymple (but particularly To the Holy Mountain or Return of a King), or indeed pretty much anything by Ellis Peters, Bill Bryson, Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft or Terry Pratchett, all of whom have had a hand in shaping my approach to and appreciation of archaeology and history. Keeping it to ten has been a struggle.
The Mansions of the Gods by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1973)
I can’t conceive of being on a desert island without an Asterix book, and I could’ve picked any one of quite a few favourites: Asterix the Legionary, Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield, Asterix and the Cauldron, Asterix and the Golden Sickle. After a few pints, a friend and I once agreed that Obelix and Co. is the most complete and cutting satire of capitalism ever written. That same conversation also concluded that as Obelix and Co. is to capitalism, so the Mansions of the Gods is to gentrification. In both cases, this was at least partially Rene Goscinny’s intention, but even without the beautifully crafted satire, Mansions of the Gods is just wonderful.
Woodlands by Oliver Rackham (2010)
It could very easily have been The History of the Countryside, which is a must-read for anyone who professes to work in landscape archaeology and has been picked by at least one previous castaway. For me, it’s Woodlands. I took it with me on holiday a few years ago and experienced the bizarre dissonance of feeling the visceral tingle of being transported to a dappled beech grove while sitting in the baking Cretan sun. It transcends archaeology, history or natural history and is one of the best examples of how appreciation of landscape must be multi-disciplinary, must draw on all available sources and should not be afraid of engaging through emotive and subjective narratives.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading me The Hobbit, and Professor Tolkien’s back catalogue has been a constant presence in my life ever since. This choice could very easily have been the Silmarillion, which is the work of Tolkien’s that I go back to most regularly and is one of the most satisfying and beautifully wrought pieces of mythology ever committed to paper. With a more archaeological bent to this list, however, it would have to be The Fellowship of the Ring. From a landscape archaeology perspective, the episodic nature of the first half, subverting the bucolic idyll of the Shire with the creeping horror of the Black Riders, alongside the decidedly dreamlike Bombadil interlude, is an object lesson in reassessing the inherent eeriness of the English countryside; see also the Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
The Story of Captain Cook By Lawrence du Garde Peach (1972)
As with Asterix books, I can’t imagine not having a Ladybird history book with me. Hardly lengthy reads and very much ‘products of their time’, I only have to look at the cover of certain Ladybird books to be instantly whisked back to a feeling of inquisitive childhood wonder. The ones that remain most vivid in my memory are the stories of William the Conqueror (boo!), Florence Nightingale (yay!), Warwick the Kingmaker (a pretty different take to the Warwick familiar to readers of Philippa Gregory!), Stone Age Man in Britain (pretty unreconstructed – just look at the title), and Captain Cook. When I was little, the Captain Cook book was my favourite for a few reasons: like me, he was from Yorkshire and called James – a surprisingly enduring reason for my love; it was actually a bit more detailed than the others and so stood up to re-reads very well; the illustrations were fabulous and the story of his life actually had a moving and exciting narrative thread all of its own.
Explorer Map OL30 Yorkshire Dales – Northern & Central Areas Ordnance Survey
I love maps. I can look at them for hours and often do when I should be doing something more productive. This one is the most dog-eared in my collection given it covers where I grew up, where I still live and where I’m lucky enough to do a lot of my work. I’d like to take the entire OS Explorer series in truth, but rules are rules. In the same vein, it’s a real wrench to have neither Rachel Hewitt’s fantastic Map of a Nation – a definitive yet eminently enjoyable history of the Ordnance Survey – or any of Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.
In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (1981)
The works of Michael Wood, both literary and televisual, were a household fixture in my early years. In particular, I have fond memories of his In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great series which came out around a similar time to John Romer’s fabulous Great Excavations series about the history of archaeology. When I was quite a bit younger, however, it was the In Search of the Dark Ages book on the shelf which fascinated me. Before I really knew anything about first millennium Britain, the phrase ‘Dark Ages’ and the picture of the Sutton Hoo helmet evoked feelings of wonder and images of a romantic yet brutal past that I lacked the words to describe.
The Fire of the Kings by Julian Atterton (1984)
I’m a sucker for historical fiction, and I love a good C.J. Sansom/Ellis Peters/Ariana Franklin page-turner on holiday. This one means more to me personally though. The author, Julian Atterton, lived near me in North Yorkshire and came to my primary school to do a workshop on storytelling. After that, my parents bought me a couple of his books, including this wonderful imagining of the birth of Northumbria under the evil (in the book) Athelfrith, the exile of Edwin and his eventual rise and fall. It’s a book for children and is therefore pretty slim, but – importantly for my ten-year-old self – it was partially set around Catterick (where I grew up), and it seared into my young mind the stories of 7th-century Northumbria.
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology 1960 Edition with Introduction by Robert Graves
I’m going to need something big to plough through while waiting for the rescue ship, and I can think of nothing better than this absolute doorstop of a tome. I have a copy of it which used to belong to my granny; it is bound in yellow cloth, stamped with the bull of Knossos and is a real thing of beauty. When I was very young I would take myself off into a corner with this book like it was a treasure chest. I would only read little snippets, but I was captivated by the pictures as I flipped past terrifying images of Vodyanoi water spirits, a beautifully rendered depiction of the death of Baldur and photographs of artefacts from the far and near East which baffled and intrigued.
A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver (2011)
A pretty recent book, but one which has become a fixture on my shelf and to which I have returned several times. My granny was a fiercely patriotic Scot and instilled in me a love of Scotland, but when Neil Oliver presented his History of Scotland series I realised there were considerable gaps in my knowledge. Prior to this, I had never read anything by Neil Oliver, and I instantly fell in love with his prose style. At a conference a few years ago, I was expounding about how much I love this book. My comments were met with some quite severe intellectual snobbery, which has only made me more ardent in my promotion of it.
Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2012)
Finally, I’m going for something I haven’t even finished reading yet. I got this as a Christmas present this year, having been meaning to pick up a copy for some time. It’s exploration of liminality in the landscape, and the importance of those places where borders are constantly renegotiated between nature and culture, I find to be particularly arresting themes. I can’t imagine being marooned on a desert island and not being able to finish it, so it must go in the trunk.
Jim is a heritage professional who can’t settle on a suitable job title. Based in North Yorkshire, he loves studying landscapes and working with volunteer groups. He is currently acting Chair of the CIfA Equality and Diversity Group and splits the remainder of his time between a series of community and research projects, monumental levels of procrastination and staring wistfully out of a window imagining rambling across the hills.
Jim is on Twitter at @angelus1981