I’m feeling kind of like Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, except instead of being an employee of a courier company and having a ball named Wilson as a companion on an uninhabited island, I am an archaeologist with a trunk load of books.
I’m not sure of the backstory Tom Hanks got from the director for his movie, but the one I got for this Top 10 is that I’m my way home from an international archaeology conference, travelling by ship. The ship goes down but I’m saved by a pod of dolphins, which takes me to a desert island. The pod leaves but then returns with a steamer trunk of ten archaeology-related books, the same ten I would have chosen to keep me company until the end of time, or rescue. I am free to define “archaeology-related” any way I like, and include fiction. Here are the books, and why they are in the trunk.
1. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves (1937). This novel of ancient Rome was instrumental in shaping my interest in archaeology. I was about 18 when I first read this and it spurred a fascination with ancient times. It would be a few years later before I decided to take a course in archaeology and some more years again before I thought of making a career at it but this book was key. Besides the personal significance to career development, it would be enjoyable to read again, and for that reason it is in the trunk.
2. The Inheritors, by William Golding (1955). This novel, set among Neandertals and modern Homo sapiens was required reading in an English literature course I was taking at college during the same term I took my first archaeology course. I had no specific educational or career aspirations going into that term, choosing each course for its schedule rather than content. I think it was the combination of this novel (for an English course) and the archaeology course (and for which the only memorable thing about the text for that course is that it was horribly boring) that put me on track for a career in archaeology.
3. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859). I have always been inspired by the writings of Darwin, who seems to me to have been an ordinary (albeit privileged) person who did some extraordinary things. Besides his thoughts and research, I like his writing. I know many find it boring, but I find it wonderful. Beyond being a good scientist, he was a good science communicator. I’ve written elsewhere that “Darwin was important, but I’d rather have a beer with Wallace,” which remains true. But since it is books, rather than people, I will have as companions on this desert island, I choose this one. My preference would be a copy of the first edition, but any of the several subsequent editions would do as well.
4. The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Man by Howard Carter and A.C Mace (1923). I don’t consider myself a book collector, but I have this one, written by the archaeologist who discovered the tomb in 1922. Nor I am particularly fascinated with Ancient Egypt (although I did spend several weeks excavating there one year). I’m not sure what it is about this book, but I like having it around. I like the feel of it, the look of it, just having it on my bookshelf. I bought it at a used bookstore in Seattle while attending an archaeology conference there in 1999. The price was about the same as a pint of beer.
5. Guide to Archaeological Field Procedures, by Knut Fladmark (1978) This book has both sentimental and practical value. It was written by one of my professors, and has been with me on dozens of field projects. I still find it useful and it is always close at hand on my field projects, especially when I direct archaeology field schools. Not only does this book cover the basics of archaeological field methods, it also covers such things as using four-wheel drives, changing propellers on outboard motors, and living in field camps. The cover includes scales and a north arrow. In case I ever wanted to do some fieldwork on the desert island, this book would be handy to have, especially if there were no electricity, batteries, or fancy equipment.
6. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria Jr. (1969).
Much of my career has been in the service of Indigenous Peoples of North America. They have influenced me in recognizing how archaeology could reasonably be seen as an agent of colonialism. Mostly my views have been shaped by working with and for Indigenous peoples but books have been important as well. This book is key, especially chapter 5 (“Anthropologists and Other Friends”) in which the introductory paragraph includes two of my favorites lines written anywhere – “Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists.”
7. Shell Bed to Shell Midden, by Betty Meehan (1982)
As a graduate student back in the 1980s with primary interests in shell middens, Indigenous Peoples, and middle-range research, this book was important. It is mostly an ethnoarchaeological research study associated with an Indigenous group in Australia, with a specific focus on shellfishing in the economy. Not only did the book enhance my understanding of how shell middens are formed, and show the value of middle-range research, it normalized a focus on women and children in archaeology for me. I recall ordering a copy through interlibrary loans, and since this was the 80s, it took about six months to make its way from Australia to Canada. It was worth the wait.
8. Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, by Marilyn Johnson (2015). Johnson is a writer, not an archaeologist, but she does an incredible job of conveying the world of archaeology in this book. She immerses herself in archaeology – in the field, in both the academic and commercial realms, and at conferences –describing archaeology like no other. This is my favorite overview of the practice of archaeology, and I think quite accurate. The book was written for a general readership. If I was ever left questioning myself on why I entered the profession, this is the first book I would pick up.
9. The Prehistory of the ‘Far Side’, by Gary Larson (1989). Larson is the creator of the Far Side comic strip, publishing more than 1,000 comics in syndication between 1980 and 1995. Many of his comics follow a clearly archaeological theme, especially life in the Palaeolithic. I have used his comics extensively in my teaching and continue to find them funny. There are several different books featuring his comics, but this one delves into the thought processes of Larson. It is kind of like a funny illustrated narrative, which might be uplifting on a rainy day on the island.
10. Sointula, by Bill Gaston (2004). Gaston is a well-known Canadian writer of fiction and poetry. I had already read a few of his novels and collections of short stories when I learned he had used some of my own writing in this novel. Gaston uses lengthy quotes from my published work as epigraphs to begin multiple chapters. Although the novel is set mostly in the present, the epigraphs are used to evoke images of the past. In a personal note Gaston describes the use as – “some learned and honest facts to bolster the chaos and whimsy of the story.” I have authored, co-authored, or edited five books in eight editions, and published a decent amount of scholarly, semi-scholarly, and popular pieces. I have had no greater satisfaction in my writing though, than having selections from one of my books used as epigraphs in a novel written by an established member of the literary community, who also happens to be one of my favorite authors. It may be stretch to consider this an archaeological book, but I make the claim that the evocations of the past from my own book put it over the threshold.
Post script: It was an interesting exercise, choosing the 10 archaeology-related books that matter most to me. I don’t regret that most are written by non-archaeologists. I do wish though that more were written by women and Indigenous people, and in languages other then English. If I could do the formative part of my career over, I’d try to fix that.
Bob Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology since the 1980s. He is based at Capilano University in Canada and his research interests include the Indigenous Peoples of North America, the archaeology of early 20th century Japanese camps in Canada, and the archaeology of a skateboard park. He has authored several books on archaeology and anthropology, writes a monthly on-line column called ‘Archaeology in North America,’ and can be found on twitter @bobmuckle