Having listened to BBC Radio 4 for as long as I can remember, I’m a fan of its famous Desert Island Discs programme. For years, I felt that to be a fit accompaniment to an interviewee’s life-story their eight music choices should each come from a different phase of life: all very Shakespearean. Now I think that it’s fun just to listen to the music, and hear why the person likes it. Ten books later…
Asterix in Britain, Goscinny and Uderzo
When I was school age, we visited the local library every week. Mum walked us up the hill to the lovely Arts and Crafts style building with its warm, red, roof tiles and booky smell. When old enough I was allowed to go by myself. The library had many of the Asterix stories, and it was a good day when I found one on the shelves that I hadn’t read before. My favourite is Asterix in Britain. I love the wit as well as the style of the drawings, and the twist at the end of this story is greatly pleasing. When I was a kid it all seemed to make sense: we lived close by St Albans and so I knew all about the Roman town of Verulamium, invasion, Roman roads, the Army, wine and olive oil and garum and mosaics, and all that.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Even less archaeological than Asterix perhaps, but an eye-opener nonetheless. Reading the literary classics (also from the local library, and at home and school, so including Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and so on), I discovered that it’s actually possible to find out what it was like in the past through the power of someone’s words alone. People who wrote stories a long time ago were conjuring up places and spaces that I could actually see, hear, smell, feel (albeit in my head). Fictional pasts, but just as true, and certainly more alive, than most history books. I’d love to have one of these books on the island, and as Bleak House is also a detective fiction story it’s the perfect choice.
Here, of all Places, Osbert Lancaster
This is a compilation of two books of architectural cartoons by Osbert Lancaster, Pillar to Post and Homes Sweet Homes. I love Lancaster’s drawing style, deceptively simple pen-and-ink sketches but actually so complex, full of detail and character. Each cartoon epitomises a building type and style, with, alongside, Lancaster’s lovingly sarcastic or ironical commentary. The perfectly observed drawings conjure up a real sense of each style: another small miracle of communication. I also love the way this book is produced, out of the John Murray publishing house – it’s redolent of a world of John Betjeman, and beautifully illustrated children’s books like Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear.
London’s Lost Jewels, Hazel Forsyth
This is the first, and so far, only, exhibition catalogue that I’ve read non-stop from start to finish. It’s not only that the contents of the Cheapside Hoard are stunningly beautiful. Or that the Elizabethan and early Stuart tools, techniques, and skills to make the jewellery are so interesting. Or that the story of the Tudor global trade in gem stones, jewels, and precious metals is so fascinating. It’s a really well-written, engaging, entertaining book that’s just easy to read.
Some Small Harvest, Glyn Daniel
Which of today’s archaeologists do you think would publish their memoirs? Who’s going to write as entertainingly about their life as Professor Glyn Daniel did about his first sauna experience in Finland, genial life in France, studying megaliths, gastronomy, secret service in RAF aerial intelligence, telly with Mortimer Wheeler? Much is a bye-gone age, some quite uncomfortable (he “enjoyed enormously some of the last days of the British Raj.”), and deeply revealing of how people in the archaeological circles he describes were of course part of broader cultural and social networks.
Dictionary of Tools used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades c1700-1970, Raphael Salaman
I’d like at least one book that’s just about all the things, so I’ve picked Salaman’s woodworking tools. It’ll remind me of what I’m missing in my workshop, and maybe inspire me as I try to survive on the desert island (this island has some knappable volcanic glass on it, hasn’t it?). And it will remind me of childhood visits to St Alban’s Museum, where Salaman’s tool collection used to be displayed in a very old-fashioned but appealing way, contributing the smells of sawdust, tar, creosote, and oil to the museumy atmosphere.
Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map of the Isles of Scilly
It would be so easy to select 10 maps and no books. Another childhood fascination, I would pour over maps wondering how places and features got their names, and picking out things I wanted to see. The Isles of Scilly are just brilliant for this. The tiniest hunks of sea-bound rock have names; granite is sculpted by nature into animal or human form; and the islands are thickly scattered with monuments from prehistory to the Second World War. Perhaps it will inspire me to map the desert island and turn it into places?
The Eye of Intelligence, Ursula Powys-Lybbe
Having worked with aerial photographs for years, I own far too many books about aerial archaeology, military mapping from aerial photographs, the history of photography and flight. This book is an account of aerial reconnaissance and air photo interpretation during the Second World War, written by a woman who was at the heart of the action. My copy of the book was owned by a photogrammetrist, Flight Lieutenant SJ Fill. He annotated the book with the names of his co-workers, identified them in the photos, and included photographs of a very special piece of equipment that I have a soft spot for, the Wild Heerbrug A5 number 50. Even though this is recent history, it’s made all the more immediate by these personal touches.
The Flag Fen Basin, Francis Pryor
I don’t think I’ve read any of my book shelves’ really big excavation reports from cover to cover. This is the one I’d pick for the desert island. All that lovely preserved prehistoric wood, and the broad open spaces and big fenland sky. I can imagine myself back in East Anglia, and read in more detail about 4000 years of changing environment and landscape…
Must Farm, Mark Knight
…which will also be the perfect introduction to what I hope will be my tenth book, the report(s) on the amazing Must Farm excavations (once they are available!). From the log boats, fish traps and textiles, to the pots with their food remains, the roundhouses and bronze tools: I can’t wait to read all about the outstanding archaeology. I’ve had fun carving replicas of preserved wooden items from both Flag Fen and Must Farm: on the desert island, I’ll read about both excavation projects and plan all the lovely things I’ll make in my workshop when I get home.
Katy Whitaker works at Historic England, is a PhD researcher at Reading University and is a professional sarsen-botherer, experimental archaeologist, and historian of aerial photography. She can be found on Twitter at @artefactual_KW