Books, books, books. Summer is a time for fieldwork, but also reading big, bold, books that will keep you gripped whether you’re on holiday, doing fieldwork, or daydreaming about doing either of those things.
Interested in the rise and fall of civilisations? The nitty gritty detail of excavation? How we’ve responded to new technology, or dealt with climate change in the past? Or even what it’s like to confront death on a daily basis?
We asked our community which books they were reading and would recommend to others who share a deep fascination with archaeology and prehistory. Lots of the choices focus on Britain and the UK, but each one is guaranteed to have you gripped and heading straight back to the bookshop for more.
So, in no particular order, here’s a handful of the most gripping – as recommended by our community – for you to enjoy this summer (or winter, or spring, or just to add to your wishlist for whenever you finally do get a moment to put your feet up and delve deep into the past!):
The Tale of The Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Changed Britain, David Miles
Focusing on the British Neolithic, David explores a period of huge societal change through the most iconic artifact of its time: the polished stone axe. These formidable creations were not only crucial tools that enabled the first farmers to clear the forests, but also objects of great symbolic importance, signifying status and power, wrapped up in expressions of religion and politics. He uses a precious example, given to him by a local quarry worker, as a guide to the revolution that changed the world. Mixing anecdote, ethnography and archaeological analysis, the author vividly demonstrates how the archaeology on the ground reveals to us the evolving worldview of a species increasingly altering their own landscape; settling down together, investing in agricultural plots, and collectively erecting massive ceremonial monuments to cement new communal identities.
Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death, Brenna Hassett
Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer some 15,000 years ago. You’ve got a choice – carry on foraging, or plant a few seeds and move to one of those new-fangled settlements down the valley. But urban life is short and riddled with dozens of new diseases. Why would anyone choose this? Brenna uses research on skeletal remains from around the world to explore the history of humanity’s experiment with the metropolis, why our ancestors chose city life, and why they have largely stuck to it. She explains the diseases, the deaths and the many other misadventures that we have unwittingly unleashed upon ourselves throughout the metropolitan past, and what we can look forward to in the future as the world becomes increasingly urbanised.
Time’s Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination, Richard Morris
This is a dazzlingly wide-ranging exploration of three quarters of a million years of history in the place we now think of as England. Drawing upon genres that are usually pursued in isolation – like biography, poetry, or physics – Richard finds potent links between things we might imagine to be unrelated. This is part history of archaeology, and part personal account of the author’s own history in archaeology. But mainly it is about how the past is read, and about what we bring to the reading as well as what we find. The result is a book that defies categorisation, but one which will by turns surprise, enthrall and provoke anyone who cares for England, who we are and where we have come from.
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C Scott
Most people believe that plant and animal domestication allowed humans, finally, to settle down and form agricultural villages, towns, and states, which made possible civilization, law, public order, and a presumably secure way of living. James C Scott explores the archaeological and historical evidence that challenges this narrative. He looks at why some societies rejected sedentism and plow agriculture, the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain, and the real reasons tangled up with why early states seem to be based on millets and cereal grains: unfree labour.
The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found, Violet Moller
This is the story of how core ideas about medicine, astronomy and mathematics have shaped human civilization for millennia, charting their rise from the classical world of antiquity, through the middle ages and finally to the renaissance via several cities throughout the Mediterranean. Violet’s warmth and and expertise allows her to unveil a history of ideas, people and cities in one accessible, informative and provocative piece of work, which provides a good antidote to a narrow, Euro-centric view of history. Highly readable and very entertaining.
My European Family: The First 54,000 Years, Karin Bojs
Karin is a science journalist searching for her roots and in My European Family she tells the story of Europe and its people through its genetic legacy. From the first wave of immigration to the present day, she weaves in the latest archaeological findings and, by having her DNA sequenced, she traces the path of her ancestors, travelling to dozens of countries to follow the story. She learns about early farmers in the Middle East and flute-playing cavemen in Germany and France, and meets dozens of geneticists, historians and archaeologists in the course of her research. The genes of this seemingly ordinary modern European woman have a truly fascinating story to tell, and in many ways it is the true story of Europe. She carefully untangles the uses and abuses of ancient DNA studies and, at a time when politics is pushing nations apart, discovers that ultimately, our genes will always bind us together.
Sacred Britannia: The Gods And Rituals Of Roman Britain, Miranda Aldhouse-Green
Miranda Aldhouse-Green is a specialist in Romano-British studies and Iron Age archaeology, so you know you’re in good hands when you pick this one up! As we well know, Romans brought to Britain a pantheon of new Classical deities, and a clutch of exotic eastern cults including Christianity. But what cults and cosmologies did they encounter when they got here, and how did they in turn react to them? In this fresh and innovative new account, Miranda balances literary, archaeological and iconographic evidence (and scrutinizes their shortcomings and how we interpret them) to illuminate the complexity of religion and belief in Roman Britain, and the interplay between imported and indigenous cults. On the threshold between history and prehistory, many of the forces, tensions, ideologies and issues of identity at work are still relevant today, as Sacred Britannia skilfully draws out.
Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the seductive lure of human rubble, Marilyn Johnson
Lives in Ruins is an absorbing and entertaining look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Marilyn digs and drinks alongside archaeologists, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. Her subjects share stories we rarely read in history books, about slaves and Ice Age hunters, ordinary soldiers of the American Revolution, children of the first century, Chinese woman warriors, sunken fleets, mummies. She delves into what drives archaeologists, their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost, and reveals the people behind some of the most fascinating discoveries – from kind of work they actually do, and why it matters.
All That Remains: A Life in Death, Sue Black
Sue Black is not an archaeologist, but she does confront death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab, at burial sites, at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment, and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster. Crucially, she also honed her skills on Bronze Age cremations! In All that Remains she reveals the many faces of death she has come to know, using key cases to explore how forensic science has developed, and what her work has taught her. Relevant, fascinating, and so very down to earth.
Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair
This beautifully illustrated book draws on the latest archaeological discoveries to present a radical reappraisal of the Anglo-Saxon built environment and its inhabitants. John, who is one of the world’s leading experts on this transformative era in England’s early history, explains the origins of towns, manor houses, and castles in a completely new way, and sheds new light on the important functions of buildings and settlements in shaping people’s lives during the age of the Venerable Bede and King Alfred. Building Anglo-Saxon England demonstrates how hundreds of recent excavations enable us to grasp for the first time how regionally diverse the built environment of the Anglo-Saxons truly was.
Excavations at Milla Skerra, Sandwick, Unst: rhythms of life in Iron Age Shetland, Olivia Lelong (Ed)
The lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of a coastal settlement in the most northerly of the Shetland Isles are captured in this fascinating excavation report. Over 12 centuries and the rhythms of the seasonal cycle, successive generations farmed the land, herded livestock, gathered and preserved food, made the tools and objects they needed, and maintained their settlement: seabirds, fish, and shellfish contributed to eat, whale bone to make tools, seaweed, heather, turf, and peat were for fuel, pumice from Iceland, and driftwood that washed onto the shore did not go to waste. This is no ordinary archaeological report, it is one that brings the past intimately to life.
Prehistoric Maori Fortifications, Aileen Fox
A short but readable book that describes the earthwork fortifications constructed by Maoris in the north island of New Zealand between 1100-1800. The chapters are based on a series of lectures that Aileen gave in 1974 covering the archaeological evidence and specific features of the forts, including defences, houses, cooking facilities and what they reveal about community structure. She adds an unusual dimension to her discussion by drawing on her considerable knowledge of the Iron Age hill forts of England, where she has also worked extensively as an archaeologist. Eye-opening!
Interpreting the English Village, Mick Aston and Chris Gerrard
This has got to be the most recommended book by our community, and is it any wonder? It’s enthusing for anyone who is interested in ‘seeing’ what archaeologists can see. Mick and Chris show their readers how archaeology can tell a story, using a battery of techniques (field walking, test-pitting, archaeological excavation, aerial reconnaissance, documentary research and cartographic analysis, building analysis, dendrochronological dating and soil analysis) to examine how the community of Shapwick (a village in the middle of Somerset, next to the important monastic centre of Glastonbury) lived and prospered over a period of 10,000 years.
Medieval Mississippians, Timothy R. Pauketat and Susan M Alt (Eds)
In its prime, Cahokia was a city with roughly the same population as London at the time, yet by 1350 it had been deserted. This collection of 17 essays by 28 archaeologists and Native Americans explores the world of the Mississippians, Native Americans united by a common culture that dominated the Southeastern United States and beyond from about AD 1000 until the coming of the first Europeans in the 1540s. Thousands of their descendants continue to live in the region, and this fascinating book tells gives us a fascinating overview of their ancestors, and the principle city of Cahokia near present-day St. Louis.
Home: A Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory Francis Pryor
Francis is best known off the telly as one of Time Team’s bearded archaeologists, but also as the person who discovered Flag Fen. In this book, he explores the first 9,000 years of life in Britain, from the retreat of the glaciers to the Romans’ departure. Tracing the settlement of domestic communities, he shows how archaeology enables us to reconstruct the evolution of habits, traditions and customs. But it’s also the story of his own, personal passion for unearthing the past, from Yorkshire to the west country, Lincolnshire to Wales, digging in freezing winters, arid summers, mud and hurricanes, through frustrated journeys and euphoric discoveries. It has been described as ‘evocative’ and ‘intimate’ – Francis certainly has an enthusiastic and engaging style!
Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its Peoples, Barry Cunliffe
Europe’s Atlantic facade stretches from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Isles of Shetland. In this book, Barry argues that the people who lived in these remote places saw the sea as their means of communication, and those occupying similar locations as their neighbours. He shows us how original and inventive their communities were, and how they maintained their own distinctive identities often over long spans of time. Come for a story spanning thousands of years, stay for Barry’s evocative (and provocative!) writing style… and if you love it, keep going – he’s recently published a new volume On The Ocean: The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Prehistory to AD 1500 about the connections between these two vast, watery worlds.
(Fiction) The Writing in the Stone, Irving Finkel
Irving Finkel is the curator in charge of cuneiform tablets from Ancient Mesopotamia at the British Museum. In this fictional thriller, he uses his familiarity with ancient writings preserved in the world’s museums to recreate a vanished world in which those who step from the shadows in ruthless violence to pursue ultimate control show themselves at the same time to be disconcertingly human. In the capital, Nineveh, resides a deep and complex man, the power behind the King of the World. Faced with unforeseen disaster that threatens his authority, he emerges as a psychopathic killer… The tight prose and graphic illustrations make this a gripping and unusual tale not of this world, but at the same time weirdly familiar.
(Fiction) Circe, Madeline Miller
About to be adapted by HBO Max into a new TV series, Madeleine Miller has breathed electrifying new life into the Greek myths to give us a thoroughly modern re-telling of one of its most misunderstood, and most underplayed, deities. Born the daughter of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, Circe doesn’t quite fit in with the rest. With her, something new is born: witchcraft. This is a story of old power vs. new power, feminism and patriarchy, but most importantly of self-understanding as Circe grows from a character who doesn’t understand the world, to one who controls it. It’s exquisitely written and totally un-put-downable – you’ll stay up all night and by morning you’ll see Circe in a whole new light.
(Children’s) A Million Years In A Day, Greg Jenner
Every day, from the moment our alarm clock wakes us in the morning until our head hits our pillow at night, we all take part in rituals that are millennia old. In this gloriously entertaining romp through human history, BBC Horrible Histories consultant Greg Jenner explores the hidden stories behind these daily routines. This is not a story of politics, wars or great events, instead Greg has scoured Roman rubbish bins, Egyptian tombs and Victorian sewers to bring us the most intriguing, surprising and sometimes downright silly nuggets from our past. It is a history of all those things you always wondered – and many you have never considered. It is the story of our lives, one million years in the making.
And many, many, many more…
Our community clearly LOVES reading, and delving deep into the past – for fun, and to keep on learning. Here’s a few more that got recommended:
The Faded Map: The Lost Kingdoms of Scotland, Alistair Moffat / Mick’s Archaeology, Mick Aston / Monasteries in the Landscape, by Mick Aston / Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain, Chris Stringer / Towers of the North: Northumberlands Hidden History, Stan Beckensell / In the Valley of the Sacred Mountain, Paul Frodsham/ Prehistoric Rock Art of Northumberland, Stan Beckensell / 1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed, Eric H Cline / Beneath the Bull Ring, The Archaeology of Life and Death in Early Birmingham / Simon Buteux/ Excavations at Jarlshof, JRC Hamilton / The Prehistory of Sex, Timothy Taylor / The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, Mike Smith…
If you’ve got more to recommend, particularly from different regions, tell us in the comments so we can add them to the list.
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