Well, despite me saying I wasn’t sure it deserved all the rave reviews, I did change my mind to a certain extent. I think I was having an off day and suffering from grumpiness. Also, I’d been reading Philip Reeve books to my son and no matter how good a history of archaeology may be, it can’t compare to post-apocalyptic worlds with predator cities or steampunk adventures in outer space. Be that as it may, Time’s Anvil is still pretty good even if it’s not as compelling or revelatory as the reviews suggest.
This is not the history of archaeology as written by Brian Fagan, John Romer or William Stiebing. It’s not a linear history of ‘great men’ – although it does occasionally stray into that territory. This is a serious attempt at popular history similar to Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World or Bill Bryson’s At Home not quite hitting the highs of Stephen Jay Gould, but getting pretty close.
I think the main problem is that Richard Morris is trying to do too many things in one book and inevitably something has to give. He says the book is about the history of archaeology, how archaeology has been portrayed over the years and how the past has been understood at different times, how the past changes with new information and the dismantling of preconceived ideas. Additionally this is the history of himself within archaeology, his personal history of who he is and how he became involved in archaeology. He also discusses time, epochs and moments, punctuated equilibrium and how the past is created rather than found (although oddly he also believes some historical truths can be found) and how interpretation is contextual:
‘History is enquiry, and that enquiry is prompted by scepticism . . . History’s subject is change, its causes and means . . . the thrust of a question will alter according to who asks it, when, or why and within what framework of thought or knowledge’ (Morris 2013: 4).
Another major theme is Englishness and ‘the English’ and what this means and the mythology behind the ideas. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the book also includes several critiques of the tiny amount of history taught under the British Government’s National Curriculum and critiques of historians who ignore archaeological discoveries.
Looking first at the positives:
Richard Morris treats his readers with respect, he expects them to be au fait with ideas about time, evolution, history and archaeology and supplies an impressive bibliography for those who want to read further. He talks about chronologies, Bayesian statistics and taphonomy, I don’t think I’ve ever come across these in a history of archeology and certainly not a popular one.
This is not a sequential narrative of ideas about the past from antiquarianism through to the modern-day, you won’t find the usual suspects of Camden, Aubrey or Stukeley here. Nor does Morris discuss each ‘age’ in turn–there is very little about the Bronze and Iron Ages or the Roman occupation of Britain. However, unlike many historians of archaeology, Morris doesn’t see archaeology as limited to prehistory, instead post-Roman, medieval, ecclesiastical, industrial and contemporary archaeology are all covered.
He also makes the point that not only do historians and archaeologists carve up the past into artificial frameworks, we then assign characters to these divisions – the ‘Bronze Age’, the ‘Iron Age’, the ‘Roaring 20s’ – and the assumption is that this compartmentalisation reflects a cultural reality and the material evidence will reflect the social, political or ethnic entities we’ve invented e.g. ‘Celtic metalwork’, ‘Norman churches’ and ‘Georgian Houses’.
Morris hops about in his narrative and this book is full of unexpected information such as the development of modern theatre from passion plays and religious games, his lengthy discussion of Major Allen and the development of aerial photography, archaeology’s role in the conservation movement, and how investigations of battlefield archaeology have not only changed how we understand events such as the English Civil War but have also rehabilitated of metal detectorists into mainstream archaeology. His unpicking of the myth of England as an Anglo-Saxon creation leads to a chapter about deserted villages (Tall Nettles) and another on the amazing discoveries at the supposedly Anglo-Saxon village of West Heslerton (Becoming English). In turn these chapters are used to develop his contention that we need to think carefully about the words we use and our own preconceptions, he asks what do we mean by ‘village’? By ‘English’? Why are the Neolithic clearances and settlements not given the same weight as later land use? Why do we see a deserted village as a failed enterprise? He also – as I understand it – suggests that rather than classifying settlements by period, ‘Roman villas’ or ‘medieval villages’, we should look at the places where they occur ‘it may be that the underlying characteristics have as much or more to do with place as with time’ (Morris 2013: 206).
All of these points are used to support his contention that archaeologists and historians still prefer the easy answers of a singular account rather than the complex fluidity revealed by excavation. And this is another positive, Morris is an opinionated and impassioned archaeologist, his irritation with the narrowness of school curriculum history, of lazy thinking historians, of archaeologists who don’t look outside the trench or their own limited interests, comes through very clearly and makes for an invigorating read.
I’m not so sure about his placing of himself and his life in the narrative, it’s an intriguing approach and there are chapters where this works very well, particularly chapters 1 and 9 (Heartland and A Company of Saints) which deal with his family and involvement in archaeology and the consecration of the church where his father was the vicar. But there are places where this inclusion feels clunky and strained chapters 6, 13 and 14 (Notes from a Dark Wood, Nickel Plate and Brummagen, and Cousin Jack). It is, as many phenomenologists have discovered, a delicate trick to get the balance right and while Morris should be applauded for the attempt I’m not convinced it entirely works.
The book does occasionally feel like it’s been written for effect rather than for ease of reading, because it covers so many areas and so many subjects it is easy to lose track of where he’s been and where he’s going with his argument. And again, some of the connections feel strained, particularly the Epilogue which I’ve now read several times and still feel I’m missing the point. Perhaps everything doesn’t connect after all?
Some of the explanations Morris suggests are unconvincing, he argues Danish 20th century archaeologists were interested in daily life and economy because they were a nation of small farmers, in contrast British archaeologists emphasised conquest and colonisation because of their colonial interests. It’s a nice idea, but the Danes had and still have colonial interests and many Brits still farmers. It also overlooks Childe, Clark and all the other early 20th century archaeologists writing about the effect of environment on settlement and economy.
While Morris largely avoids the grand narratives of other popular histories there is a lot here that we’ve heard before – the Gothic swooning over ruins giving rise to the Romantic movement and interest in archaeology. The importance of Lyell, Darwin and Hutton to the development of archaeology – I’m not arguing Lyell and Darwin were unimportant but does it really need to be repeated in such uncritical detail? And, having read Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle I no longer believe anyone has actually read Hutton’s work. Morris also celebrates Pitt Rivers and Wheeler for their contributions to fieldwork, but, while these two undeniably changed fieldwork practice, again there is no critique. Wheeler and Pitt Rivers are accepted on their own estimation and praised for their diligence, for always being on site, for keeping all the artefacts recovered, for their recording and publication record. Surely we all now know that this is a myth? Likewise his praise of Bersu’s work at Woodbury is undermined by his ignorance of 1940s understandings of prehistory. These may seem like minor points but Morris’ stated intention is to unpick such myths and repetition of received truths makes our job so much harder.
I do have some minor, personal, gripes with Morris’ work – surely his belief that the majority of archaeologists are unaware of the importance of landscape and multi-period archaeology is out of date? A quick look at recent archaeology publications or around the internet shows that the much of the work now being done is landscaped based. Also, I found the poetry selection tedious rather than enlightening, I appreciate that he studied English at university but as the daughter of English teachers I have limited tolerance for highbrow literature – as I guess I’ve already reveled at the beginning of this review! And, I found his referring to the different forms of Homo sapiens as ‘Old Ones’ and ‘New Ones’ as irritating as fingernails dragging down a blackboard. I see why he’s avoiding categories, but surely he could have found less whimsical terms?
Rather than end on that grumpy note, I will reiterate that this is an interesting take on the history of archaeology. Go and read it and tell me what you think.
Have a great weekend
In the continuing series of thoughts about art and archaeology HARN member Helen Wickstead has been in touch. Unlike my vague bletherings Helen has written a brilliant article Dora Emerson Chapman, painter and archaeologist which you can read here – Public Catalogue Foundation Newsletter.
Helen’s email reminded me that HARN member Nathan Schlanger sent this notification about Issue 5 of the Cahiers de l’Ecole du Louvre (October 2014). The issue is dedicated to the theme of “L’Archéologie en construction: objets, images, dispositions”. The French texts are accompanied by English abstracts.
Hopefully I’ll be back tomorrow with a book review but it’s half term here and Halloween so I may be too busy carving pumpkins, dressing up and eating all the sweets my children have charmed from my neighbours.
begins tomorrow and we kick off with a cracking account from Sam Hardy about his research and how he became involved in the discussion of unpaid work in archaeology and detailing the looting and destruction of ancient sites. As he wryly points out, he is now the go-to guy for information about whether a site is still standing. If you don’t regularly visit his blogs then you won’t know about his passion, integrity and superb turn-of-phrase. Even if you do, you’re in for a fantastic read, come back tomorrow!
We’ve had a lot of responses to Ulf’s email about holding a HARN conference/workshop in Glasgow. The majority of responses have been very positive and many of you are enthusiastic about the idea and keen to be involved. However, we have heard from some members who have misunderstood what we’re trying to achieve, and feel we should be running a session at the EAA rather than trying to compete with them. I’ll try to clarify our intentions here, but if anyone has any more questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch – that’s what we’re here for.
The idea is to hold this workshop either immediately before or after the EAA rather than at the same time.
While we obviously support the EAA, indeed several HARN members are intending to give papers at the EAA, we felt it would be better to organise a separate workshop under the HARN banner rather than within the organised sessions because:
1. Given that this is intended to be a HARN workshop for the benefit of our members it would be inappropriate to ask the EAA to sponsor a separate and independent event within their conference.
Michael McCluskey (UCL English)
Thursday 20 November 2014
Room G6, UCL Institute of Archaeology, 6-8pm
All welcome, please reserve a free ticket at Eventbrite: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/filming-antiquity-excavating-egypt-in-the-1930s-tickets-13609615727
The excavation team at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt shot over three hours of film footage from 1930-1933. These images of Egypt help us think about amateur film as social practice and cultural artefact. They include leisure activities, street scenes of Cairo, and a crucial moment in the excavation season rarely captured in motion: the division of antiquities.
See more footage from the Egypt Exploration Society’s Lucy Gura Archive that has never been seen before in public… at least, not since the 1930s.
This event will launch a new collaborative project: Filming Antiquity.
Filming Antiquity is funded by a UCL CHIRP Small Grants Award.
For more information and details, visit http://www.filmingantiquity.com
Follow us on Twitter @FilmAntiquity
was going to be a review of Time’s Anvil but due to unforseen circumstances (I haven’t finished reading it) and forseen ones – I’m on my way to London to see this – there’s going to be a delay. Hopefully I’ll be back after the weekend with an erudite and comprehensive review.
Have a great weekend, even if yours is free of lego