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Book Review – The Dig, John Preston

May 22, 2015


I know, I was surprised too! It was back in November of last year when I was talking about films that I confessed my inability to get past the first page, but I’m nothing if not dedicated to this blog (or incredibly stubborn, take your pick) and the critical acclaim made me think I must be missing something. The words ‘evocative’ ‘nuanced’ ‘absorbing’ and ‘insightful’ are repeatedly used, reviewers praise his discussion of inter-war class tensions and commend Preston’s focus on love, impermanence and grief through the medium of the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavations. The back cover blurb promises great excitement:

‘Summer, 1939. While Britain is busy preparing for war, on farmland around Sutton Hoo House in sleepy Suffolk Mrs Pretty has asked local archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the enormous earth mounds on her land. And what Basil finds proves earth-shattering. His discovery brings an invasion of academics and busybodies from London. Each wants to run the dig and no one wants Basil or Mrs Pretty around. Peggy, newly married to her university teacher, surprises everyone by making the first discovery of fabulous treasure, but away from the dig her world is falling to pieces. Why is her husband behaving so coldly towards her?

While the clouds of war thicken above and jealousy vies with ambition to muddy everything below, a battle for the right to unearth an invader from another age begins in earnest…’

Now, I’m aware I’m probably not the best person to review this novel, before I moved over into the history of archaeology I was very interested in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, Sutton Hoo is a site about which I know a great deal. Also, as part of my history research I interviewed Stuart Piggott and Peggy Guido, two of the archaeologists who appear as characters here, and inevitably we discussed the Sutton Hoo dig in some detail. Plus, nuances? I have two children if you’re not shouting then I’m not going to be able to hear you. I don’t do nuanced anymore! But, this week I decided to ignore my misgivings: John Preston writes for the Sunday Telegraph and I was intrigued by an outsider’s view of the excavation and, because of the rave reviews, expected insights into these people, an evocation of the dig’s notoriously difficult politics. Why else fictionalise famous people and a well-known event unless it’s to suggest new interpretations? Additionally Preston is Peggy Guido’s nephew and although he says he’d been unaware of her involvement with Sutton Hoo until several years after she died, I assumed he’d have family information that would shed new light on her and on Stuart Piggott.

I was going to give a detailed analysis of how exactly Preston fails to do any of this, critiquing his style of writing and character portrayal, but you know something? I can’t be bothered! The characters are one dimensional at best. We learn nothing we didn’t already know about either the excavation or the people concerned. This ‘engaging’ ‘engrossing’ and ‘nuanced’ work tells us Mrs Pretty missed her husband and worried about her son; Basil Brown was doing an excellent job but despite his integrity and honesty he was pushed out by the academics; Charles Phillips was an overbearing, humourless oaf; Stuart Piggott had no sexual interest in his wife and only came alive on excavations; Peggy was young, gauche and realising she’d made a mistake in marrying Stuart. Oh, and a war’s about to happen so all their feelings and problems are insignificant, throw in a bit of tempus fugit reflected by the burial and that’s as nuanced as it gets. I could go on and discuss the mish mash of Sutton Hoo fact and Preston’s unconvincing fiction, the incorporation of other archaeological events – the section collapse which injured Bushe Fox, TE Lawrence’s fatal motorcycle accident – or why Preston felt it necessary to alter the whole relationship between Stuart Piggott and Peggy Guido by making Stuart Peggy’s university professor. But, like I said, I can’t be bothered to type it all out. What I will say is that it’s a good thing Peggy Guido was dead when this was published, she’d have hated it! John Preston’s aunt was a far more interesting person than this wishy washy school girl and if that’s the best he can do in fiction I won’t be hunting out any of his other books or articles.

To end on a positive note, isn’t the original cover beautiful? I need to hunt down a copy so I can find out who the artist is.


Have a great weekend, I’m off to read something less infuriating.



May 16, 2015


ELIN ENGSTRÖM ( Stockholm University

I am a PhD student in archaeology at Stockholm University. My research interests include the history of archaeology, cultural heritage studies and feminist theory. My PhD research concerns the relationship between archaeological practice, cultural heritage management and museum education from the 1960s and onwards. I examine the cultural heritage site Eketorp, a prehistoric ring-fort, on the island of Öland, Sweden. The archaeological excavations at Eketorp, which began in 1964, lasted for a decade and soon turned into one of the largest archaeological research projects in Sweden. After the excavations the archaeological site was transformed into a full-scale archaeological reconstruction by the Swedish National Heritage Board. Since the mid-1980s the site has been a popular tourist attraction and open-air museum. The history of the site itself connects to several academic fields, including archaeology, history of archaeology, cultural heritage and museum studies. Eketorp is therefore approached through ethnographic fieldwork as well as archive material and published archaeological texts. The aim of this interdisciplinary approach is to explore how hierarchies and notions of gender in academic practice are created, performed, and maintained through several scientific and heritage institutions.

FRANCISCO GRACIA ALONSO ( University of Barcelona

Francisco GRACIA ALONSO, professor (catedrático) of Prehistory at the University of Barcelona and director of GRAP (Research Group Protohistoric Archaeology). His main research interests are the Historiography of Spanish Archaeology; Protection and plundering of historical and archaeological heritage in times of war; the protohistory of the Iberian Peninsula; and war in the Ancient world. Among his recent publications are: La arqueología durante el primer franquismo (2009); Salvem l’art. La protecció del aptrimoni cultural català durant la guerra civil (2011); Pere Bosch Gimpera. Universidad, política exilio (2011); Arqueologia i política. La gestió de Martín Almagro Basch al capdavant del Museu Arqueològic Provincial de Barcelona (1939-1962) (2012); El tesoro del “Vita”. La protección y el expolio del patrimonio histórico-arqueológico durante la Guerra Civil (2014) and Pensar la Universitat. Escrits de Pere Bosch Gimpera (2015). For more information:

CSABA SZABO (szabo.csaba.pte@gmail.comUniversity of Pécs (HU) – Erfurt Universität (DE)

Finishing his B.A. and M.A. studies in classical archaeology and ancient history at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj (Romania), Csaba Szabó is currently a Ph.D. candidate of archaeology and ancient history at the University of Pécs, Hungary and at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt. Since October 2014 he is member of the LAR (Lived Ancient Religion) project and it’s new, joint project (Sanctuaries Project), directed by prof. dr. Jörg Rüpke and prof. dr. Greg Woolf. His research interest is focused on the religious life of Apulum (Dacia), the cult of Mithras in Dacia and the historiography of Roman religious studies in Romania. He is a member of  the Association of Romanian Archaeologists and editor of the Géza Alföldy, Roman Religion and I love Apulum Facebook pages.



Round Up – Conference: Adalbert Cserni and his Contemporaries; Member of the Month; HARN Conference 2015

May 15, 2015

I apologise if the title has you humming either Woody’s Roundup or Rawhide or some strange mash-up of the two (although that may just reflect my abiding love of the young Dan Aykroyd mixed with spending too much time watching Toy Story) but it seemed appropriate given all I have this week is snippets of news*.

First up I’d like to thank Rana for such an interesting piece last week. I know nothing about the development of Iranian archaeology so for me this was particularly informative as well as showing the breadth and depth of HARN members’ research. Next month (June) Bishnupriya Basak is our Member of the Month and her research deals with the development of archaeology in India over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – again it’s absolutely fascinating so I know you’ll enjoy reading it.

Everyone on our email list should now have received a copy of the HARN Conference 2015 poster with a plea to circulate this. If for some reason you haven’t been contacted directly by me then either you need to sign up to our email alerts, or something’s gone wrong! You can download the poster from the blog entry here and we would be grateful if you could publicise this amongst your friends and colleagues. It’s going to be a brilliant day, we have a truly international set of speakers talking about all kinds of archaeology, we’ll be publishing a programme soon. We’ve had several enquiries about submitting papers for the conference, sadly we can’t fit in any more papers, and believe me we have tried! However, we are already planning HARN 2016 so if you have a topic you’d like to talk about watch this space . . .

On the subject of conferences – we’ve been sent the following call for papers by Csaba Szabo a Ph:D. candidate in archaeology and ancient history at the University of Pecs and Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt.


You can see the whole programme here. While one of the topics to be discussed is the life and work of Adalbert Cserni, the cfp is not specific to Romanian archaeology rather it asks for papers focussing on the social and academic networks of archaeology; techniques and methodology of urban archaeology; museology; and the politics, ideology and archaeology. Participation and accommodation for speakers is free (free! They’re even supplying meals! You just need a paper and the fare to Romania). I imagine they’re going to be inundated so make sure you send off those proposals before the 15th of August 2015.

Have a great weekend


*I’d hoped to have a book or museum review for you this week – I have both the book and the museum I’d like to review in mind, but nothing has gone quite as I’d planned. My attention has not been on work this week. Initially I was distracted by the general election – and why are they called ‘general’ elections btw? Then I was distracted by raging about the results, horrified by there being another earthquake in Nepal and spending a ridiculous amount of time following the Kevin Pietersen saga and emailing to and fro with Jon about it all. Add in small and not so small children and not a lot of productive work was getting done even before my son came to tell me that ‘Daddy’ (who had come home from work a couple of hours previously complaining of feeling a bit rough) was lying ‘asleep’ on the bathroom floor. It turned out Daddy had in fact fainted and, as my worried son suspected, was really not well at all. Thankfully it turned out not to be as serious as it looked, but we had a very fraught weekend. This weekend will be better and who knows, I may even get some work done!

Member of the Month – Rana Daroogheh

May 9, 2015

As promised, this month’s member of the month is Rana Daroogheh. Rana has sent the following fascinating account:

A great many archaeologists have been drawn to their work by the aesthetic pleasure they experience in recovering and recreating the past. In my case, having become an archaeologist means that I have sought ways to encourage a broader public to understand how their historical past is forged and manipulated to construct a certain political image to serve the nationalistic rhetoric of their respected nations. I never gave much thought to how and why I became interested in history of archaeology. In hindsight, however, I could perhaps identify some factors in my life that may have contributed to my later interest in the discipline. For example, in Iran as a part of a generation that belonged to the so-called “children’s of Revolution,” named after those who were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, I grew up in a climate of opinion dominated by declarations of Iran’s greatness against a global community that supported Iraq in its eight years of War with Iran in the 1980s. The intertwined relationship between politics and everyday life in form of war or economic sanctions, heightened the degree of Iranian’s political awareness and debates about national interest and comparisons between life before and after the Revolution became the primary focus of family discussions during get togethers. This early exposure to politics, as well as the ensuing debates surrounding Iran’s demise from its ‘ancient grace’ fostered my early desires to learn about a nation that was branded as ‘axis of evil’ in contemporary politics.

This interest was combined with the additional dimension of immigrating to Western Canada and having to identify myself as an Iranian-Canadian in my early teens. Growing up with a torn identity as a Canadian who was in some ways still connected to Iranian roots led to somewhat of an identity crisis during those early years. This was when I first began to think about nationalism and Iranian identity and what happens to national identity when living away from homeland in an environment that is either hostile or provides no desire to embrace one’s national heritage. I quickly realised that the Iranian diaspora overcame this resentment through the glorification of Iran’s ancient past as a source of pride to negate Iran’s image in the Western imagination as a totalitarian State with a backward culture. Yet, others praised the Shah’s government for launching a world-wide media campaign to improve Iran’s image through various cultural activities like that of the Persepolis celebration in 1971 and scorned the Islamic government for demolishing the ‘once upon a time positive image of Iran in the West.’

This background, I now think, shaped my interests as I became an archaeologist. It made me quick to see national identity as produced by forces of political propaganda and to comprehend its fluid nature as it becomes associated with an ancient culture that made enormous contributions to human civilisation, or a dreadful totalitarian State that supports global terrorism. At the time I resolved these issues by acculturating to Canada and immersing myself into everything Canadian, from hockey to maple syrup doughnuts, but I’ll be lying if I said I became totally ambivalence towards Iranian culture and politics.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that my first trip back to Iran in 2002 and specifically visiting archaeological sites such as Pasargadae, Persepolis, and the Mosques of Isfahan changed my life. Upon my return to Vancouver, I decided to change my undergraduate major to Iranian archaeology, but the option was not available at UBC. In addition, there was not a lot of information about career choices in the discipline. Further, not only could I find very few people who knew anything about Iranian archaeology, but most those who did, advised me against going into the field. I put off my interest in Iranian archaeology until I had a chance to meet my future supervisor, Professor Coningham, when I was enrolled at Durham University in England. Having talked to him about my interest in archaeology and politics he suggested a way out of this lingering impasse by starting on research that concentrated on the historical aspects of Iranian archaeology. He introduced me to Professor Margarita Diaz-Andreu, also later my supervisor, who was already considered a pioneer in articulating the role that history and politics play in shaping the archaeological landscape. Following their lead I began working on my PhD thesis (2014) entitled “Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology: The Case Study of Iran,” partially funded by the AREA Project.

As I began field-work (funded by BIPS) in Iran during the summer of 2010, my ideas began to form and I became more convinced of the many impacts of socio-political factors, such as nationalism and political ideologies, on the formation of a ‘unique tradition’ in Iranian archaeology. I soon realised that being an Iranian diaspora who studied at a British Institute posed serious constraints on the kind of data I was ‘allowed’ to consult. Few months later Durham’s team of excavation was banned from carrying research at the prehistoric site of Sialk due to allegations that they were British spies collecting information from a nearby Nuclear facility. These events further convinced me of the restrictions that politics posed on Iranian archaeology. I began mapping out the Iranian archaeological tradition by presenting the prevalent trends that shaped the discipline and analysing the impact of competing interpretations of nationalism (ethnic, dynastic, Islamic) on its foundation and development. Following an interpretive analysis it was concluded that the discipline was born out of nationalistic traditions, and remains exploited as an instrument to construct particular State-sponsored narratives (Dynastic or Islamic State) through selecting different ‘golden ages’ (pre-Islamic or Islamic). I argued that during certain periods of modern Iranian history, the employment of particular aspects of Iranian identity resulted in the institutionalisation of the discipline. In contrast, during periods when authenticity was sought in ‘charismatic leadership’ or ‘populism,’ archaeology was cast aside as a pseudoscience to legitimise the ‘tyranny’ of Iranian dynasties or, alternatively, employed for populist projects to assert a particular impression of Iran as the protectorate of Shi’a Muslims across the globe. The Nationalistic tradition of Iranian archaeology was asserted through three case-studies that articulated the appropriation of prehistoric (Sialk), pre-Islamic (Persepolis) and Islamic (Friday Mosque of Isfahan) past to legitimise contemporary political discourse and competing brands of nationalism during the Qajar (r.1785-1925 AD), Pahlavi (r.1925-1979 AD), and post-Revolutionary (r.1979 AD-present) periods. It was suggested that the prevalence of this trend was the result of: 1) an overemphasis on historic periods (Achaemenids, Sassanids, Safavids) and in turn the vulnerability of the past for manipulation by certain political regime’s to gain credibility as rightful sovereign of the nation; 2) the government’s efforts (both pre and post-Revolutionary) in resurrecting Iran’s ‘glorious past’ to counter Western antagonistic rhetoric against Iranian culture. Venturing into these topics, I felt, could provide important additional insight into the complex landscape of Iranian archaeology given that due to social constrains and career-threatening repercussions of interpreting the influences of socio-political influenced on archaeology, Iranian archaeologists have refrained from becoming acquainted with more interpretive approaches. My intentions were, and still are, to demonstrate that the articulation of subjective biases that threaten the discipline can raise awareness in the promotion of a more objective approach to Iranian archaeology. I have recently turned my attention to the influence of various theoretical schools, particularly those introduced by the French and American teams, and the extent to which they were co-opted into the Iranian theoretical tradition, in order to draw a clear understanding of the current lack of theoretical debates in Iranian archaeology. Meanwhile, during the coming academic year, as an Iranian Heritage Foundation (IHF) Visiting Fellow at SOAS, I will be working on the underestimated role of archaeology as an instrument that facilitated the construction of a new identity in Iran under the doctrine of ‘Dialogue among Civilisations’ put forward by President Khatami (r. 1997-2005 AD).

Thank you Rana for such an interesting and thought-provoking summary. Any comments please write them below or email Rana or

Have a great weekend


HARN Conference Update

May 7, 2015

This is the flier I’ll be sending out to you all. As you can see we’ve had to increase the fee to £10 in advance and £15 on the day.

HARN2015 medium
In other news I’ll be uploading a new Member of the Month post tomorrow – Rana Daroogheh has written a fascinating piece, I know you’ll really enjoy reading it. Julia

HARN Conference

May 1, 2015

Finally* I give you the (drum roll and fanfare) HARN 2015 Conference:

HARN International Conference

Confirmed Speakers from Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America

1st September 2015 – 9.30am to 5.30pm

City of Glasgow College

Conference Fee – £5 in advance/ £10 on the day

Email for details and registration


or @HARNgroup for updates

I’m going to be sending out emails later today with a poster attached, if you could print it off and put it somewhere prominent in your institution that would be most helpful. But do spread the word as well, send the poster to as many people as possible, tell everyone you know – let’s make this a really successful HARN event!

And, on that note, have a fantastic weekend


* We’ll gloss that everything would have been ready a month ago if I’d been using this year’s calendar, not last year’s. Sigh. Good job Ulf spotted that.

The curse is come upon me!

April 24, 2015

Sadly of the non-archaeological kind. My son has had some sort of virus which he has kindly passed on to me. This post is coming to you from my settee where I’m reclining gracefully and artistically

The Invalid by Louis Lang

The Invalid by Louis Lang

Not an entirely accurate depiction, in reality there’s a toddler bouncing up and down on my midriff suggesting we go and play outside. The toddler may also have the lurgy but if so she’s not letting it slow her down!

I shall return next week, hopefully well and hopefully with final details of the HARN conference.

In the meantime, have a great weekend



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