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Book Review – Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People

September 27, 2018

A HARNy treat! HARN member Amara Thornton‘s excellent Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People reviewed by HARN member Monica Barnes. A print copy of Amara’s book was generously supplied for review by UCL Press and don’t forget the book is available on open access so you can also read it for free – just go here and download it (or, as I did, email Kate and ask how to do techy things to get it on Kindle etc, turns out it’s super easy and even I managed).

Amara’s book is fascinating, intriguing, important and Monica’s review is equally excellent, focussed, balanced and informed, enjoy:

Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People by Amara Thornton. London: UCL Press, 2018. 312 pages, 22 illustrations.

In the 1970s, when I first began to study archaeology, popularising was a sin committed at the peril of one’s career. I learned to hide books like Gods, Graves, and Scholars and Royal Highway of the Sun. One should support oneself and one’s work with academic appointments, fellowships, and grants. If one couldn’t compete successfully (and the contest was, to some extent, rigged), one was supposed to drop out and live exiled from one’s passion, having been branded early in life as lacking the right stuff. Nevertheless, for those of us with an egalitarian philosophy, there was a certain discomfort. Weren’t the public, through the taxes that supported our funding, our ultimate patrons? And didn’t we owe them something? Don’t people have the right to follow their inclinations? Whose heritage is it, anyway?

So how was archaeology financed in the decades before governments, foundations, universities, museums, and corporate gifts supported research? Basically, if practitioners were not wealthy enough to fund themselves, they had to hustle. They commoditised themselves, their work, and their findings.

Amara Thornton’s Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People elucidates this time, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s, when archaeologists cultivated their public personae, scripted their work for general consumption, and were generally and shamelessly ‘commerce minded’. Popular perceptions of archaeology still depend, to a considerable extent, on the way the first few generations presented themselves and their work. Findings were disseminated through a variety of popular and often ephemeral media including newspapers, magazines (think Illustrated London News), radio, (and later television) broadcasts, newsreels, lectures, and for-profit exhibitions. Although Thornton doesn’t mention it, because her focus in on archaeology by British practitioners conducted in Egypt and Western Asia, some South American archaeologists followed this route, too. Luminaries including Peru’s Julio C. Tello and Bolivia’s Geraldine Byrne de Caballero reported their work almost entirely in newspapers, once widely distributed, but now difficult to access. There were, of course, also books, including memoirs, guides, handbooks, popular histories, fiction, and writing aimed at children. Thornton concentrates on these permanent works without slighting other media. Yes, as Adso in The Name of the Rose would have observed, this is a book about books.

Thornton’s research methodology is set out clearly. She constructed a list of fifty British archaeologists active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She then complied bibliographies for each. From this she was able to determine that some seventy UK firms published archaeology books aimed at segments of the general public. Some focused on Christian readers interested in the Bible. Others emphasized the classical world or ancient Egypt. Some produced up-market editions for well-educated, prosperous people, while others specialized in the least expensive works possible.

At this time archaeology was linked to imperial systems which provided both the infrastructure and security that allowed British excavators to operate in otherwise exotic foreign locales such as Egypt and Iraq. Tourism was also dependent upon imperialism, and archaeology was, and still is, fuelled by tourism. Fairly large numbers of Britons spent all, or part, of the winter in warmer climes, and they wished to be informed and entertained. This provided archaeologists with money-making opportunities as expert guides, lecturers, and writers of handbooks.

After the carnage of the First World War, it was recognized that many British (and French, and German) women would never marry and would, therefore, have to support themselves. Thus the slaughter of men did as much for feminism as decades of rational arguments. The situation was quite different on the other side of the Atlantic where loses were proportionately less severe and, perhaps consequently, women were often barred from archaeology. This situation persisted in the US into the 1970s when there was an academic consensus that young men needed to be sheltered from the military draft and the Vietnam War by offering them places as postgraduate students. That this came at the expense of women and less educated people seemed to be of little consequence at the time. It was only after reading Thornton’s book that I realized my own migration to Britain was motivated in part by the more welcoming atmosphere I felt there as a young, female, would-be archaeologist. Now the situation is quite different and very few men attend American field schools. That is, in itself, problematic.

At present there are many university training programs for archaeologists, but who trained the first generation, or, for that matter, the first generation of any profession? Are field archaeologists the only real archaeologists, or are those of us who work in museums, or in publishing, or broadcasting, or secondary education archaeologists, too? It seems the Society for American Archaeology is still struggling to issue an official statement delimiting our profession. Thornton tackles this issue in Chapter 2. Long before the universities got involved in archaeology, local and national learned societies promoted the investigation of the ancient past through its material remains. By the late nineteenth century, archaeology was formally taught at Oxford, Cambridge, and London and the first British School abroad had been established in Athens. Thornton has much to say on the evolution of archaeological education, training, and practice.  

Educating archaeologists is one thing, but finding ways for them to make a living is another. So long as academic archaeologists exist only to reproduce themselves, they operate a kind of Ponzi scheme, and this was apparent from the beginning. Even if one exported professors to the colonies, and even assuming they were willing to go, and the colonies willing to receive them, there would never be enough university jobs to employ all the graduates produced. Concurrent with the emergence of archaeology were efforts to institutionalise financial support. The Palestine Exploration Fund, for instance, was founded in 1865, and many other efforts followed. Ideally, successful fund-building would allow for long and frequent field seasons, but there were still gaps. It was to fill these gaps that archaeologists began to commercialise themselves and their activities.

Sir Flinders Petrie provided a model by holding for-profit exhibitions in the atmospheric Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, penning both scholarly monographs and books aimed at the public, and engaging general audiences with his lectures.  His student, Sir Leonard Wooley, followed in his footsteps. Wooley’s radio broadcasts tied in with annual British Museum exhibitions of his latest finds from Ur. Annual exhibitions? Who today could sustain that pace of excavation, publicisation, exhibition, and publication? This system encouraged hyperbole. Without any clear notion of the function of buildings, romantic names such as the “Castle of the Jew’s Daughter” were attached to them.

Once Thornton has given her readers a clear idea of how and why archaeologists had to sell themselves and their work, she focuses on three important publishers, John Murray, Macmillan & Co, and Penguin, both because of their importance to the field of archaeology, and because sufficient records exist for a detailed analysis.

Her book’s ultimate chapter (not counting the Epilogue) is devoted to archaeological fiction. There are various genres including archaeological romance, fantastical horror and archaeology, and archaeological crime. To this we might add spy adventure, occult fiction, and sci-fi. Thornton analyses several examples, including the now-obscure verse melodrama ‘Digger’s Fancy’ and the still-read Murder in Mesopotamia. I wish she had written more about archaeological fiction for children. I’m certain my own determination to become an archaeologist was inspired, in part, by novels like Caroline Dale Snedeker’s The Forgotten Daughter (1929) shaped by both the land reforms of Tiberius Gracchus and the Great Depression.

The book under review is the result of a post-doctoral project and, as one might imagine from such an origin, it is an astoundingly thorough treatment. It’s a good read, too, especially for those of us with a mind for detail. There are extensive source notes, and a dense bibliography, should readers wish to follow up on any of the points raised. Just when I started to lose track of the large cast of characters I discovered the helpful appendix, brief biographies of the major archaeologist-authors. Illustrations are mainly graphs plus photos of items in the author’s own collection. The latter give a sense of the aesthetics of publishing. I wish there were more. In some cases, the lack of an illustration risks a reader’s missing the point, as when Mary Chubb’s graphic Alphabet of Ancient Egypt is mentioned (p. 116).

Today publishing for the people involves on-line open-access, but who sponsors this, and for how long? Although this problem lacks a definitive resolution, Thornton has managed to make her book available for free on-line under Creative Commons. I’m grateful, but must note that the print version is handsome and I’m glad to have it in my personal library. I’ll be citing it often.






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