Archaeology is a fascinating subject, but is often quite difficult to get into. There’s an awful lot of complex jargon associated with it, scientific wizardry, and illegible publications. However, with a little bit of background reading, it’s absolutely possible for even the most casual enthusiast to develop a deep and complex understanding of the fundamental ideas that underlie archaeology, and therefore open up a whole new world of research.
This list is intended for those starting their journey into archaeology – those with a keen but ‘amateur’ interest, or students considering an archaeology course or about to begin one. For that reason, it is mercifully short.
The books here are designed to help you to understand archaeology itself, rather than just read about societies of the past (as fascinating as they might be). They focus on the process and methods, the ways archaeologists think and create arguments, and how to understand their publications. There is an early-medieval European focus, as an inevitable result of my own research – do not worry. as the books here are relevant and worth reading irrespective of your specific interests. #ComissionsEarned (This post includes Amazon Affiliate links) – As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you want to buy any of these books do please consider using the links provided – it doesn’t affect the price you pay at all, but I get a little kick-back.
Archaeology: Theory, Methods and Practise
By now probably the best-known introduction to archaeology, if you’re going to buy just one book, this is the one.
Where this book really succeeds is its breadth, in covering almost every approach and term you will come across in reading about archaeology. It also includes a refreshing breadth of information of sites – all across the world, and through a wide chronological range. As a result, each topic inevitably gets quite a light covering – it’s ideal for introductions or the beginnings of a university course, but won’t cover you later on in your studies.
Earlier editions suffered somewhat from the rapid advancement in theory and scientific method, but the authors have done an admirable job in updating the book over time. The 2020 edition includes, according to Amazon, a new focus on Indigenous archaeology, and the inclusion of new sites.
The latest edition is available on Amazon here.
Archaeological Theory in the New Millenium – Harris and Cipola
This is a book on archaeological theory rather than any particular site – how archaeologists think about finds, how they use those finds to create a narrative, and what they disagree on.
If I was to recommend an introduction to archaeological theory it would be this, without a shadow of a doubt – it saved my bacon during my masters degree. Covering some complex and fundamental topics for an accessible angle, this is the one book you should read to really get your head around the minefield of theory. This is also incredibly useful for those studying in an academic capacity – know any students of archaeology? Do them a favour and get them this book!
This is available on Amazon here.
River Kings – Cat Jarman
Dr Jarman is an archeologist of some serious note, and her work at the Viking camp of Repton has helped to revolutionise the way we think about the Great Heathen Army. Where this book really shines is its exploration of the archaeological process behind her research, and the methods and theories she uses. The book is refreshingly accessibly written and I would happily recommend it to anyone wherever they are on their archaeology career – each chapter focuses on the context behind an individual artefact.
I have written a review of her book in full here, and it is available on amazon here.
Building Anglo-Saxon England – John Blair
I have said it before and I shall say it again – Blair is an archaeological genius. His latest publication focuses on the built environment as the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ would have experienced it themselves. It’s a beautiful book, and the large photos and detailed site plans really help draw you into what makes archaeology interesting – the places themselves. It’s also a great example of how archaeologists construct built environments from very limited archaeological evidence – most ‘Anglo-Saxon’ dwellings were made of wood, and therefore leave little more than post holes.
It’s available on Amazon here.
Yeavering: An Anglo-British Centre in early Northumbria – Hope-Taylor
The primary output of archaeological surveys is the site report – a publication that summarises the site, the nature of the context of the finds, and some initial possible implications from their analysis. Reading and understanding these is a real skill, a necessity if you want to study archaeological evidence, but one that it’s hard to master. You can quite quickly get swamped geological background reports and the minutia of dendrochronology if you don’t know where to look.
It’s therefore definitely worth getting to grips with reading site reports as soon as possible. I chose this one because it’s an absolute classic, and the site it covers is fascinating – a mid Saxon royal complex/
This is available, for free, online here.
Public Presentations and Private Concerns: Archaeology in the Pages of National Geographic – Gero and Root
It is important, also, to understand the subjects we study from an outside perspective, and to think critically about the practices we normalise. Archaeology has a long and troubled history with imperialism and colonialsm – in fact, it is within these evils that the subject was birthed. Gero and Root’s article is an accessible look at the problematic nature of early archaeological articles within National Geographic, and the ideas and prejudices they helped enforce. It is also a fascinating insight into questions about how (and why) archaeologists present their research to the public.
It is available online, for free, here.
Socio-Politics and the Woman-at-Home Ideology – Gero
Continuing the theme of a critical self-reflection of archeology, Gero provides a masterful examination not of the role in gender in studying the past, but in the current practise of archaeology. In particular the difference in funding and support between traditionally masculine ‘expedition’ excavations (think Indiana Jones) and the traditionally feminine small-finds analysis. It’s a fascinating, if rather depressing, look into the profession of archaeology as it relates to gender.
This is available online here.