A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A long time ago, I worked for English Heritage, editing archaeological reports from the big digs, the ones that occasionally made a headline in the papers. It was the beginning of the 1990s, and my nose was so firmly stuck in graph checking and reference hunting, I didn’t realise quite how exciting a time it was to be working in British archaeology, even if it was only at its outer fringes, well away from the trowel work. In the few years I was working there, we had Boxgrove, the Rose Theatre and Oetzi the Iceman, but I got just as absorbed in the site reports from digs of twenty or thirty years earlier (archaeology takes a long time to write up).
Time’s Anvil brought this all back to me, because it is a satisfyingly multi-layer description of how archaeology has come to shape the way we think about history, boosted by the accelerations in techniques and methodologies from the last 20 years. I kept reading about archaeologists whose digs I had edited, whose data-drenched reports I hauled into publication (C14 dating syntheses were a ghastly formatting nightmare in the early days of word-processing), or whose writing was simply too horrible to read.
Richard Morris has been working in British archaeology since the 1960s, specialising in churches and battlefields. Time’s Anvil does not give an impression of being limited by discipline, as it’s a compendium of pretty much all the ways we can look backwards into the past. The major sites and the important techniques are all in here, as well as a really useful look at how archaeology has changed from the days when Basil Brown excavated Sutton Hoo pretty much on his own, right up to isotope analysis of bones that tell us where and when they were born. It’s astonishing how much our knowledge of the past has changed in really hardly any time at all, if you think how long people have been tromping up and down this bit of land at the edge of Europe. Morris does point out that because archaeology is moving so fast, he had to hold off from reading the newest material so that he could actually finish the book. So while Time’s Anvil is not strictly right up to date, it doesn’t need to be. It is an excellent synthesis of what has been, and how the developments fit together, and how they have been applied.
The structure of the book makes it an engaging read because it has two focuses: Morris’s own family history, from which we can extrapolate the experiences in any average British family history, and the history of England, from prehistory to post-war concretisation. He does a splendid job of combining the heavy-duty archaeology with the more easily digested personal and human anecdotes, and so we move slowly through time, absorbing as we go. High points are the long chapter on aviation photography of archaeological sites, and the truly inspirational work on post-Roman, pre-Norman Yorkshire. Morris writes in a fine teaching style all the way through, but in the battlefields chapter the enthusiasm level ratchets up, because he’s describing how the study of the fallen bullets and arrows of early battlefields tackled, and mastered, the nail-biting job of locating Richard III’s last stand with only days to spare. This is the point from which Morris really gets going, though there is nothing sluggish about his earlier chapters. You can sense his intellectual interests in those, but it’s quite clear that his heart lies in battlefields, and in measuring the trajectories of spent projectiles.
But the main value of this book is that it ties so many things together. History is not an isolated area of study, and archaeology is not just about the science or the measuring. Both exist to study human experience, so it makes perfect sense to make the human experience – the lives lived, and what they were like – the heart of this excellent and absorbing book.
Richard Morris, Time’s Anvil. England, Archaeology and the Imagination (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012), 978-0-297-86783-8, £25.00.
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.