The best (and most surprising) books by archaeologists for people who don't dig

Who am I?

I was a quiet kid who had trouble understanding people. I preferred being on my own, exploring remnants of logging camps and abandoned mines in the woods that surrounded my small town. In archaeology, I found a way to improve my comprehension of humans and still go exploring the object world. For me, archaeology is not about the distant past, nor about a set of methods. Rather, it is a way of seeing the world. As I write, I try to help the reader train their own archaeological eye in order to re-calibrate their ideas about what is possible in the past, present, and future.


I wrote...

American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century

By Shannon Lee Dawdy,

Book cover of American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century

What is my book about?

As an anthropologist and archaeologist, Dawdy knows that how a society treats its dead yields powerful clues about its beliefs and values. As someone who has experienced loss herself, she knows there is no way to tell this story without also reexamining her own views about death and dying. In this meditative and gently humorous book, Dawdy embarks on a transformative journey across the United States, talking to funeral directors, death-care entrepreneurs, designers, cemetery owners, death doulas, and ordinary people from all walks of life. What she discovers is that, by reinventing death, Americans are reworking their ideas about personhood, ritual, and connection across generations. She also confronts the seeming contradiction that American death is becoming at the same time more materialistic and more spiritual.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life

Shannon Lee Dawdy Why did I love this book?

Originally published in 1977, this book has inspired four, maybe five, generations of archaeologists and enthusiasts of early American history. It is a model for how to write elegant stories based on groundbreaking research. And it has yet to be surpassed. I count myself a "granddaughter" of Jim Deetz, a founding figure of historical archaeology – that hybrid of history and archaeology focused on the "modern" world, from the invention of the printing press to the present. If you are curious about what everyday life was like in colonial America for regular people, start here. In Small Things offers a tangible history of human experiences that would otherwise be forgotten.

By James Deetz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Small Things Forgotten as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating study of American life and an explanation of how American life is studied through the everyday details of ordinary living, colorfully depicting a world hundreds of years in the past.

History is recorded in many ways. According to  author James Deetz, the past can be seen most fully by studying the small things so often forgotten.  Objects such as doorways, gravestones, musical  instruments, and even shards of pottery fill in the  cracks between large historical events and depict the intricacies of daily life. In his completely revised and expanded edition of In Small Things Forgotten, Deetz has added…


Book cover of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage

Shannon Lee Dawdy Why did I love this book?

If we have gotten better at recycling waste in the last few decades, it is in part thanks to Bill Rathje's invention of garbology. His innovative application of archaeological excavation and analysis techniques on American landfills proved that an archaeology of contemporary life is not only possible, but can contribute to solving today's problems. Before Rathje, who knew of our disposable diaper problem, or the fact that 'compostable' waste lingers a long time in the urban dump, or that landfills ooze toxic sludge? While archaeologists of antiquity love to find a good midden full of old bones and potsherds, Rathje digs us and tells us, in an amusing and accessible fashion, shocking things about American consumer habits and the waste landscapes that our economy continues to create.

By William Rathje, Cullen Murphy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is from the discards of former civilizations that archaeologists have reconstructed most of what we know about the past, and it is through their examination of today’s garbage that William Rathje and Cullen Murphy inform us of our present. Rubbish! is their witty and erudite investigation into all aspects of the phenomenon of garbage. Rathje and Murphy show what the study of garbage tells us about a population’s demographics and buying habits. Along the way, they dispel the common myths about our “garbage crisis”—about fast-food packaging and disposable diapers, about biodegradable garbage and the acceleration of the average family’s…


Book cover of The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

Shannon Lee Dawdy Why did I love this book?

Archaeologists don't always focus on the distant past, and they don't always excavate. They comb the surface of landscapes, picking up material clues to human experiences that are often left undocumented. None more willfully buried in plain sight than the hardships of undocumented migrants trying to make it across the Sonoran desert and the brutal politics of the U.S.-Mexico border. With poignant photographs by collaborator Michael Wells, De Léon's account is unapologetically factual and deeply moving.

By Jason De Leon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Land of Open Graves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his gripping and provocative debut, anthropologist Jason De Leon sheds light on one of the most pressing political issues of our time-the human consequences of US immigration policy. The Land of Open Graves reveals the suffering and deaths that occur daily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona as thousands of undocumented migrants attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Drawing on the four major fields of anthropology, De Leon uses an innovative combination of ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, and forensic science to produce a scathing critique of "Prevention through Deterrence," the federal border enforcement policy that…


Book cover of Playing with Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots

Shannon Lee Dawdy Why did I love this book?

Leaping the false fences between ethnography, archaeology, and art history, Weismantel demonstrates that one of the best ways to get in touch with people living in the deep past is to pick up the objects they made and play with them. Funny, creative, sexy, and cool, this is the best book built around artifacts that I have ever read and it has made me realize just how animate objects really are. You will learn about sex, about ancient cultures of the Andes, and about how someone living 1500 years ago might still be pulling your leg.

By Mary Weismantel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Playing with Things as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

More than a thousand years ago on the north coast of Peru, Indigenous Moche artists created a large and significant corpus of sexually explicit ceramic works of art. They depicted a diversity of sex organs and sex acts, and an array of solitary and interconnected human and nonhuman bodies. To the modern eye, these Moche "sex pots," as Mary Weismantel calls them, are lively and provocative but also enigmatic creations whose import to their original owners seems impossible to grasp.

In Playing with Things, Weismantel shows that there is much to be learned from these ancient artifacts, not merely as…


Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Shannon Lee Dawdy Why did I love this book?

The brilliant late anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow teamed up to write this 700-page romp through 30,000 years of human history. They tear down oppressive theories of 'savagery' and 'civilization' that have weighed down not only archaeology, but the political imagination since the Enlightenment. Finally, someone has described what I myself have seen in the archaeological record—a remarkable collection of pranksters and improvisers who make history, but not exactly as they please. But also not according to any external evolutionary drive. The future looks brighter when we realize that human history is anything but linear or predictable. 

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in archaeology, the USA Mexico border, and Virginia?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about archaeology, the USA Mexico border, and Virginia.

Archaeology Explore 116 books about archaeology
The USA Mexico Border Explore 27 books about the USA Mexico border
Virginia Explore 103 books about Virginia