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

Shannon Lee Dawdy Author Of American Afterlives: Reinventing Death in the Twenty-First Century
By Shannon Lee Dawdy

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.

The books I picked & why

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In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life

By James Deetz,

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

Why 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.

Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage

By William Rathje, Cullen Murphy,

Book cover of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage

Why 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.

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

By Jason De Leon,

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

Why 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.

Playing with Things: Engaging the Moche Sex Pots

By Mary Weismantel,

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

Why 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.

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

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

Why 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. 

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