The best books on history, archaeology, people, and places

The Books I Picked & Why

At the Yeoman's House

By Ronald Blythe

Book cover of At the Yeoman's House

Why this book?

This book is about a historic house in rural Suffolk in the East of England, which the author inherited from the artist John Nash. Blythe has himself made a career of writing about various aspects of the local landscape and how it, and the ways in which people have made their lives in the English countryside, have changed. The yeoman’s house itself, ‘Bottengoms’, was built in the 16th century, adapted, fell into ruin, and was then restored, and continues to be maintained to this day. It incorporates a garden and is set into the archetypally English countryside of Suffolk. Blythe’s gentle prose conveys a sense of sadness at the old ways of the traditional agricultural economy that have been lost, but in maintaining his beautiful house and sharing its story he is helping to keep some aspect of those ways, and that landscape, alive.

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The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

By James Rebanks

Book cover of The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

Why this book?

Written in the no-nonsense but poetic voice of a working shepherd (with a degree from Oxford) this is a love letter to a way of life unique to the Lake District – the spectacular region of lakes, valleys, and mountains in the north of England, much beloved of hikers, but also home to ancient farming communities. The author describes his working life and makes sure his readers know how tough it can be, particularly in the colder, wetter months that seem to make up most of the year, but also that the annual cycle – ensuring the survival of his flock through the winter, the birth of new lambs in Spring, and the relatively easier months in summer when his sheep roam the unfenced common land up the slopes of the fells – is its own rich reward. It’s an expose of the centuries-old way of life for the relatively small farming community which is itself an essential part of a landscape that is maintained – the fields, trees, rivers, streams, roads, farmhouses, and other buildings, and most distinctively the ancient dry-stone walls which still define field boundaries, and climb improbably up the steepest hillsides. The intended audience is no doubt mainly the tourists (like me) who outnumber the farmers many times over, and who love to visit but rarely come to settle. I loved reading it (on a holiday in the Lakes in fact!) for its evocation of a place I love but also for the new perspective it gave me on the region, and, as with Tree of Rivers (below), on that historic and carefully maintained balance between humans and their environment.

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Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon

By John Hemming

Book cover of Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon

Why this book?

I first came across this book in a communal library at a guest house I was staying at on Easter Island. The island is one of the most profoundly affecting places I have ever visited: even today the sense of remoteness is palpable: it’s four hours’ flight from the nearest airport, the island and its population are small, essential supplies such as mineral water and toilet paper come only once a month. And yet centuries ago a small group of would-be settlers from elsewhere in the Pacific landed and established a remarkable community, famous for its mo’ai (statues). They survived, and thrived, for a time, but it was always a precarious existence, and the natural environment has been altered forever as a result. The question of the extent to which the community is sustainable seems, to me, still to be there. It led me to think deeply about human beings and the natural environment and the importance of sustainability, of balance between the two, and at what point things become unsustainable. I was absolutely in the right frame of mind to discover a book like Tree of Rivers

This is a history of the European colonisation of the region, and how thousands of indigenous people, divided into countless tribes, each with their own beliefs and practices, had lived contentedly, in harmony with the natural environment, for perhaps thousands of years, only for the Europeans – supposedly from more ‘advanced’ societies, with superior technology - to come and disrupt their lives, killing many, destroying much of their world, and ending the ways in which some of these groups had lived. The Europeans were so clumsy: yes, they had metalworking capabilities which the locals envied, and weapons, but they didn’t know where they were or were going, or how to navigate the dense rainforest, they didn’t know how to feed themselves or keep themselves healthy, and had to rely on the locals to help them navigate and to eat. The locals may not have had metal or guns, but they had everything they needed: I was really struck by the story of the pens in the river built by some communities to capture turtles which they could then keep alive and eat when they needed them. Simple, but effective, and sustainable too. The Europeans were motivated by the desire for conquest of land and people, to exploit the natural resources available – some bet everything on the search for an ‘Eldorado’ - a city of gold that in fact didn’t exist – and others were driven by religion and the desire to convert the locals to Christianity. It all seems so selfish, stupid and destructive now, and of course has given me a new perspective on the activities – including archaeology – of Europeans and other colonists in countries more familiar to me, such as Egypt. 

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Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East

By James Barr

Book cover of Lords of the Desert: The Battle Between the United States and Great Britain for Supremacy in the Modern Middle East

Why this book?

This is a meticulously researched book on British and American political and diplomatic activity in the Middle East in the period following the end of the Second World War. It helps explain the situation of the present day – the relations between one country and another, the regimes in power, and ongoing Western interventions in the region. It also makes clear how, at every turn, the actions of these two nations were motivated only by self-interest, mainly by the maintenance of economic advantages, particularly relating to oil, that had been gained when they had exploited the region in earlier times. Although the book does not take the story up to the present day it’s difficult not to wonder to what extent motivations have changed to any extent, and to see responsibility for the issues the region faces today lying with the actions of the colonial powers in the past. Archaeologists working in the region will do well to remember that this is the historical backdrop against which much of the work in their field has been undertaken. Many archaeologists, though they themselves may not have been knowingly complicit in the politics of the time, carried out their works under the auspices of the British School, or the American School, etc and for many, this taints subjects such as Egyptology even to this day. When, in the early 2000s, the British government withdrew the longstanding support it had offered to many of its ‘schools’ overseas, there was an outcry among archaeologists. Why could the government no longer see how important archaeology was? In reality, perhaps archaeology was never of any great interest to the government in itself, only for the soft-power advantages that came with it.

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The Pharaoh's Shadow: Travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt

By Anthony Sattin

Book cover of The Pharaoh's Shadow: Travels in Ancient and Modern Egypt

Why this book?

Egyptology is a strange subject in that, even though you wouldn’t know it from the name, it really only concerns one aspect of Egypt – its ancient past – and it’s quite possible to develop an expertise in the field without having any familiarity with Egypt of the present day. One might become an expert in reading the hieroglyphic script, or in distinguishing an Old Kingdom statue from one sculpted in the New Kingdom, all without ever even visiting Egypt itself. Although this is an unintended consequence, it does rather foster the false idea that ancient Egypt is entirely unconnected from modern Egypt. But while more than a thousand years have passed since anyone worshipped the ancient gods or wrote anything in the ancient script, the two are very much connected of course – the natural environment, the land, and the climate are essentially unchanged, the modern people are the descendants of the ancient. Anthony Sattin’s book sets out to investigate connections between the ancient part and the present, survivals of the ancient culture in customs and practices, and place names. Some aspects of the practice of Muslims in the country relate less to Islam than to older, Egyptian practices. I loved reading about the curious rituals to aid fertility or to cure illnesses that can be observed away from the big cities, sometimes at ancient sites such as the old pagan temples. The book is a corrective to any notion that one need not get to know modern Egypt to understand the ancient civilisation, and shows how the present is, in some ways, fascinating ways, very much a continuation of what happened long ago. We should pay more attention to modern Egypt, its people, and their ways of doing things.

And indeed, perhaps we should be more respectful of people and their ways of doing things, everywhere. If there’s a theme that runs across all these brief reviews its of what happens when long-established communities, living peaceful, sustainable ways of life, are disturbed by outsiders, knocking things out of balance. The modern world seems troubled. How much of that is to do with such unhelpful interventions, and unsustainable ways of living?

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