The best books about archaeological excavation

1 authors have picked their favorite books about archaeological excavations and why they recommend each book.

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By Joshua Pollard, Andrew Reynolds,

Book cover of Avebury: Biography of a Landscape

Dating back over 4,500 years, Avebury is the world's largest prehistoric stone circle. It stands inside a village in Wiltshire, southern England. This book is not just a biography of the ancient site itself but also of the fascinating and highly unusual ritual landscape surrounding it. The most detailed, interesting, and clearly expressed account of the origins of Avebury I have read. The context of this magnificent prehistoric site is finally revealed in all its mysterious glory.

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient sacred sites since I first visited the ancient Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border decades ago. I am interested in how the study of folklore and local traditions can be used in conjunction with archaeology to trace the origins and purposes of ancient monuments. I am an author and researcher who has had seven books published on the subjects of ancient civilizations, prehistoric monuments, and supernatural folklore. Born in Birmingham, England, I am a qualified archaeologist with a BA in European Archaeology from the University of Nottingham, and an MPhil in Greek Archaeology from Birmingham University.

I wrote...

Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places: A Field Guide to Stone Circles, Crop Circles, Ancient Tombs, and Supernatural Landscapes

By Brian Haughton,

Book cover of Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places: A Field Guide to Stone Circles, Crop Circles, Ancient Tombs, and Supernatural Landscapes

What is my book about?

Examines the megaliths of Britain and Ireland, the tombs of the Etruscans, the ancient Native American city of Cahokia, and other legendary and mysterious places around the world, with a review of the myth, lore, and paranormal phenomena for which they are known.

Ancient Egypt

By Nicholas Reeves, C.N. Reeves,

Book cover of Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries

This book covers the great Egyptological discoveries made up to the end of the C.20th. Perfectly combining Nick Reeves’ authoritative text with lavish illustrations, it manages to create a real sense of adventure while showing how Egyptology developed as a subject, explaining why we know what we know about ancient Egypt – and what we don’t!

Who am I?

Having studied ancient Egypt her entire life, Professor Joann Fletcher is based in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. As a founding member of the university’s Mummy Research Group, she is also Lead Ambassador for the Egypt Exploration Society and an advisor to museums around the UK. Her numerous publications include The Search for Nefertiti, Cleopatra the Great, and The Story of Egypt, academic papers, and regular contributions to the BBC's History magazine. She also makes frequent appearances on radio and television. Although it’s incredibly difficult to pick just 5 books that best encapsulate ‘Ancient Egypt’ in its broadest sense, it’s important to start with those which are as informative and accurate as possible when many can be quite the opposite! 

I wrote...

The Story of Egypt

By Joann Fletcher,

Book cover of The Story of Egypt

What is my book about?

The book covers Egypt’s ancient history, from its major events and key sites to the people themselves. By looking at both the pharaohs and their subjects, it reveals how these men and women created this spectacular culture which still influences our modern world. It also features new discoveries, some of which I’ve been involved with over the last thirty years or more, including the true beginnings of mummification, Tutankhamen’s clothing, and the women who ruled as pharaohs (as also highlighted in two of my previous books The Search for Nefertiti and Cleopatra the Great).

Ultimately The Story of Egypt is based on my life-long passion for the subject, and my genuine desire to bring the ancient Egyptians ‘back to life’ as it were.

Resurrecting Pompeii

By Estelle Lazer,

Book cover of Resurrecting Pompeii

More often than not, people forget that the Vesuvian sites are, as gruesome as it sounds, large mass burials – not just of the cities themselves, but of people. The human remains of Pompeii (and by extension, Herculaneum) have been ignored or treated like some kind of circus attraction for centuries. What Lazar does is open your eyes to just how much information there is to be found from the casts and skeletons, and the potential to learn so much more about people and life in the first century. Her work is groundbreaking.

Who am I?

I first visited Pompeii on a school trip when I was 17. I have a clear memory of standing in the Forum and thinking it was the most amazing place I had ever been. Decades later, that feeling remains, and the sites destroyed by Vesuvius have become the focus of my research on ancient Rome. I have excavated in Pompeii, conducted epigraphic fieldwork in Herculaneum, and taught students at multiple universities around the UK about the cities, the people who lived there, and their destruction. I am fundamentally interested in the people, how they lived their lives, and have published widely on tombs, epigraphy, and politics in Pompeii.

I wrote...

The Tombs of Pompeii: Organization, Space, and Society

By Virginia Campbell,

Book cover of The Tombs of Pompeii: Organization, Space, and Society

What is my book about?

This book offers a comprehensive overview of the tombs of Pompeii and its immediate environs, examining the funerary culture of the population, delving into the importance of social class and self-representation, and developing a broad understanding of Pompeii’s funerary epigraphy and business. Author Virginia L. Campbell demonstrates that the funerary practices of Pompeii are, in some ways, unique to the population, moving away from the traditional approach to burial based on generalizations and studies of typology.

Including an extensive catalogue of tomb data and images never before assembled or published, this collective approach reveals new insights into ancient commemoration. The Tombs of Pompeii is the first English-language book on Pompeian funerary rituals. It’s also the first in any language to provide a complete survey of the tombs of Pompeii and the first to situate Pompeian differences within a wider Roman burial context.

The Dig

By John D. Preston,

Book cover of The Dig: A Novel Based on True Events

The popular Netflix film The Dig was based on this book, one of the few works of historical fiction that deal with ancient mounds. It tells the story of the 1930-era excavation of a Celtic Burial Mound. Not all mounds were burials, however. Some were ceremonial and their purpose remains largely unknown. The book gives a good sense of what archaeology was like a hundred years ago, both the practice and the politics behind what yielded the largest buried treasure in Britain's history.

Who am I?

To me, it seemed the ancient mounds were fertile ground for literary exploration, a living metaphor – evidence of what was likely the first places of spiritual practice in our country, ancient, unknown, and buried, what a symbol to form the basis of a novel! When I began my research, I soon came into contact with the Natchez. I attended their annual gathering and eventually became close friends with the Principal Chief of the Natchez Nation, who vetted Sacred Mounds and wrote its foreword. The book includes historical figures like the Great Sun, descended from the Sun Itself, and his war chief, the Tattooed Serpent. They are part of the tapestry of history woven in Sacred Mounds.

I wrote...

Sacred Mounds

By Jim Metzner,

Book cover of Sacred Mounds

What is my book about?

A First Nation visitor from the past visits our time to save our world, helped by the mysterious presence of the ancient mounds. A flat-out adventure story, the novel nevertheless offers clues that the mounds may be as important today as when they were first constructed. A finalist in Screenwriter's Cinematic Book Competition – with a foreword by the Principal Chief of the Natchez Nation.

Strangers in a New Land

By J. M. Adovasio, David Pedler,

Book cover of Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Americans

Adovasio & Pedler present evidence on pre-Clovis sites in both North and South America in a beautifully illustrated book. Presenting credible evidence for archaeological sites in the Americas dating to 19,00 years ago and possibly as early as 38,000 years ago. The discussion of each site is accompanied by photographs, maps, and diagrams. The authors discuss what they consider legitimate and illegitimate pre-Clovis archaeological sites in a book that is accessible to non-archaeologists.

Who am I?

As an Indigenous person, I have a lived experience of the negative impacts of an erased history on all people. Students I teach are shocked to hear that Indigenous people have been in the Americas for over 60,000 years. The violence against archaeologists publishing on older than Clovis sites in the Americas is intense; that got me asking why? I sought the truth about the evidence for Pleistocene age archaeology sites in the Americas. Global human migrations attest to the fact that humans have been migrating great distances for over 2 million years. Reclaiming and rewriting Indigenous history is one path of many, leading to healing and reconciliation. 

I wrote...

The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere

By Paulette F.C. Steeves,

Book cover of The Indigenous Paleolithic of the Western Hemisphere

What is my book about?

In this first book on Paleolithic archaeology of the Americas written from an Indigenous perspective, Steeves, a (Cree-Metis) archaeologist, mines evidence from archaeology sites and Paleolithic environments, landscapes, and mammalian and human migrations to make the case that people have been in the Western Hemisphere not only just prior to Clovis sites (10,200 years ago) but for more than 60,000 years, and likely more than 100,000 years.

Steeves discusses the political history of American anthropology to focus on why pre-Clovis sites have been dismissed by the field for nearly a century. She explores supporting evidence from genetics and linguistic anthropology regarding First Peoples and time frames of early migrations. Additionally, she highlights the work and struggles faced by a small yet vibrant group of American and European archaeologists.

Facts on the Ground

By Nadia Abu El-Haj,

Book cover of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society

The Israeli narrative is particularly strong among Christain and Jewish communities due to a tale full of fabrications that stretches back to ancient times. This methodical and erudite research exposes the role of archeology in providing "scientific" scaffolding for that tale. 

Who am I?

Ilan Pappé is a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter. He was formerly a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of PalestineThe Modern Middle EastA History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

I wrote...

Ten Myths About Israel

By Ilan Pappé,

Book cover of Ten Myths About Israel

What is my book about?

In this groundbreaking book, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation, the outspoken and radical Israeli historian Ilan Pappe examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel. The “ten myths” that Pappe explores—repeated endlessly in the media, enforced by the military, accepted without question by the world’s governments—reinforce the regional status quo. He explores the claim that Palestine was an empty land at the time of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the formation of Zionism and its role in the early decades of nation-building. He asks whether the Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948, and whether June 1967 was a war of “no choice.” Turning to the myths surrounding the failures of the Camp David Accords and the official reasons for the attacks on Gaza, Pappe explains why the two-state solution is no longer viable.

The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade

By Aleksander Pluskowski,

Book cover of The Archaeology of the Prussian Crusade: Holy War and Colonisation

The Germans and Poles moved into a land inhabited by flourishing native tribes that have previously been understood only through the observations of German and Polish chroniclers.

Pluskowski shows that the native peoples had a sophisticated local economy that was hardly changed by the German conquerors. That is, wherever the Teutonic Order and its associated bishops and abbots brought in German or Dutch colonists, the farming practices reflected those of the immigrants’ homelands; however, the three-field system required farmers to work together, while the original inhabitants preferred to retain individual farms worked on the two-field system. The three-field system produced more food, but the Native Prussians valued their freedom more.

This is a very detailed study, with abundant information on what people ate, how they lived, and how they were buried.

Who am I?

I became enthusiastic about the history of the Baltics when my dissertation advisor persuaded me to use my language training in German and Russian to test the American Frontier Theory in the Baltic region. None of the various theories were applicable, but I earned a Ph.D. anyway. Later I taught in Italy, Yugoslavia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. I've written a number of books and won a Fulbright Hays grant, the Dr. Arthur Puksow Foundation prize, the Vitols Prize, and others. I retired in 2017 after fifty-one years of university and college teaching, but I would still be teaching if my hearing had not deteriorated to the point that I could not make out what shy students were saying. 

I wrote...

Teutonic Knights: A Military History

By William L. Urban,

Book cover of Teutonic Knights: A Military History

What is my book about?

This has proven far more successful than I expected. It was a History Book Club selection in 2003, then translated into Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese. Its central story is the crusade from Prussia and Livonia against Lithuanian paganism and Russian Orthodox rivals. Stories from contemporary chronicles are enhanced by wide reading of documents, articles, and modern histories.

The Sunbird

By Wilbur Smith,

Book cover of The Sunbird

The Sunbird was Wilber Smith’s first book. It was one of the first books on Wild African Adventure that I read and has kindled in me a lifelong passion for Africa, African animals, and the love of wildlife. It was a reason that I became a veterinarian and that I wanted to work with African Wildlife. It is a mix of contemporary and historic African Fiction. It is memorable because it is a wonderful story that I would want to share around the fire in a camp somewhere in the heart of the African bush. I would want Wilbur Smith to tell me the story as we sit around the fire. It evokes all that is magical and wonderful about Africa, the continent I love and live on. The book taught me that the story is paramount. Not the skill of the author as a literary giant. I want to…

Who am I?

I am a veterinarian who has worked extensively with African Wildlife in the heart of the African bush. I have also met African Sangoma’s, witch doctors. I have made a study of African mysticism and Ancestral communications and have participated in African mystic rituals, including the cleansing ritual called smudging or burning of herbs and utilizing the smoke for spiritual cleansing. In my books, I fuse my knowledge of African wildlife, African customs and rituals, and my innate ability to tell a good story and have brought forth the Jamie James series. They are quintessential African Adventures taking place in the heart of the African bush.

I wrote...

The Curse of the Ancestors, with Jamie James

By Roy Aronson,

Book cover of The Curse of the Ancestors, with Jamie James

What is my book about?

Jamie James is 15. His parents have been divorced since he was five and he has not heard from his father since the divorce. Suddenly he receives a communication from him, beseeching him to come and visit because their lives are in danger. His father lives in Nelspruit, the wildlife capital of Southern Africa. He travels there and discovers that there is a death curse on his family and his father, who turns fifty in a few weeks is about to die. Jamie undergoes a mystical transformation to lift the curse. Can Jamie and his friends lift the curse in time to save his father. Join them in a race against time to change the fate of his family that is two hundred years in the making?

The Archaeology of Churches

By Warwick Rodwell,

Book cover of The Archaeology of Churches

I love this book, and not just because it is one of the few church archaeology books to mention graffiti. This book takes a very different approach to churches than most volumes you will have come across, as it quite literally strips them back to their bare bones. This is the deep history of the parish church, laid bare in the stones. Rodwell is a recognised expert in his field, and understands churches in ways that few others do - and after reading this you will never look at a medieval church in quite the same way again. 

Who am I?

If you spend as long looking at medieval churches as I do, you also end up collecting a lot of books on the subject. Any church archaeologist cannot help also becoming something of a librarian. A passion for churches - and books. There are hundreds of church guidebooks out there, all of which have their own merits, but these are a small selection of books that look at different aspects of church history. They look at these amazing buildings through a different lens. These aren't a definitive guide - just books that I find myself returning to time and time again - for both information and pleasure.

I wrote...

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches

By Matthew Champion,

Book cover of Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England's Churches

What is my book about?

For centuries carved writings and artworks in churches lay largely unnoticed. So archaeologist Matthew Champion started a nationwide survey to gather the best examples. In this book, he shines a spotlight on a forgotten world of ships, prayers for good fortune, satirical cartoons, charms, curses, windmills, word puzzles, architectural plans, and heraldic designs.

Drawing on examples from surviving medieval churches in England, the author gives a voice to the secret graffiti artists: from the lord of the manor and the parish priest to the people who built the church itself. Here are strange medieval beasts, knights battling unseen dragons, ships sailing across lime-washed oceans, and demons who stalk the walls. Latin prayers for the dead jostle with medieval curses, builders’ accounts, and slanderous comments concerning a long-dead archdeacon. Strange and complex geometric designs, created to ward off the "evil eye" and thwart the works of the devil, share church pillars with the heraldic shields of England’s medieval nobility.

Crossing the Deadlines

By Michael P. Gray (editor),

Book cover of Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered

This intriguing collection of essays explores the dark reaches of Civil War prison scholarship from a variety of viewpoints and professions—including historians, anthropologists and public historians. The eclectic mix of topics includes environment, race, material culture, memory, and more. One of the more interesting aspects explored here is the phenomenon of prison camps which became tourist attractions—such as Johnson’s Island off Sandusky, Ohio—where steamboats would ply the waters around the island so guests might be able to spot an actual Rebel officer.

Who am I?

The Civil War has been a passion of mine since I was seven years old. This was inflamed by a professor I met at SUNY Cortland—Ellis Johnson, who first told me of the POW camp at Elmira, New York. Even though I grew up just thirty miles from Elmira I was astounded at this revelation. Later I learned that I had a third great-grandfather—William B. Reese—who served in the Veterans Reserve Corps after being wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and was assigned to the garrison in Elmira, where he may have stood guard over the very prison his great grandson would write about.

I wrote...

Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

By Derek D. Maxfield,

Book cover of Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

What is my book about?

Long called the “Andersonville of the North,” the prisoner of war camp in Elmira, New York, is remembered as the most notorious of all Union-run POW camps. It existed for only a year—from the summer of 1864 to July 1865—but in that time it became darkly emblematic of man’s inhumanity to man. 

In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War, Derek Maxfield contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure.

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