September 23, 2005

Book review: Digging Up the Past

I've recently realized something about myself, and that is that I bought a lot of anthropology books at Powell's in July.

The one that I just finished reading is Digging Up the Past by Leonard Woolley, an early-twentieth-century English archaeologist. It's a very short book based on a series of radio talks that he gave for the BBC; it's a book about archaeology rather than a book of archaeology. If I had a couple of dozen copies of it I'd hand one out every time someone asks me, "why archaeology?", but since it was published in 1930 and Powell's only had a single fragile copy on its shelves, you suckers are out of luck.

If you compressed the textbook for my Introduction to Archaeology class into 115 small pages with large type, you'd have something like this book. Woolley explains with amazing conciseness why you'd want to dig through old things, how things get buried so you have to dig to find them in the first place, what it is that you can determine from them when you do find them, why the hell you should care, how you know where to dig, how you know where to start digging, why you can't just go pull the whole thing up willy-nilly and then deal with what's left, what it is exactly that you have to do to prevent willy-nilly-ness from creeping in, who does all this digging anyway, what's there to find, why and how you have to find the things that aren't there anymore, and a few tales of great archaeological triumphs and embarrassments just for good measure. Hot damn. What's left?

I'm incapable of reviewing a nonfiction book without adding an embarrassed note about the biases of the author, so here it is. Woolley was a much better archaeologist than he was an anthropologist. Actually, to judge by his remarks about anthropology, he didn't consider himself any kind of anthropologist at all. That's probably why he felt himself at liberty to, for instance, discuss the Ethiopian pharaohs of Egypt in terms of the shortcomings of "the Negro race". It's a hazard of reading old books: you'll find that ideas like race is not an all-determining biological fact and "primitive" is not a good catch-all term for pre-modern and non-Western cultures are much newer than you thought. But even as a post-structuralist, apologist, cultural-relativist, Hippie Dippie Anthropologist appalled at Woolley's nonchalant chauvinism you (rather, I) can still find this to be an excellent piece of accessible explanatory writing about archaeology.

Available for loan to all interested parties as long as they promise to be careful with it. I concede that demand in this case is likely to be limited, but feel free to make me happy and express interest.

Posted by dianna at September 23, 2005 10:53 AM

I'm interested. I am, however, 3000 miles away and short on time for leisure reading. I will, nonetheless, take your recommendation under advisement and look for a copy the next time I'm at The Strand.

My uncle Mark is an archeologist. He works for the University of Georgia, but he lives and works in the southern part of North Carolina. I don't really know all that much about his work, though, other than that he excavates the remains of a now-extinct Native American tribe that once inhabited the area. We don't see him much because he doesn't travel or communicate with family very often. Nonetheless, I'd be interested in gaining a basic understanding of what archeology's about, in case he should contact me out of the blue.

Posted by: Zach S. at September 23, 2005 03:33 PM