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Beyond Stone & Bone

My Favorite Archaeology Books
by Heather Pringle
December 19, 2008

In between mass-producing sheets of Nanaimo bars,  taking our exuberant 10-month Labrador retriever on his first explorations of the world of snow,  and pouring myself a large Scotch after all the guests depart on Christmas Day,  I plan to spend as much time as possible over the holidays curled up with good books.  At the moment, I am deep into a wonderful novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which has nothing whatsoever to do with archaeology and everything to do with dogs, but I have a stack of books about the past that I’m dying to get to. 

If you are planning to dive into a good book or two over the holidays, I’d be happy to recommend a few that I’ve recently enjoyed. Most aren’t new, but I can pretty much guarantee that each will appeal to the archaeologically minded.  Here they are, in no particular order:

In Ruins by Christopher Woodward.  I’d definitely put this book on my all-time favorite list.  Woodward is a British art historian who writes beautifully about the enduring appeal of ruins, and the joy that writers and artists have long taken in them.  My favorite passage concerns the Colosseum in Rome.  In the mid-19th century, a British botanist, Richard Deakin,  catalogued 420 species of plants flourishing in the Colosseum’s 6 acres, including some flowers that were incredibly rare in Western Europe.  According to Woodward,  Deakin believed “that the only explanation for their presence was that 2000 years before their seeds had been scattered in sand from the bodies of animals brought from the mountains of Persia or the banks of the Nile for the gladiatorial games.”  That’s probably pure poetry—I imagine climate change could account for changing plant ranges, too—but it’s a lovely thought. 

Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World  by Roger Atwood.  If you haven’t read this book, which was published in 2004, you are really missing out on something.  This is an amazing piece of investigative journalism by a very talented writer.  Early in the book, Atwood, a former Reuters reporter, accompanies a group of huaqueros, or professional grave robbers, on a looting foray in southern Peru.  I couldn’t put this down.  I’ve seen myself what the huaqueros have done to major sites in southern Peru—some look as if an army had mortared them—but this is the first detailed account I’ve read of the guys doing all the damage.

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada by James Delgado.  Delgado, as you may know, is a marine archaeologist and the current president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Texas.  Among many other things, he’s an entertaining story-teller, and in this new book he regales us with the tale of the fleet that Khubilai Khan sent to invade Japan. It’s a book about hubris, a divine wind, and a terrible defeat, and it’s packed with fascinating details.  I particularly relished Delgado’s account of how a team of Japanese archaeologists pieced together the fate of the invasion force.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.  Rather than delving into the past, Wiesman looks to an imagined future—a future suddenly swept clean of all living human beings.  He then methodically traces, like the good journalist he is, what would happen to places like New York City, as they reverted to ruin and wildness.  Within short order, Manhattan’s subway tunnels would fill with water, streets would crater and a river would roar down Lexington Avenue:  in other words, New York would be well on its way to becoming a very eerie archaeological site, or, to put a more positive spin on it,  exactly the kind of place that Christopher Woodward writes about so evocatively. 

Happy holidays,  everyone!   


Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

6 comments for "My Favorite Archaeology Books"

  • Reply posted by djpmom (December 21, 2008, 8:03 am):

    As a library person, I’m always happy to see what science journalists are reading – Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World looks like a good one, thank you for the recommendation! The world Without Us was fabulous, btw, Edgar Sawtelle not so much (too slow for me)!

    I don’t know how I’m only seeing this blog now, I’ll be visiting more often.


  • Reply posted by Eric (December 23, 2008, 12:28 pm):

    One of my favorites is Alexander Stille’s “The Future of the Past.” It’s not 100% archaeological, but there’s plenty of dirt and artifacts in the essays collected in it, all of which focus on some aspect of preservation.

    Have you read Barry Cunliffe’s “Europe Between the Oceans 9,000 B.C.-A.D. 1000”? Just noticed Atlantic Monthly named it one of their top 6 of the year:


  • Reply posted by Collin Lee (January 3, 2009, 10:05 pm):

    Hi Heather!

    I’m also huge fan of Atwood’s Stealing History; because of this book, Walter Alva is one of my personal heroes. It also does an amazing job of showing the issue from the other side, the disenfranchised and exploited indigenous peoples for whom these ancient treasures are their only hope of ever “making it”.

    In a similar vein, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities–From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini is a remarkable case study of the same topic, but from the European side of things (Stealing History focused primarily on Peru to make its points). It is the real-life story Giacomo Medici, a notorious antiquities dealer whose high-end looting supplied some of the greatest museums in the world. The story is so interesting that it could be read like a crime novel.

    While I’m not entirely certain whether they can be considered “archaeology books” per ce, anyone interested in the Maya should read all four of John Lloyd Stephens’ books about his travels through Mexico and central America. They are Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan Volumes 1 and 2 (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan Volumes 1 and 2 (1843). While many consider these travelogues, Stephens was the first European to search out and record the ancient cities of the Americas, giving vivid and exhaustive descriptions of dozens of ancient sites. His companion and the series’ artist Fredrick Catherwood, produced incredibly intricate and beautiful illustrations to go along with the text. Stephens (though a bit of a rich prig, if you ask me) had a narrative flair that has been compared to Mark Twain, and when these books were first published they created a sort of “Maya mania” that lead to all of the major museums and universities flocking to Mexico, trying to be the first to excavate the classic sites. Most of the great early Mayanists admitted that it was reading Stephens that made them want to study the ancient cultures of the new world.

    And last but not least, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America by Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias is often overlooked because he is most often remembered as an artist for magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, but he was also an art historian and ethnologist. Indian Art was first published in 1957; in it he makes an exceptionally compelling case for Olmec culture predating that of the other pre-Columbian cultures like the Maya and the Aztecs, entirely through examination and comparison of their artistic achievements. He was pooh-poohed by the “real” archaeologists of the time because he was an amateur and an artist and not a scholar, but the archaeological record eventually proved him to be right. I remember the first time I saw his illustrated chart of how the motif of the Olmec Jaguar god slowly spread throughout Mesoamerica, morphing over time until it became Tlaloc and Chaac, the storm gods of the Aztec and the Maya, respectively; looking at the way that he used the images themselves to show the obvious progression convinced me instantly. It’s an absolutely gorgeous book, unfortunately out of print.

    I’m looking forward to reading Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman next. And, since I’m hooked on your blog, I’ve got a copy of The Mummy Congress on the way from Amazon. I’m looking forward to it.


  • Reply posted by Collin Lee (January 12, 2009, 4:27 pm):

    Oh! And I somehow forgot to mention Breaking The Maya Code by Michael D. Coe. This is the story of how a few very dedicated scholars managed to decipher the Maya’s difficult and convoluded glyph writing, building on one another’s work over the course of a couple hundred years. It’s a truely interesting and remarkable tale, full of colorful characters from around the world. Great stuff, and one of my favorite archaeology related books ever.


  • Reply posted by muhammad usman mardanvi (April 16, 2009, 9:16 pm):

    hey friend,
    Hope you will be fine, I am Muhammad Usman Mardanvi, Archeologist and specialist on the Buddhist Art and Architecture of Gandhara,I lead students reasearchers and diplomates in pakistan,I have also discovered many ancient sites in Pakistan which dated to different periods.
    i just clicked on this site , I found it very informative for those who have interest in in History, Art and Archaeology.
    I will apprecaite yours efforts for the promotion of this site
    M Usman Mardanvi


  • Reply posted by Paul (December 27, 2011, 5:44 am):

    I am also a big fan of In Ruins.

    One other book I love is Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History

    Have you come across it?


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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