Can you dig it? Reports from the front line

Discovery! Unearthing the New Treasures of Archaeology

November 30, 2007

Popularising archaeology is hard to do well: too far in one direction, and you have nothing but tombs and temples with gold knobs on; too far in the other, and professional porridge prose renders even the fanciest illustrations ineffective.

Thames and Hudson got it right half a century ago with their "Ancient Peoples and Places" series, edited by Glyn Daniel, a vocal proponent of what he called "haute vulgarisation". The first APP volume, G. H. S. Bushnell's Peru, is still a useful read. Otto Neurath and Daniel conjured up other series - "New Aspects of Antiquity" under Sir Mortimer Wheeler's editorship, and "Aspects of Archaeology" under Stuart Piggott's - inveigling distinguished colleagues such as Sir Grahame Clark and Sir Max Mallowan into writing succinct texts and taking advantage of the rapidly increasing quality and falling cost of colour printing.

Their most ambitious archaeological efforts were coffee-table books such as The Dark Ages (1965), where a star-studded cast of authors was backed up by 675 illustrations, 200 in colour, at a price of eight guineas.

Discovery! is firmly in this tradition of spectacularly illustrated quality scholarship. Brian Fagan, who has devoted his career to making archaeology accessible, provides urbane overviews of the various sections, while Colin Ridler, Thames and Hudson's veteran archaeology editor and the mastermind behind the publisher's continued success in this field, has corralled an exceptional set of contributors.

The 62 chapters are by 61 authors, who are often the discoverers themselves (although Chris Stringer provides several pieces on early humans and Zahi Hawass several on Egypt). Many are young scholars, most from overseas: Ridler has kept an eye on The Times and other papers and gone after the important discoveries of recent years, such as the Nebra Sky Disc, the Prittlewell princely burial in Essex and the San Bartolo Maya murals in Guatemala.

The main divisions are so loosely drawn - tombs, graves and mummies, treasures of ancient art and lost cities inter alia - that many articles could fit in almost anywhere. Each has a full page in colour and a handful of supporting pictures: their quality matches that of National Geographic , and some are by the same photographers. But there are no site plans and almost no diagrams (which would be useful in trying to understand the Qatna palace, for example): this is definitely archaeology "lite".

"Scientific Discoveries" brings together recent work in archaeological science and in the decipherment of ancient writing systems. The four pictures showing the gradual emergence of the Vele Orjule bronze athlete from its millennia of marine encrustation are a revelation, as is the discovery that the quipu knotted-cord records used by the Inca occur by at latest 1800BC at Caral on the Peruvian coast.

The pieces themselves are succinct, running from one to six pages, without padding: they are frontline reports from the frontiers of research - archaeology for the soundbite age.

Norman Hammond is professor of archaeology at Boston University.

Discovery! Unearthing the New Treasures of Archaeology

Editor - Brian M. Fagan
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 256p
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 9780500051498

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