Forebears for several ages

May 28, 1999

Colin Renfrew's archaeology textbook is so popular people want him to autograph copies. Such success, he tells Nicholas Saunders, depends on avoiding 'boffinry'.

For the best part of three decades, Colin Renfrew has been a dominant force in British archaeology. His career and publications read like a list of key issues and events in the development of the discipline during this time. He has reassessed European prehistory in the light of the radio-carbon dating revolution, conducted multi-disciplinary fieldwork in Greece and the Orkneys, played a leading role in developing processual archaeology, and grappled with the relationship between archaeology and language. More recently, he has attempted to formulate a cognitive archaeology. These efforts have been amply rewarded: he is master of Jesus College, Disney professor of archaeology, and director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research - all at Cambridge University. Clarity and precision of thought - reflected in speech and writing - together with an energetic enthusiasm make him a natural communicator in lecture room and television. These qualities proved no hindrance in one of the great coups of British archaeology: persuading businessman Daniel McDonald to part with £11,000,000 to build and endow an eponymous institute for archaeological research.

In this seemingly irresistible rise, 1991 stood out as an annus mirabilis . First he became Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn and then a best-selling co-author of that hitherto most elusive of British publications, an internationally successful textbook on archaeology, Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice .

Unlike other disciplines, archaeology has produced few best-selling textbooks of international appeal. Part of the problem is the nature of the subject. Whereas hard science is universal, archaeology is subjective and often politicised, many countries having their own research traditions and agendas. In addition, modern archaeology is increasingly specialist and interdisciplinary. Today, no one person can hope to write anything other than a highly personal and selective overview. Hitherto, handbooks have focused on particular topics: techniques of survey and excavation, technologies of dating and analysis, geographical or cultural accounts, and more recently, changing theoretical perspectives. Understandably, few of these readily grab undergraduates or the public.

The challenge was to produce a book which, as Renfrew says, was informative, conveys information rapidly, has a clear view of the subject, and a good index so as to be easy to handle. "I've no admiration for textbooks which purport to tell you the answer," he says characteristically. "It should tell you something concisely and lead you to where you can find out more." The aim was to bring the specialisms of archaeology together in one holistic enterprise. Even this was not enough - something more was required for a readership raised on visual information, soundbites and the internet.

The original idea for the book came from the publishers. Renfrew recalls how Thomas Neurath and Colin Ridler - managing director and archaeology editor respectively at Thames and Hudson - approached him and suggested the archaeological writer Paul Bahn as co-author. He is generous to Ridler, crediting him with formulating and holding together the whole project over the five years it took to produce the first 1991 edition. Ridler himself admits that it was the most complex project he had been involved with in decades. Authors and publishers alike shared the same goal, that each chapter should answer a question in as clear and original a way as possible. So Ridler suggested that every chapter contain special features on major topics - crucially, in box format. The final book was to have over 100 such boxes, drawn, significantly, from case studies around the world, not just Europe and North America.

Renfrew points out that many of these highly focused essays are unique. They are not just cogent summaries of a large and widespread literature, but often the only clearly written distillations of a particular topic available in print. If one wants, in the space of a few minutes, to gain an understanding of such diverse topics as frozen mummies, GIS, genetics and languages, or looting and destruction of cultural property, this is the only place to look. Well-crafted and clearly illustrated, the boxes stand alone as self-contained units, yet add pace to an apparently seamless narrative.

So well does this work that there is an impression that some chapters and even boxes could be the basis for a number of full-length books. Interestingly, one of Renfrew's forthcoming books picks up the theme of cognitive archaeology. The key, he says, is to avoid "boffinry", and instead to contextualise the theory, and thereby illustrate how and what they tell us about our ancestors.

The result of this mix of inspiration, planning and hard work has been to make Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice the most complete, wide-ranging and useable archaeological textbook in the world to date. Translated into half a dozen languages, and used in countries with such diverse archaeological traditions as Argentina, Greece, Sweden, Japan and the United States, it is also the biggest selling archaeology book in Thames and Hudson's currently celebrated 50-year history.

"I was astonished by its success," Renfrew says. "It was a revelation to Paul and myself to find how popular the reviews were." So popular in fact that on separate visits to Australia both authors were besieged by people who wanted their copies signed. "You don't really expect people to autograph a textbook," Renfrew says, still with surprise. For his part, Bahn too was satisfied, describing the book as a godsend to students.

He admits that with so many calls on his time, the prospect of revising the book every five years is daunting. Nevertheless, as a field leader it has to be updated, and the laborious process offers new opportunities. Part of the challenge is to cut and add in such a way that the book remains manageable, up to date and economically viable. Some topics, such as the account of his work on Melos, have been cut for the next edition due early next year. Others, like the ongoing research at Viking York and its public presentation at the Jorvik Centre will be covered more fully as their significance grows.

There is a sense in which this book is a measure of Renfrew's career. He has always taken risks, been able to see the potential of ideas, and turned complex problems into clearly expressed opportunities. Of the three major developments in archaeology since the 1960s in his opinion - the impact of radio-carbon dating, the possibility of a world prehistory, and the development of a real theoretical archaeology - two have seen him making important contributions, while all feature prominently in the book.

Despite almost overwhelming success he appears as energetic and optimistic as ever and talks with enthusiasm and conviction of the widening role and relevance of archaeology. The problems of over-visiting at Stonehenge, the extraordinary potential of molecular genetics, the true nature of classical Greek identity and the evils of the misuse of the concept of ethnicity exercise him greatly. "There is no single way to do archaeology well," he says, explaining how the many kinds of modern archaeology can reconstruct a seemingly infinite number of pasts.

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