Bad backs, alcoholism and paranoia: archaeology isn’t for the faint-hearted


By Edoardo Albert and Paul Gething
Granta, 304pp, £18.99/$24.99

Archaeology, according to Albert and Gething in their new book, subtitled The Biography of a Man With No Name, is not for the faint-hearted. There’s so little money in the pursuit that it was originally largely the domain of the independently wealthy – it leads to sore knees, bad backs and general physical decline, and even the most successful in the field often end up going loopy.

As an example of this, the authors present one Brian Hope-Taylor, a “protective, paranoid” archaeologist who went from lecturing at Cambridge and becoming a popular television personality to being undone by drink, abandoning his life’s work and hiding his findings from other archaeologists in order to avoid his exaggerations being exposed. “Alcohol,” the authors note forlornly, “plays a large part in archaeology.”

Alcohol plays a large part in writing too, and rude as it may sound, one has to question whether it had a role in the conception of this book. Or if the authors, one of whom is an archaeologist and the other a historian, were too fond of each other to construct a fully satisfying book. Warrior feels a bit like being cornered in the pub by two men who have something very serious to relate, but keep getting distracted and answering questions you have no recollection of having asked.

Not that the book is a total washout, or indeed, uninteresting, but it does require patience and stamina to stay with it. It’s clear Albert and Gething are great friends (this is their second book together) and the initial motivation for the writing of this book – to celebrate in some way the dig at Bamburgh Castle on the north-east coast of England – is sound, but their choice of narrative motor seems misguided. By choosing as their subject an anonymous warrior, they hobble themselves from the outset.

The Bamburgh Castle dig, which was initiated (or rather revisited and restarted) in 1997, is significant because, as the authors relay in detail, it reveals how Northumbria became the pivotal kingdom in the transition of the Anglo-Saxons from illiterate pagans to literate Christians. But the book adopts an odd approach to discussing it, shifting from a focus on bones to regurgitated chunks of history, with little sense of how all this hangs together. It’s as if the archaeologist has approached the historian and asked him how to make his findings readable, and the historian has responded by ignoring him and hopping onto his own hobby horse instead.

It also seems a little self-defeating, given that the book explores in detail how archaeologists are keen for their subject to be seen as a science rather than one of the humanities, or indeed a mere extension of history.

When writing about the discovered bones, the book reads more like a crime report, with Carbon-14 dating used to establish where the warrior died, and isotopic analysis of his teeth, which could help the archaeologists establish where he was born and brought up. But these observations don’t take us that far, and when discussing bones in general, there’s not much offered beyond noting whether children suffered from malnutrition. A section on how the death of children may have been regarded as less significant in this era than in our own time is moving, but feels like speculation.

The sections of the book that are most interesting are those concerning religion, although it is necessary to separate the authors’ own feelings about Christianity from what they are observing. The authors see Christianity as being a “hope bomb” and possessing a history that encompasses “the best and worst of humanity”. The first point makes some sense, especially when looking at how attitudes towards conflict and death changed during Dark Age Britain, but the latter seems way beyond the scope of this book and raises questions it would take a much broader sweep of history to address.

Although the book is nominally about an unknown warrior, it’s clear that at least one of the authors is much more interested in the 7th-century monarch King Oswald, later known as St Oswald of Northumbria. Indeed, there is so much about Oswald – presumably because most of the available documents detail his life rather than that of his world – that at times I forgot I wasn’t reading a book about him.

Ultimately, the authors have set themselves an impossible challenge, and this seems like a subject that would be better suited to a television programme. The publicity material makes reference to Channel 4’s Time Team and such shows, which handle this sort of subject in perhaps a more superficial way, but one that would work better. It’s the visuals that are lacking, and the most haunting thing about this book is the image of the warrior on the cover. Nothing inside the book’s covers comes as close to reminding us of the distance, and simultaneously the lack of distance, between 1400 and now.