If this book could be translated into an exhibition – rich in content, accessible text and mass audience appeal beyond archaeologists – what an exhibition it might be. Not to be confused with the popular BBC Four television series of a similar name, Digging for Britain, the book is subtitled Ten Discoveries, a Million Years of History, which in essence encompasses what its author, Mike Pitts, ambitiously sets out for readers to explore.
Pitts is well known across the archaeological, museum and heritage sectors as a professional archaeologist, author and award-winning journalist. This book superbly demonstrates his consummate ability to combine expert knowledge with masterful storytelling, making it engaging, educative and thought-provoking all at the same time.
It has enormous capacity to whet the appetite of readers to find out more about our archaeological and historical past, and provides a better understanding of the processes and techniques that continue to contribute to the subject’s ever-changing interpretation. The latter aspect is an important consideration since Pitts does not set out to provide us with a “definitive story of ancient Britain”. He quite rightly says: “If we know anything, it is that there is so much more that we don’t know.”
The book is divided into 10 chapters, each covering specific archaeological projects, discoveries and techniques that have shed, and continue to shed, light on events, places and people in our past. Pitts’ narrative moves readers purposefully backwards in time, from about 1,000 to 400,000 years ago, since for him this reflects the way that archaeologists “are trained to work from the known to the unknown” and because the earliest layers of an excavation reveal the most recent past first. It is not intended to be an exhaustive account of all periods and focuses on recent excavations and finds, as well as their associated research projects.
There is a satisfying complexity to the book, which lies in the multiple layers of information it supplies relating to the contextualisation of discoveries, descriptions of the archaeological process and clear explanations of scientific techniques that are being increasingly employed to unravel “facts”.
The style in which the content is presented does not assume or require archaeological knowledge. The fact that it commands readers’ attention throughout is as much to do with the richly described and easily recognisable human narratives Pitts presents as the subject matter itself.
Readers are treated to stories of ordinary people making extraordinary discoveries, the everyday work and views and opinions of archaeologists both past and present. They are offered glimpses of the lived experiences of past peoples whose worlds are so different and unrecognisable compared to our own.
Sadly, there is a downside to this book. Despite all the plaudits the author deserves for creating such a rich and engaging narrative, the illustrations are distinctly lacklustre and lifeless. Most of the photographs are reproduced in grainy black and white, with indistinct detail. They lack contrast and have a poor range of tonal values. The same can be said of the line drawings and diagrams.
It seems a shame that images of the archaeologists, osteologists, specialists and others whose work is directly referenced in the text are not included, and that the process itself is largely represented by anonymous excavators shown digging on sites.
Colour photographs are reproduced on glossy paper in two separate blocks of eight pages that are disassociated from the chapters they illustrate. While this is frustrating, it is no doubt a consequence of production costs, which, given the book’s published retail price and its potential audience, must have been a consideration.
Fortunately, the sheer quality and readability of the author’s text far outweighs any criticism that may be levied at the illustrations since it paints more than adequate pictures of the distant past and poses many questions for readers to ponder.
Gail Boyle is the senior curator (archaeology and world cultures) at Bristol Culture
Thames & Hudson, £24.95; ISBN 978-0-500-05190-0