Review of ‘Invitation to Archaeology’ by Philip Rahtz

23rd January 2014

Holdaway Book Review Cover 1994‘Invitation to Archaeology’ Second Edition by Philip Rahtz, 1991, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 192 pp. ISBN 0-631-18067-2 (pbk).

Review by Simon Holdaway

Invitation to Archaeology is part of a series of books that introduce subjects like philosophy, industrial relations and law to the general reader. That Rahtz’s volume has now appeared as the only second edition in this series must attest to its popularity. Written ‘to show that archaeology is important to people and to society’ (p. vii) the book begins by defining the scope of archaeology in relation to other fields of study and outlining the nature of archaeological interpretation. Chapter 2 reviews how archaeologists finance their activities and then lists the reasons why archaeological work is undertaken. These range from intellectual curiosity, through promotion of tourism to the aggrandisement of the archaeologist’s ego. This later comment is typical of a number of statements in the book that Rahtz feels are ‘honest, uninhibited and indiscreet’ but which this reviewer (along with those who commented on the earlier edition) finds ‘anecdotal, prejudiced and inaccurate’ (p.vii). Part of Chapter 2, for instance, provides a ‘whirlwind tour’ (p.40) of archaeology in a number of regions of the world. Australian archaeologists will be gratified to learn that archaeological work at Sydney and Canberra (but not by implication at other universities) has shown the great antiquity of the Aboriginal people in Australia, but dismayed that this information has come too late to save them (i.e. the Aboriginal people) from some unspecified fate (p.34). Those of us who have worked in New Zealand will be equally surprised to learn that to study archaeology properly ‘one has to marry a Maori’ (p.36). These and a host of other comments (particularly the critical attacks on Irish and American archaeology) detract from a book that clearly conveys the enthusiasm Rahtz has for his subject. Perhaps a little more scholarly research – besides holidays abroad (p.64) – would have made his descriptions more factual.

Chapter 3 deals with archaeology in Britain which, according to Rahtz, is characterised by an even handed
treatment, free from any attempt to give priority to
nationalist interests (in contrast to the archaeology
practised in the rest of the world, see pages 41-2).
Chapter 4 deals with Rahtz’s own career culminating
in his appointment to the chair of archaeology at York.
In the chapter entitled ‘What do archaeologists do?’, sketches are provided from the point of view of a student at university studying archaeology, a person involved in an excavation, someone working in a professional (CRM) unit, and a professor of archaeology. Chapter 6 deals with how archaeologists draw
inferences from a range of observations of extant cultures; from the economic specialisation of cities in Morocco to the sale of religious paraphernalia at Lourdes. What Rahtz terms fringe archaeology is dealt with in the following chapter. Fringe archaeologists range from those who write science fiction and historical novels to those who seek in archaeology support of religious beliefs and myth. Chapter 8 provides two case studies, one concerned with the debates surrounding the new excavations at Sutton Hoo and the other with the excavations at the medieval village of Wharram Percy. A final chapter deals with archaeology and the public, exploring the ways public interest in the subject can be stimulated.

Invitation to Archaeology is not aimed at a scholarly audience, rather it is a book written by an archaeologist at the end of his career designed to capture the
imagination of a new generation. In this Rahtz is successful. But it is a pity that he finds it necessary to rely so much on anecdote rather than scholarly research to fulfill this worthwhile aim.

Simon Holdaway
Review of 'Invitation to Archaeology’ by Philip Rahtz
June 1994
Book Reviews
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