Author Jim Grant talks about his book, The Archaeology Coursebook 4th Edition

Jim Grant, co-author of The Archaeology Coursebook, discusses what makes this book unique, what’s new in the fourth edition, and how the field has developed since the book's first publication over a decade ago.

1. What led you to write The Archaeology Coursebook?

I was teaching Archaeology A Level and also IB Anthropology at the time and couldn’t find anything at the right level with the right range for my students. I was also aware that for the general public there was also a gap. There were plenty of guides to specific sites and nice period studies but nothing all-embracing. I guess part of the problem is that, in England in particular, prehistory and perhaps the Saxons/Vikings appear at primary school level and then most people don’t come across our early history again unless they choose a degree course like Archaeology or become interested (usually as an adult) through visiting sites or via TV or literature. As a result there was a gap in publications between the very basic and the mass of works aimed at professionals and post-grads. So I came up with the idea of something that was initially aimed at A Level Students but also trying to provide something for a wider audience too. It was originally going to be called Archaeological Literacy but I think the Marketing Department felt (rightly) that The Archaeology Coursebook was a better title. Over time we realized that lots of undergraduates were using the book and the most recent edition has been almost completely rewritten to reflect that.

2. What will students and lecturers be able to take away from you book?

Well hopefully this will be the best friend of A Level and Undergrad Students through much of their courses. Firstly it provides a clear and straightforward introduction to methods, tools and materials used by archaeologists, which, on all but the most science-based degree courses, is probably all they would need. We have included far more science in this edition as the lab is the arena where most of the most exciting discoveries are being made and we wanted to provide enough for non-science students to grasp the essence of what is going on.

The other big area is case study material. Although the book is organized thematically and draws on world archaeology, it now majors on European Prehistory. We’ve signposted it to enable readers to follow a broad narrative route through the book, tackling the big turning points such as agriculture and the emergence of inequality, states and trade. What are new are the detailed case studies which are designed both to help readers to understand methods and interpretation and to provide examples with the right level of detail for academic study up to 3rd year undergraduate.

For lecturers at the college and school level it provides an easy source of updating. The methods sections draw on extensive interviews Sam Gorin carried out with practitioners literally ‘in the field’ and are therefore bang up to date. The science and the case studies draw heavily on research findings and correspondence with academics from the last 3-5 years, much of which has only been published in academic journals. So we have essentially translated some of what is most new and exciting in archaeology into brief summaries which help with teacher up-dating as well as for students. University lecturers through the nature of their work are more able to keep up to date and because of the specialist nature of their delivery are most likely to find the text useful for providing background reading for their students particularly when introducing complex topics.

3. What makes your book so unique to others in the field?

There are several texts which cover methods or theory but they don’t cover themes and case studies to the same extent. Our text gradually integrates methods, contexts and interpretation. There are a handful of other, larger, texts which do this but they generally assume more initial knowledge and are aimed largely at the US market. Their case studies draw very heavily on North and South America. Ours is the only text which does this job that draws largely upon Europe.

4. Your book was first published in 2001. How has the field changed and evolved since then?

The pace of change in archaeological knowledge in the last decade or so has been breathtaking. Everywhere, established ways of thinking about the past and accepted ‘knowledge’ has been subject to radical revision. Partly this has been due to the scale of fieldwork discoveries through urban expansion and massive infrastructure projects but is largely due to the application of technology. The potential of new means of detecting and analyzing sites from space and on the ocean floor are only just being realized. Refinements in the interpretation of radio carbon dating are providing far greater precision in dating the past as well as revising accepted sequences. The Neolithic, which used to be thought about in millennia will soon be thought of at the scale of decades.

Perhaps the most significant revolutions in archaeology have been taking place in biochemistry labs where a battery of technologies are being routinely used to analyse bones, pottery and other archaeological material in ways which could only be dreamt of a couple of decades ago. Archaeologists are increasingly able to flesh out the story of individuals from the distant past- where they came from, what kind of lives they lived and even who they were related to. One recently excavated Neolithic grave in eastern Germany has even produced the first evidence of a nuclear family! Suffice to say that I doubt where there are many other disciplines which are changing as radically as archaeology. The ethical debates around the subject have also intensified particularly around ownership of museum collections and the deliberate destruction of archaeological remains for profit or political ends in many parts of the world. Archaeology as a discipline most certainly does not live in the past.

5. You have included new online resources in this edition. Why are these important for the lecturers and students choosing to use this book?

One of the things we have done with this edition is to move much of the specific A Levels/Exam related material out from the book onto the website. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the companion website lends itself better to interactive material and it can also be updated more easily. One of the big issues with putting URLs in texts is that they change and become broken and you can’t fix them. A second issue is that the text is in black and white and much of archaeology looks better in colour. Neil Fleming has taken the opportunity to refresh and significantly increase the range of learning materials available and also to provide PPTs and other resources for lecturers on many key topics. We have also moved some exam-specific case studies onto the website and in the future may look at further developing this aspect of the site. A strength of the companion site has always been the extensive range of weblinks which allow the reader to explore topics in the book in more depth or to look at alternate models and case studies. It is particularly useful in providing access to film of sites, simulations of techniques and images at resolutions impossible in print- for example satellite thermal images of sites and landscapes.

6. What have you enjoyed most about writing it?

Well it gave me the excuse to visit a bunch of places I wouldn’t normally have persuaded my family to from the Palaeolithic caves at Peche Merle in France to the excellent Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia. In terms of research it has been the new case studies, some of which I was familiar with but many of which were new to me. Bringing together many different journal articles to construct an account of the Neolithic site of Vahingen in Germany was a real challenge but my favorite was the study on the origins of Medieval deep sea fishing. Through the analysis of archives of fish bones in European museums science is bringing to life the story behind those amazing (and almost believable) woodcuts of early fishing and at the same time explain the rise of towns, trade and population movements. For me it encapsulated all that is exciting in archaeology at the moment.

7. What do you want readers to take away from your book?

I’d hope that firstly it does what they need it to do for them. Beyond that, I hope we have managed to communicate our enthusiasm for archaeology and the excitement surrounding the amazing discoveries being constantly made. I hope having read about sites like Tybrind Vig will make them want to visit the amazing Danish Museums at Vedbaek, Moesgaard and Copenhagen and to explore the monuments of Sligo, Orkney and Wessex for themselves. I also think that studying archaeology peels away a layer from your eyes so that you see things differently. I hope that readers looking out the window of their car/bus/train will see things in their surroundings both built landscape and countryside that they would not have noticed before.

  • The Archaeology Coursebook

    An Introduction to Themes, Sites, Methods and Skills, 4th Edition

    By Jim Grant, Sam Gorin, Neil Fleming

    This fully updated and revised edition of the best-selling title The Archaeology Coursebook is a guide for students studying archaeology for the first time. Including new methods and key studies in this fourth edition, it provides pre-university students and teachers, as well as undergraduates and…

    Paperback – 2015-03-31