Bill Bryson versus the Scireadr

A Short History of Nearly Everything cover

A Short History of Nearly Everything coverScireadr will have its first meet­ing tomor­row night. We’ll be dis­cuss­ing A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I’ve never taken part in a book club like this before, so I’m pre­par­ing. I don’t have answers. I don’t know if I need answers, what I need are ques­tions so I’m mak­ing some notes that I can pick up with my phone tomor­row night. Feel free to add ques­tions or com­ments below.
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Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy by Giulio Magli


Note: Giulio Magli was one of the exam­iners of my thesis, so his book is hardly likely to get a bad review.

This review rounds off a tri­logy to go with Skywatchers, Shamans and Kings and People and the Sky. Like the other two books this could be said to be part of a World Archaeoastronomy approach, but Giulio Magli adds a twist. Some of this is down to the approach he’s taken to archae­oastro­nom­ical sites, but he also adds a bit more.

Magli’s approach is sim­ilar to what I would have done if I was writ­ing an intro­duc­tion to archae­oastro­nomy book. He tackles the sites around the world. So take a deep breath because in his open­ing sec­tion of twelve chapters — slightly over half the book — he cov­ers. Palaeolithic Europe, Prehistoric Britain, the temples of Malta, Egypt, Babylon, East North America with the Hopewell and Cahokia, West North America with Chaco and the Anasazi, Northern Mexico and Tenochtitlan, The rest of Mesoamerica and Palenque, The Incas, Nazca and Polynesia. That leaves massive holes where you would expect to find India, China, Korea and Japan and a lack of African mater­ial. That’s more due to the state of play in aca­demic archae­oastro­nomy at the moment than a fault of Magli. In gen­eral Africa has been greatly over­looked and there’s not a lot of integ­ra­tion between Asian astro­nomy and the rest of the world. It’s get­ting bet­ter, but it’s still under-represented com­pared to the Mayans and Prehistoric Europe.

If this had been the sum total of the book I wouldn’t be that enthu­si­astic about it. It’s not bad. It’s writ­ten from an astro­nom­ical point of view with some amus­ing digs against archae­olo­gists. If you were inter­ested in archae­oastro­nomy and approach­ing it from astro­nomy and not anthro­po­logy I’d recom­mend this over Aveni or Krupp’s book as an intro­duc­tion to the field. What really marks out the book as worth read­ing is sec­tion 2.
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Creating Prehistory by Adam Stout


I could draw up quite a list of people who won’t like this book. Adam Stout pur­ports to be an unapo­lo­getic relat­iv­ist (more of that later). His his­tory of archae­ology in Britain, mainly in the inter-war period, comes from this pos­i­tion and is allied to his interest in altern­at­ive pasts such as druidry and earth mys­ter­ies. If you think the his­tory of archae­ology is primar­ily a story of how our know­ledge of the past came to be more accur­ate, you’ll struggle with this. If you think the suc­cess of people such as OGS Crawford and Mortimer Wheeler was down to employ­ing sci­entific meth­od­o­logy you’ll struggle with this. If you think the only sane response to mod­ern druids is mock­ery you may struggle with this. I cer­tainly dis­agree with a few of the author’s char­ac­ter­isa­tions of archae­ology. Despite (or even because?) of this it’s a chal­len­ging and enga­ging view of the devel­op­ment of archaeology.


The first point of dif­fer­ence between myself and Stout is a mat­ter of how Political with a cap­ital P archae­ology is. I accept that archae­ology is a polit­ical action, but so is going down to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. I might be reify­ing abstract ideo­lo­gies and rein­for­cing eco­nomic roles in soci­ety, but if I want to cri­tique those ideo­lo­gies and roles, I don’t think I’d start by ana­lys­ing my shop­ping list. Adam Stout starts with an account of writ­ing against the back­drop of the Occupation of Iraq. He states that the cover story for May 2003 ‘PREHISTORIC WAR’ was cash­ing in on the war fever in the USA. It might, but as a counter-example I’ll offer a quote from the intro­duc­tion to Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin’s new book:

A war is raging in the Middle East as you read this intro­duc­tion or, at least, one is immin­ent and the world is on high alert. We can assert this with some cer­tainty, regard­less of the shelf life of this volume, because this con­di­tion has char­ac­ter­ised the region for most of the last 1000 years.

Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin 2008:11

I can’t say Archaeology magazine wasn’t using the war to boost sales. I sus­pect it wasn’t an openly cyn­ical ploy to use the deaths of thou­sands of people as a sales drive. Equally I wouldn’t be sur­prised if someone wanted to put war in a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive but didn’t think about what the upcom­ing event would mean for many people’s lives. It’s hard to say because if you want to pub­lish on war when the USA isn’t either con­tem­plat­ing invad­ing some­where or else actu­ally invad­ing some­where you have a very small win­dow to aim for. One dif­fer­ence between us then is that I think the interest in war reflec­ted pub­lic opin­ion rather than led it. This mat­ters because it shows how Stout works from the pos­i­tion that archae­olo­gists are largely work­ing in the ser­vice of the state. This is point of depar­ture for most of the book, the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical authority.

The first part is most expli­citly about the cre­ation of archae­olo­gical author­ity. It’s fer­tile ground for any­one who wants to find evid­ence of self-congratulation amongst aca­dem­ics. It’s the strongest sec­tion of the book because it’s most clearly here that Stout mar­shalls the evid­ence to demon­strate his point. He’s able to draw on let­ters from vari­ous prot­ag­on­ists to show that polit­ical mach­in­a­tions were a major part of the aca­demic archae­olo­gical pro­gramme of the the 1920s and 1930s. I was fas­cin­ated to see how a group of motiv­ated people effect­ively col­lab­or­ated to take the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia and take it for their own use as a national soci­ety. Yet while Stout is mak­ing a point, it doesn’t come across as axe-grinding.

The second part is, for me the least sat­is­fy­ing of the four. It tackles a fight against dif­fu­sion­ism as propsed by anthro­po­lo­gists. Again the hand­ling of the polit­ics is very good, but I’m not sure how well it squares with the con­tent. Stout’s argu­ment is that archae­olo­gists were eager to show inex­or­able pro­gress to the mod­ern era, and that dif­fu­sion­ism was a threat to this. In the case of someone like Childe, I’d argue that dif­fu­sion was the means by which pro­gress occured.

The third sec­tion is a case study of Stonehenge. If you’ve wondered where the mod­ern Druids came from and how they decided to claim Stonehenge, then this is essen­tial read­ing. Once again the polit­ics are covered well, as are some of the beliefs of the 20th cen­tury Druids.

The fourth sec­tion is about The Old Straight Track and the chal­lenge from other inter­pret­a­tions of the past and the chal­lenge to archae­ology. It provides some inter­est­ing examples of how unwanted inter­pret­a­tions could be neutered and the emphasis of archae­ology as some­thing voca­tional. Stout hints at the chal­lenge being in part that ley-hunters were con­tex­tu­al­ising sites into their place within the wider land­scape and fact-obsessed archae­ology was less the­or­ised at this time. It is fair com­ment, though I doubt it would be pop­u­lar amongst many archaeologists.

My biggest con­cern with most of the sec­tions is that the con­flict is seen as polit­ical rather than fac­tual. Possibly for reas­ons of space there’s little exam­in­a­tion of the archae­olo­gical con­tent. In the case of ley-hunting, to what extent was the stat­ist­ical like­li­hood of leys occur­ring known at the time The Old Straight Track was pub­lished? What were the archae­olo­gical objec­tions? The second sec­tion in par­tic­u­lar would have bene­fit­ted more from a dis­cus­sion of the con­tent as well as the context.

Another con­cern is that Stout never goes bey­ond pre­his­tory. To some extent this is cri­ti­cising him for not writ­ing a book which he didn’t intend to write, after all the title is Creating Prehistory. At the same time the reader could come away with the impres­sion that archae­ology in Britain was almost entirely the archae­ology of pre­his­toric Britain. Romans are occa­sion­ally men­tioned, but the effects of Roman or Medieval archae­ology on the devel­op­ment of pre­his­toric archae­ology aren’t really tackled.

This may be where the dif­fer­ence between his relat­iv­ist pos­i­tion and my own mat­ters. He sees his­tory and archae­ology as a mat­ter of telling stor­ies. Even if this is the case, stor­ies have forms. The Iliad is not going to be rendered into a lim­er­ick. Similarly sci­entific explan­a­tions have forms, and there is no real tack­ling of meth­od­o­logy or the­ory in Stout’s book. If you think coher­ence to real­ity played a part, even if it not the sole part, then there’s a big hole in the his­tory. It can­not be dis­missed simply as a mat­ter of incom­men­sur­able epi­stem­o­lo­gies as Stout him­self shows.

Stout argues that bet­ter is not neces­sar­ily more accur­ate, using the example of Maiden Castle. On page 235 he uses Niall Sharples’ account of Maiden castle to show how Wheeler was cap­able of spin­ning his own tales based on his own pre­ju­dices. This I agree with, but I would also ask how we can accept Sharples’ explan­a­tion as more cor­rect. The answer lies in the meth­od­o­logy of archae­ology which has developed, in part from Wheeler’s own work. The method Wheeler used gave some of the tools to under­mine his work. In con­trast I don’t see that pos­sib­il­ity from Iolo Morgawg’s work. Even if sci­ence were only story, it’s clearly a dif­fer­ent sort of story.

Another mat­ter I’d like to see Stout explore would be the devel­op­ment of archae­ology as an anti-religious sci­ence. Archaeology as Whiteley and Hays-Gilpin (2008:20n1) say tends to shy away from reli­gion. Certainly archae­olo­gists are happy to dia­gnose any­thing they can’t under­stand as being ‘ritual’, but once it’s in that box study is often closed. They put this down to sci­ence and reli­gion being com­pet­it­ors in claims for dis­cern­ing truth in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. In chapter nine The Esoteric Revival Stout attrib­utes the neg­at­ive view many of the inter-war archae­olo­gists had towards early reli­gion as being due to their athe­ism. Perhaps more could be made of the con­flict between sci­ence and reli­gion at the time, and hence the ant­ag­on­ism to the reli­gious claims of con­tem­por­ary druids, which then fed back into views about the past.

Nonetheless while it’s clear that I don’t agree with some of Stout’s con­clu­sions I still think there’s much to like about the book. For a start it’s read­able. It’s clear that he’s writ­ten the book because he wants to be under­stood and make a dif­fer­ence rather than pad out a CV. It’s also well-argued. I might not agree with the argu­ments, but it’s not a mat­ter of pluck­ing ideas from the air. Stout clearly has done the read­ing, got the ref­er­ences and uses them to back up his claims. Hence while it is pos­sible to dis­agree with him, it’s not a good idea to simply dis­miss his work. It’s also a genu­inely novel piece of work. There are many books which take to a greater or less extent the whole of the his­tory of archae­ology as their sub­ject. Quite a few a clearly attempts to pro­duce the­ory text­books in a very dull way. In con­trast the more focussed approach Stout takes enables him to look more closely the pro­cesses that cre­ated aca­demic archae­ology. If any­thing I’d like to see an tighter focus still. There are the seeds of four inter­est­ing books on the devel­op­ment of archae­ology. Most import­antly it’s the least telel­o­gical his­tory of archae­ology I’ve read. Many his­tor­ies of archae­ology could be sub­titled How did we get to the won­der­ful state we’re in today?. This book in con­trast is focussed on the inter-war years rather than the even­tual out­come. This puts him smartly out of step with any­one who mis­takenly believes his­tory of archae­ology is a branch of archae­ology rather than his­tory of science.

It’s not the one book you need if you’re study­ing the his­tory of archae­ology in the UK, but it is per­haps the one book you need to read as a com­pan­ion to a his­tory of archaeology.

See also:
Whiteley, D.S. and Hays-Gilpin, K. 2008 ‘Religions bey­ond Icon, Burial and Monument: An Introduction’, Belief in the Past: Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion. eds. D.S.Whiteley and K.Hays-Gilpin, Left Coast Press:California, 11–22.
Find it at WorldCat or LibraryThing.

Loot by Sharon Waxman


In short, the best archae­o­pol­it­ics book I’ve read since Edward Fox’s Sacred Geography. I was kindly sent a review copy by the pub­lish­ers and I have a feel­ing that they were hop­ing for a bit more than that, so I’ll add a bit more.

It’s sub­titled “The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” The ancient world here is pretty much Greece, Rome and Egypt, which means she doesn’t have a lot to say about the strip­ping of sites in Africa, the Americas or Asia. To some extent that’s a bit of a shame, but by focus­sing tightly on a few examples Waxman is able to go into the details of how the mar­ket for illi­cit antiquit­ies works. You have to keep a close eye on what’s hap­pen­ing as I get the impres­sion that one of the inspir­a­tions for the antiquit­ies trade was the three-card trick. The book is four parts. She opens by look­ing at Egypt and the atti­tude of the Louvre.
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The best new archaeology books?


I’ll put this link up before I for­get. Michael E. Smith is look­ing for what you think are the best new archae­ology books. It made me real­ise that this year I don’t think I’ve really taken much time out to read for pleas­ure. I’ve got a couple of new Anthony Aveni books which I haven’t had chance to read yet. However, I think top of the list will be Adam Stout’s Creating pre­his­tory : Druids, ley hunters and archae­olo­gists in pre-war Britain. I atten­ded a talk by him when it was work in pro­gress and I thought it was an inter­est­ing take on the his­tory of archae­ology. Quite a few his­tor­ies emphasis the devel­op­ment of sci­entific pro­gress in archae­ology, the con­text being what came before and what when after. Stout’s view strikes me as being a bit more, archae­olo­gical for want of a bet­ter word. He was emphas­ising the social con­text of archae­ology includ­ing the actions of anti­quar­i­ans. I can’t remem­ber if it was him or Ronald Hutton who sug­ges­ted that, in the UK, archae­ology sup­planted anti­quar­ian use of pre­his­toric sites — rather than grew from it.

I don’t think it’s going to be a uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar book and I’ll be sur­prised if I agree with all of it. On the other hand I think he’ll have had a go at string an argu­ment together and, last time I read some­thing by him, he’s cap­able of writ­ing without it being like sand­pa­per on the eyes. Having said that the first sen­tence of the sample chapter looks odd. Hopefully he explained what the Universal Bond was in an earlier chapter.

Anyway, if you have an opin­ion an what you think is the best new archae­ology book, leave him a com­ment.

Thoughts on The God Delusion

God Delusion
The God Delusion. Photo (cc) some­fool.

I bought this a while ago when it came out in paper­back because Sainsbury’s had it on spe­cial offer. I’ve read it, but haven’t com­men­ted on it for a few reas­ons. Partly because I seem to have bought a faulty copy. The God Delusion is a vicious angry screed against reli­gion, or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know because my ver­sion is, in con­trast, polite and reasoned. By and large that makes it a more dan­ger­ous book, because although I don’t think there’s any­thing par­tic­u­larly new in it, it is presen­ted well and puts for­ward both a pos­it­ive view of athe­ism and why Dawkins thinks reli­gion is a prob­lem. To the joy of the­ists though there are a couple of dis­ap­point­ing sections.

One is use of the term Neville Chamberlain Atheist. I don’t like it. It’s inel­eg­ant. It’s used describe those who would appease rel­gious demands by equat­ing them with the British Prime Minister who ini­tially appeased Hitler, but then took a stand and decided to take Britain to war, des­pite a large num­ber of people in Parliament still favour­ing appease­ment. It’s not just the equa­tion with Neville Chamberlain that I don’t think works. There’s an unspoken implic­a­tion that fun­da­ment­al­ists are sim­ilar to Nazis. I don’t think that works either. The Nazis were openly unpleas­ant people and you couldn’t be a Nazi if you belonged to cer­tain groups. Fundamentalists are in con­trast more insi­di­ous. They have room to police every­one in their belief sys­tem. Whether or not Dawkins is to blame for the term is uncer­tain from the book, because he also cites Michael Ruse in this sec­tion so it’s pos­sible he got the term from him. I haven’t read Ruse’s art­icle because it appeared in Playboy and I’m not really will­ing to ask for it on inter-library loan. Orac has said some­thing sim­ilar (about Neville Chamberlain, not Playboy), and Saint Gasoline dis­agrees. Personally I’d argue that the term should be some­thing more like Tony Blair Atheist after someone who respects another’s beliefs des­pite the lack of evid­ence and assists them in inflict­ing dam­age on other people because of faith and polt­ical expediency.

While that was inel­eg­ant another sec­tion was truly bad. I didn’t like is the bit on God as a meme at all. He describes an exper­i­ment sim­ilar to Chinese Whispers. In one exper­i­ment a group of chil­dren demon­strate how to make a Chinese junk from paper by ori­gami to another group. This group then teaches a third gen­er­a­tion and so on. In another exper­i­ment one group of chil­dren draw a junk and pass the draw­ing along to a second gen­er­a­tion to copy and so on. He pre­dicts that by the time you get to the tenth gen­er­a­tion the ori­gami method will still be trans­mit­ted with high fidel­ity whilst the draw­ing will have mutu­ated. Similarly because reli­gion is an imit­ated series of prac­tices rather than an end product reli­gion too can be trans­mit­ted by a meme.

This sounds reas­on­able, or at least it did in 1999 when Dawkins first described the exper­i­ment in the pre­face to The Meme Machine. He hadn’t actu­ally run the exper­i­ment at the time but you can’t do everything. Moving on to 2006 and the Junk appears again. Dawkins still hasn’t done the exper­i­ment but non­ethe­less argues from the res­ults about how cul­ture propag­ates. This both­ers me deeply because I thought that one of the things about exper­i­ments is that you need to do them. I appre­ci­ate he’s a busy man and he may not have the time. But he has chosen to write on the sub­ject. Would it be reas­on­able for me to talk about hered­ity based on my thought exper­i­ment? Would it still be reas­on­able for me to recycle the same thought exper­i­ment seven years later without doing it? If a cre­ation­ist did this they would be mocked mer­ci­lessly. Thankfully the meme concept has abso­lutely no bear­ing on the exist­ence or oth­er­wise of gods, but it sticks out as a low point in what is oth­er­wise a very good book. I sup­pose this would at least indic­ate that I’m think­ing about his argu­ments rather than purely accept­ing them in his author­ity, which is just as well as the rest of his argu­ments are all sound and rational.

One of the sec­tions I par­tic­u­larly liked was on the Hitler was an Atheist / Christian argu­ment. I assumed Hitler was a Christian because he said so. This isn’t enough for Dawkins and here he goes much more deeply into Hitler’s beliefs and con­cludes that the evid­ence is shaky enough that you can’t be cer­tain he was a Christian. He may have used Christianity as a vehicle for his beliefs, but it wasn’t neces­sar­ily a belief he shared. This is where he demon­strates that he has a right to be indig­nant when people refer to him as a fun­da­ment­al­ist. This is much more rep­res­ent­at­ive of the thought in the book and the two points I bring up above cover around six pages of the four hun­dred and twenty in the book.

I’ll be hon­est it’s not rad­ic­ally changed my view of athe­ism, because it expresses a lot of what I thought any­way. However if you live in a less atheist-friendly envir­on­ment like Texas I can see how pub­lish­ing books like this and out­ing your­self can help. While Dawkins is firmly anti-religion he is also pro-human and the world might be a bet­ter place if a few more people were like that.