Memoirs by Archaeologists
October 20, 2014 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Do you know of any compelling, well-written memoirs by archaeologists, anthropologists, or paleo-anthropologists discussing field work, preferably during the twentieth century? The more detail about day-to-day work in the field and departmental intrigues, the better!

Years ago, I chanced on Robert Wauchope's book, They Found the Buried Cities: Exploration and Excavation in the American Tropics, which is mostly a collection of excerpts from nineteenth-century accounts of travel in Central America. I liked it well enough, but the part of the book that stayed with me was the opening section, in which Wauchope reminisced in detail about his own work as a Harvard graduate student in the 1930s, helping to organize excavations in Central America. I loved the accounts of both the logistics and the academic politics involved. It seemed so familiar, and yet so, so strange. What other accounts like this can people think of? I guess what I'm looking for is: academia, retronaut-style, served with a side-salad of travel to distant and exotic climes. Thanks!
posted by Sonny Jim to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Try books by Roy Chapman Andrews. Apologies for missing links (ha), but his writing may be right up your alley.
posted by whoiam at 10:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is Agatha Christie's memoir in which she tells of the trips she went on with her archeologist husband.
posted by Blitz at 10:41 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was assigned to read Dancing Skeletons by Katherine Dettwyler in my freshman anthropology class. Even as "boring" homework it was by far the best book I read that year. It covers Ms. Dettwyler's time in Mali researching children's health.
posted by backwards compatible at 10:42 AM on October 20, 2014

Not sure how in-depth you've already read in this field, but maybe starting somewhere like Gods, Graves and Scholars? Very popular book, very good overview of the early, Indiana-Jones-style archaeologists.

Here's a great one about east African, early hominid archaeology.

Something cool for Egyptian archaeology.
posted by resurrexit at 10:51 AM on October 20, 2014

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky is one of my very favorite books. You might also like In the Kingdom of Gorillas. Pat Shipman is an anthropologist and science writer who tends to co-author books with paleoanthropologists (like The Wisdom of Bones above). Of those, I particularly like The Ape in the Tree and her book about Eugene Dubois. The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen, is more broad reaching and talks in general about the field of island biogeography, but has really excellent highlights with Pat Wright, who works in Madagascar on golden bamboo lemurs, and Karen Strier, who studies muruqis (her book on them is good, too). David Quammen also has a great book about Darwin and Alfred Russel-Wallace, called The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:21 AM on October 20, 2014

I'm back, still voting for Roy Chapman Andrews, with a link this time, because I think this fits the criteria of your ask.

He led teams that made amazing discoveries in central Asia (Mongolia, Gobi Desert). He's known to be something of an egotist, but if I found the first velociraptor skeleton or dinosaur eggs, I'd be proud too.

His adventures may seem outlandish, but who knows?

Dude is rumored to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Whether or not that's true, he was pretty cool.
posted by whoiam at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2014

This is a bit more on the humorous side of things, but when I was a wee anthropology undergraduate, I loved Nigel Barley's accounts of fieldwork among the Dowayo in Cameroon, The Innocent Anthropologist and A Plague of Caterpillars, because it portrayed hardships, absurdities, and the major culture clash he experienced. The sort of thing that we students were never told about in class as we're reading ethnographies. I haven't read them in twenty years, so I can't tell you if they've stood the test of time.
posted by telophase at 11:29 AM on October 20, 2014

"T. rex" and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez.

It's the story behind the development of the Alvarez Hypothesis, that an impact by a giant asteroid happened at the end of the Cretaceous era. And it begins with Walter Alvarez doing field work in Italy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:30 AM on October 20, 2014

I thought Alfred Kroeber, A personal Configuration was quite good, but it's more about his life overall than it is detailed accounts of field work. (If you like Ursula LeGuin, you get the bonus of seeing where she got some of her chops from.)
posted by latkes at 11:34 AM on October 20, 2014

I am extremely surprised that Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa hasn't already made the list. It was revolutionary and foundational, and while with the hindsight and development of 90 additional years of fieldwork (the book was first published in 1928) it has obvious shortcomings, it is a genuinely wonderful read.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:44 AM on October 20, 2014

"The First Human" by Anne Gibbons doesn't cover the day-to-day stuff so much, but it's full of delicious paleoanthropology infighting and drama.
posted by baby beluga at 11:53 AM on October 20, 2014

Noble Savages, by Napoleon Chagnon. I loved his texts when I was an undergrad (a gazillion years ago.) He does come off as kind of a self-aggrandizing jag-off, but he loves the work and it's super interesting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2014

I Swear I Saw This by Michael Taussig was hugely influential on me and my group of friends. More of a reflection on field work and the act of inscription it is still highly personal and somewhat autobiographical. Here's a writeup to give you a sense it.
posted by kaspen at 12:09 PM on October 20, 2014

Some cultural anthropologists:

Hortense Powdermaker, Stranger and Friend: The Way of an Anthropologist

Margaret Mead's autobiography, Blackberry Winter. Married 3 times, twice of them to prominant-at-the-time male anthropologists whose fame she greatly eclipse over time, it's a good look at the insular world of U.S. academic cultural anthropology in its early days.

Bronislaw Malinowski's classic ethnography Argonauts of the Western Pacific actually contains quite a good bit of autobiographical background and description of his fieldwork process (I've used it as a text in undergraduate Introduction to Ethnographic Fieldwork classes). It's kind of interesting the way the title itself works, because unlike the format that the ethnographic monograph would take as the academic field became more refined in the next few decades, Argonauts has a distinctly narrative flow that recounts the voyages of Malinowski among and with the Trobrianders.
posted by drlith at 12:21 PM on October 20, 2014

Clifford Geertz's After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist would fit your bill: foreign travel, fieldwork, academic politics, it's all there. It's also beautifully written, as you'd expect from Geertz; a book I re-read every few years to remind myself what good academic writing looks like.
posted by verstegan at 3:54 PM on October 20, 2014

Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind by Donald C. Johanson.
posted by cropshy at 4:09 PM on October 20, 2014

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