The pleasures of Archaeology

June 6, 2010 at 12:15 pm (archaeology, books, History)

I don’t normally buy this magazine, even though like most people, I am fascinated by archaeological expeditions and discoveries. I bought this particular issue because of the photograph of the Tollund Man on the cover.

Many years ago, when I was teaching high school English, I used a text book that contained an excerpt from The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, by Danish archaeologist P.V. Glob. At the time, I was faced with the usual cohort of bored, antsy teenagers, and I don’t recall getting mush of a response from them when we discussed this piece. But I have never forgotten the effect it had on me.

The English translation of The Bog People appeared in this country in 1969.

Gods, Graves, and Scholars, another landmark volume on archaeology by C.W. Ceram, was written in 1949. It was translated from the German and published here in 1951, A  revised edition appeared in 1967. That was already some years after my mother had first urged me to read it.

It is the second revised edition, dated 1979, that sits before me on my desk at this moment. Ceram states in his foreward to the first American edition:  ‘My book was written without scholarly pretensions. My aim was to portray the dramatic qualities of archaeology, its human side.” He goes on to describe the fruits of his research:

‘Archaeology, I found, comprehended all manner of excitement and achievement. Adventure is coupled with bookish toil. Romantic excursions go hand in hand with scholarly self-discipline and moderation.  Explanations among the ruins of the remote past have carried curious men all over the face of the earth.

Two stories made a lasting impression. The first was that of Heinrich Schliemann and the search for Troy. This particularanecdote has stayed with me:

‘Incredible as it may seem, this actually happened: the rich and eccentric foreigner one evening sat in the village square and read the Twenty-third Book of the Odyssey to the descendants of those who had been dead for three thousand years. Overcome by emotion, he wept, and the villagers wept with him.

The second is the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The year is 1922. Archaeologist Howard Carter has enlarged a hole in the door to the newly unearthed burial chamber. Lord Carnarvon, his backer on the project, and others, are crowded around him:

‘Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening–he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity–the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he was struck dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no longer contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

As with so many books that shaped my young mind (such as it was),  it is probably time to revisit Gods, Graves, and Scholars. (It is thought that C.W. Ceram – real name Kurt Wilhelm Marek – wrote so eloquently of the distant past in an effort to escape from his own recent past. Read this and judge for yourself.)


While working on a review of Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Fall of Troy, I discovered this fabulous photograph of  Heinrich Schliemann’s wife Sophia wearing some of the jewels comprising what he called “Priam’s Treasure.”


In The Bog People, this is how P.V. Glob describes the discovery, in 1950,  of the body that came to be known as Tollund Man:

‘Momentarily, the sun burst in, bright and yet subdued, through a gate in blue thunder-clouds in the west, bringing everything mysteriously to life. The evening stillness was only broken, now and again, by the grating love-call of the snipe. The dead man, too, deep down in the umber-brown peat, seemed to have come alive. He lay on his damp bed as though asleep, resting on his side, the head inclined a little forward, arms and legs bent. His  face wore a gentle expression–the eyes lightly closed, the lips softly pursed, as if in silent prayer. It was as though the dead man’s soul had for a moment returned from another world, through the gate in the western sky.

The men digging up peat to use as fuel thought they had found the victim of a recent murder. They called the police. The officers, knowing that similar mummified remains had been found in the area before, called the local museum. Thus did Tollund Man pass once again into history. (He is thought to have lived during the fourth century BC.)

The men cutting fuel for the coming winter were not entirely mistaken in their surmise about the body they had uncovered. Tollund man was found with a noose around his neck.

The Bog People has been re-issued by New York Review Books, a publisher that’s doing a terrific job of bringing the classics, both fiction and nonfiction, back into print.


  1. Reader in the Wilderness said,

    Magnificent post! I adore reading books about archaeology, particularly European archaeology. But I most particularly enjoy reading about recent archaeological finds and discoveries, of which there are far too few books and articles.

  2. The Belles Heures of the Limbourg brothers: exquisite masterpiece at the Met « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] childhood, I’ve loved the story, as told by C.W. Ceram, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tut. As he peered into the dimness of that ancient space, Carter was asked if he could see anything. […]

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