Have you ever tried to get yourself a decent archaeology travel guide? Whether you are going some where interesting on holiday or simply want to explore the area around where you live, sometimes finding something more than a generic regional travel guide is impossible. While there is nothing understandable as they do try and capture everything on offer – but for a generic traveller. What about those of us who want a bit more out of an area’s past?
Well, for a number of European countries Oxford University Press has just what you are looking for: the Oxford Archaeological Guides. Although published by an academic press each guide is both interesting and engaging. They are written by archaeologists who are experts in their fields, and so they also offer an informed and accurate background and guide to the archaeology of a given country, or in one case, city.
They have been around for a while, some well over ten years but glancing at the covers illustrated below you will see that they are currently undergoing a visual make-over, as anyone who knows these guides will immediately spot (England is an old Cover design, Ireland a new one).
England by Timothy Darvill, Paul Stamper & Jane Timby
The Oxford Archaeology Guide to England provides information for over 250 sites from the early Palaeolithic of the Ice Age to the later Medieval period, ending around 1600 AD. The kind of archaeological sites range from the stone circles for which England is so well know, to Iron Age hill forts, Roman villas and Medieval castles and churches. A truly monumental diversity. Not surprisingly, this particular guide, unlike some of the others, has been co-authored by three archaeologists, each recognised experts in their own fields of prehistoric, Roman and Medieval archaeology. The difference between this and those written by a single author is very noticeable – the range of periods covered is extensive, and this entire range is expertly covered.
Southern France by Henry Cleere
As the title suggests this archaeological guide is restricted to Southern France, more specifically that area between the the Massif Central and the Mediterranean. This region does have some of the finest archaeological sites in France, from the limestone caves with their Palaeolithic paintings and engravings, to the wonderful and well known Roman monumental architecture such as the Pont du Gard in Provence. Surprisingly, this is where the book ends – with the Roman occupation of France. The list of prehistoric sites included is weak, and there is nothing of the Medieval period. It does seem as if there is no shortage of guides to the Roman archaeology of this area, for other periods and the rest of France, there is always Archaeology Travel.
Greece by Christopher Mee & Antony Spawforth
The archaeology guide to Greece is restricted to mainland Greece, the numerous groups of islands are not included. The few islands that are included are considered extensions of the mainland, from which they can be reached (for example, Euboia and Thasos). For the mainland, this book is a comprehensive guide to the many archaeological sites from the Palaeolithic to the sixth century AD that are open to the public, that should not be missed. An amusing feature is the ‘partner factor’ – for those who visit sites with a partner who is not as enthralled about yet ‘another pile of stones’ as you are. Included with the site details then are other comments of aspects that will make it more appealing to partners looking for an interesting walk, or a nice beach.
The Holyland by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor
For anyone interested in the archaeology of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this recently updated archaeological guide to the Holy Land is a must – whether you are visiting or not. Updates that have been added to the most recent addition include, for example, recent crucial developments at the Holy Sepulchre, as well details and information for six new sites: one of which is a Middle Bronze Age water system in Jerusalem, and another what may be the original Pool of Siloam. The book covers the archaeology of this area from the earliest times up to 1700 AD, those that are both accessible and have something of significance to see. The book is divided in two – those sites in the City of Jerusalem, and those in the Land.
Ireland by Andy O`Halpin & Conor Newman
As we do on Archaeology Travel, this archaeology guide of Ireland treats the island as a single entity, including both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is one of four nations in the United Kingdom. The archaeology of this island is very similar to that of other areas of north-western Europe, but there are also some significant differences. For instance, there was no occupation of this region by the Romans, but there was an ongoing process of colonisation by the English that shows in the castles, manors, churches, and villages established by the English lords. This guide covers the archaeology from the earliest sites of the Mesolithic around 9,000 years ago to the archaeology of the later Medieval period of the seventeenth century AD.
Scotland by Anna Ritchie & Graham Ritchie
Compiling this guide to the archaeological sites of Scotland must have been at once a daunting and an exciting project. The archaeology so varied, including a range of Neolithic monuments, Roman fortresses, Viking settlements, and Christian churches. And the country is so vast with remote islands and extensive mountainous areas – often not easy to get to. But this wonderfully produced book provides a guide to over 250 of these archaeological sites from the Neolithic to the twelfth century AD, scattered far and wide across Scotland. Simply reading the guide makes me want to return to Scotland to explore some of the regions I have not visited, but also revisit some of the archaeological sites I know. Sixty sites have been singled out, with the suggestion that of all the sites, these should not be missed.
Spain by Roger Collins
Of all the western European nations, Spain certainly has the most exotic archaeological heritage, from the cave art of the last Ice Age, to the extensive architectural remains from the Roman occupation of the Iberian peninsular, and also the opulent palaces and fortresses built by the Arabs during the Middle Ages. Over 130 archaeological sites are presented here, 26 of which have been singled out for particular attention, for the archaeological traveller ranging from prehistory to the Christian and Islamic periods of the Medieval in the twelfth century AD. But the earliest sites are Neolithic – not the Palaeolithic cave art sites. With such a well known site such as Altamira, one that is open to the public – and has been long before this book was published, its omission from any guide to archaeological sites in Spain is odd.
The only other published Oxford Archaeology Guide not included in this review is the volume on the city of Rome by Amanda Claridge. As I have just recently visited Rome, and used this guide to get about, I thought I would review that volume separately. There are volumes on Crete, North Africa and Western Turkey in preparation.
My only criticism of the series is for the single authored guides, such as Spain and Southern France. The omission of one of Spain’s most iconic archaeological sites, the very restricted nature of the France volume, make these volumes more about the interests of the authors than about providing a good guide to these areas. These two volumes stand in stark contrast, in my opinion, to the England and Ireland guides where co-authors with individual expertises collaborated to produce what are definitive guides. No one person can master the archaeology of these vast areas. Hopefully this will be remedied in future editions – it would not be difficult to do. And it should because it does compromise the Series’ desire to provide authoritative archaeology guides for travellers. This criticism should not, however, detract from the value of this Series.
These are weighty books, but they are intended as practical guides not glossy picture books. Besides the cover there are no colour photographs at all. Although the archaeology contained with in each is very different, and cover different periods of time, they all have a basic set of features that makes each one an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to explore the archaeology of a particular area in a bit more depth than one might find in a more generic, regional travel guide. They each start with a well illustrated introduction that provides an essential background to the archaeology of the region that follows. The sites are then organised by region and then alphabetically within each region – with symbols employed to denote the period or or significance of the site. Each volume also has an extensive glossary, list of museums and sites as well as a list of further reading. Numerous black and white photographs, plan diagrams and maps are included to complement the text as appropriate.
As the saying goes … archaeology travellers, you can’t leave home without one!