Review by Thomas Bowden : The Bluffer’s Guide to Archaeology

Review by Thomas Bowden (IAFS Alumni)

The Bluffer’s Guide to Archaeology by Paul Bahn

One of the many unnecessary yet amusing truisms is that ‘[a]nything in archaeology with no obvious function is classed as ‘ritual’’, and that is the first of many things explained in the Bluffer’s Guide to Archaeology. Archaeologists are a most unusual bunch, but as this guide explains, one almost needs to be an eccentric to enjoy a life fooling about in the dirt, becoming terrifyingly excited by a potsherd, or more generally to end up having an extensive knowledge of one very specific place, period or people.

A short book with wit and style, this book takes you through the basics of everything archaeology – from the weird people you meet on a dig to the culture of the lab rats and geeks with the mystical, witchcraft known as ‘Geophys’. In a helpful list, Bahn suggests that all ‘archs’ undertaking fieldwork must take with them ironic t-shirts with corny lines like ‘Powered by Tea’ or ‘Are you Carbon 14? Cuz I’d sure like to date you!’, as well as sufficient bottle-openers for any beer likely to be required.

Some examples of other sections include: on the ‘armchair archs’, where a simple two-step instruction is provided for how to make a career in academic archaeology:

Step 1. ‘Conceal a lack of data by questioning the validity of everyone else’s’.

Step 2. ‘Deflect attention from a lack of ideas and solutions by attacking those trying to do some work and by trying to demolish their whole approach to the subject’.

Repeat for sixty years to become an expert on the ‘wrongness’ of everyone else.

In the glossary at the end, key terms are defined, including ‘theoretical archaeology’ – ‘a last resort of the desperate’ and ‘post-processual’ – ‘Anything goes. In interpreting the past, even the opinions of idiots, charlatans and sci-fi writers have to be considered as valid as your own.”

This book is recommended for anyone who enjoys a bit of self-deprecation humour and an entertaining read of some of the foundations of archaeology, reinterpreted for the secretly confused. Indeed, as many ‘bluffers know better than anyone, a university degree does not necessarily provide any indication of intelligence, creativity, imagination, dedication, originality or competence’.