My new book – X Marks the Spot: The Story of Archaeology in Eight Extraordinary Discoveries – is coming out on 25th May 2023, published by Hodder and Stoughton. As the eagle-eyed may have spotted, the title owes something to Indiana Jones (and there’s the new Indiana Jones film coming out this June). It’s Indiana who tells his archaeology class that X, never, ever, marks the spot (except that of course in the film he has to eat his own fedora hat when X (or rather than Latin for 10) does indeed mark the entrance to an underground catacomb on his quest for the Holy Grail).
This book began as a conversation about what it feels like to make an exciting discovery of some physical remanent from our past. But very quickly it evolved from discussion of that ‘eureka’ moment to a whole host of other questions: what were ‘discoverers’ like? What were their stories? What prompted them to search for a particular thing at a particular time in a particular place? Did they know what the thing was immediately or did it take time to understand what had actually been uncovered? Who can claim to be the discoverer of something – the person/people who found it or those who succeeded in understanding and interpreting it (quite often not the same people!) How has discovery evolved over the decades thanks to technology, to the rule of law and to changing cultural attitudes towards the ownership of the past? How much do discoveries of the physical remains of ages gone by really change our understanding of the pasts they come from? What kinds of uses – apart from a better understanding of our past – have discoveries been put to, and by whom? And why do some discoveries become mega famous when others – seemingly just as interesting – remain known only to experts in the field?
This book seeks to ask and answer all of these questions through the lens of eight particular discoveries coming from different pasts situated in different places around the world made by different people at different times over the last 200 years or so. I took this approach because in many ways no two stories of discoveries are the same, but, conversely, there are some key threads that loom large in the stories of the discovery of our pasts. The first is the powerful range of factors – from geopolitical intrigue to finance to academic interests and infatuations – that prompt people to look for certain pasts in certain places at certain times. The second is the particular characters of the discoverers themselves, who often push themselves on to achieve things beyond the ordinary. The third is good helping of luck and/or accident. And the fourth is a curious ‘X-tra’ factor, which sees certain discoveries at certain times chime with national and global consciousnesses and become celebrities in their own right.
Through the book, starting with the discovery of the Rosetta stone in Egyptt in 1799 and ending with current ongoing excavations on the tiny Cycladic island of Keros – via Machu Picchu in Peru; the Princess of Altai on the borders of Russia, China and Mongolia; the Uluburun shipwreck 45m underwater off the Turkish coast; the skulls of early man found in Tanzania; the Terracotta warriors of China and the manuscripts of the Taklmakan desert – we follow the development of the discipline of archaeology itself: developments in technology and approaches to excavation; the gradual inclusion of people from more and more different backgrounds as accepted archaeologists; the increasing self-reflection and critical evaluation of what we should do with the physical remains of our past and the complex ways in which archaeologists and the wider public work together to create the – always evolving – story of what a discovery is and what it means.
This book is an adventure into the story of adventure and discovery. It has been fascinating to write and to speak with a number of discoverers about their eureka moments and their reflections on their discoveries. I hope you enjoy it too. I’ll be speaking about the book at a number of UK literary festivals (including Hay Festival in May and Chalke Valley in June) so keep an eye out on my Public Lectures page for all the details.
Check out more about the book, see what other people have said about it (and pre-order/buy it) here
Then make up your own mind: does X really never, ever mark the spot?