I’ve never been able to resist a library book sale. OneMonkey had to ban me from going to them, eventually, but not before I’d filled our creaking bookshelves with cheap cast-offs I might find interesting or useful one day. The fiction tended to be read in short order, it was the non-fiction that hung around, getting passed over in subsequent book culls because one day, you know, when I’m in the right mood, I might do more than flick through and nod in an interested way before replacing it on the shelf.
Cue lockdown, and while I have bought 6 ebooks and 3 physical books online since March, it seemed like a good time to not only read books from my To Read shelf, but also ferret among the main shelves for the books I haven’t read yet. I should clarify at this point that the To Read shelf automatically gets any new fiction, and gets some new non-fiction but not all. There is no underlying logic as to which goes where. Which means that there are a handful of non-fiction books scattered around the house that weren’t bought purely for reference and yet neither of us has read them. Most of them were picked up at library book sales at least fifteen years ago.
Footsteps by Bruce Norman is a BBC book from 1987, I assume it went with a TV series of the same name but I don’t remember watching it. At a guess, I bought the book from Dunfermline library in about 2002 and for the last nine years in this flat it’s been sat on the shelf between the BBC tie-ins of Michael Palin’s travels, and a book about female Victorian explorers which I hadn’t read either. The female explorers one turned out to be patronising claptrap that had me ranting within half a prologue – and before anyone assumes male author, it wasn’t. Having cast that aside I moved onto Footsteps, thinking maybe this would be another book I’d finally get rid of, but I was hooked within moments.
The sub-title of Footsteps is ‘Nine archaeological journeys of romance and discovery’, and while there is romance aplenty, that word ‘discovery’ is a troubling but crucial one. In one sense none of these are ‘discoveries’ because they were all built by someone – at best they’re rediscoveries after being forgotten in the meantime. In another sense they were all discoveries in a personal sense because that explorer or that team was seeing the ruined city or the cave temples for the first time, with no inkling beforehand unlike now where we’ve all seen impressive photos or video footage of Machu Picchu. It’s that personal revelation and the sense of wonder and awe that often accompanies it in the journals of the explorers that I tried to hang on to as I read.
The journeys in question take place from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s in Egypt, India, Peru, the USA, Zimbabwe, Thailand and elsewhere, and the book draws on extensive quotes from journals and letters of the time of each journey. During those original journeys, particularly the early ones, the aim was plunder. In Egypt in 1817, for example, the explorers didn’t care who owned the pyramids and their associated statues and sarcophagi, there was a race between the British and French governments to loot the finest pieces and that’s what mattered. It’s disgraceful, and at some sites mentioned in the book it ruined all possibility of scientific archaeology later on, but the exploration itself I still find fascinating in the same way I find Michael Palin’s travels fascinating, with the added interest of itself describing the lost world (to us now) of the 1840s or 1920s.
For the most part, as you might expect, the explorers were wealthy amateurs from western Europe or the USA who decided – whether for glory, treasure or for the advancement of science – to head off and see what was out there. Alfred Maudslay apparently went to Guatemala in 1880 because he fancied spending the winter somewhere warm and had recently read about an 1840s expedition there. Part of me is gobsmacked by the arrogance of the man but another part of me admires his confidence and drive. Unfortunately, however, men like Maudslay were busy colonising the globe at the time (he was a colonial official himself, in the South Pacific) and even when there is some scientific basis behind their approach to their expeditions, the patronising attitude to the locals and the sense that everything is ripe for the picking, can be pretty sickening to read. Oddly, even some of the 1980s contextualising from Bruce Norman seems a tad old-fashioned now, to say the least.
The sites that were ‘discovered’ had mostly been abandoned, some had even passed from folk memory and the ability to read the carved or painted pictograms lost, but in Zimbabwe and some of the sites in Peru for instance people lived among the stone ruins, in recent dwellings that were not made of stone. In these cases I guess the sites had been abandoned at one time and then people had drifted back, or new people had drifted in. Some of the Ellora cave temples in India were in use when army captain John Seely turned up in 1810 but he still thought it impertinent of the local holy men to object to him pitching a tent in one or eating beef on the premises. I ought to be thoroughly disgusted with him – I am, his interactions with people make me wince, but I still want to read his account of the temples and their surroundings and see the place through his eyes, because he was the first Englishman to write about it, to see and describe it from that perspective. The outsider’s eyes that Reginald Le May later brought to northern Siam (published as Asian Arcady in 1926) even proved useful to that country’s new king, who read the book when first visiting that area of his realm a short time after its publication.
Most of the journeys in Footsteps are to sites I’ve read about before, or maybe watched a BBC programme about – Luxor, Petra, Machu Picchu, the cliff dwellings in the USA. They are still spell-binding, and the book gave me details I hadn’t known before, or perhaps had forgotten, as well as the contemporary accounts and drawings. Add to this the sites I wasn’t familiar with at all – Tikal in Guatemala, Lycia in Turkey, temples in India and Thailand – and it made for a wonderful book, an armchair excursion through space and time. It reminded me of reading Biggles books and Jules Verne as a kid, full of bravery and adventure, which has carried me through to reading sci-fi and Michael Palin now. I can be critical of the explorers and their approach while still enjoying the glimpse of other times and places they give me.
Footsteps serves in a way as a history of archaeology as a discipline as well, from the interested antiquarians to the introduction of scientific methods, all the way up to the (1980s) present day of magnetometry, familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Time Team. Even the looters mainly ended up turning to science: Belzoni in Egypt began to take measurements and make observations which led him to discover completely forgotten tombs that were not even suspected, for instance. Richard Wetherill of Colorado began by selling artefacts from the south-western USA in the 1890s but entirely self-taught seems to have progressed to proper layer by layer excavation with careful measuring and recording of finds using a grid system, and a need for his expeditions to meet high archaeological standards. He put forward theories about the basket maker and cliff dweller people in that area which have since been borne out but at the time were dismissed. Maybe that was because he was initially a looter, or because there were by this point university-trained archaeologists and Wetherill was an amateur, but I bet that in large part it’s because he was a cattle farmer rather than a ‘gentleman’.
Footsteps is long out of print, but you can read some of the original accounts in free out-of-copyright ebooks:
- Travels in Syria and the Holy Land by J-L Burckhardt
Narrative of the operations and recent discoveries within the pyramids, temples, tombs, and excavations, in Egypt and Nubia by G Belzoni
Wonders of Elora by John B Seely
- Charles Fellows first and second journals of Asia Minor
- A Glimpse at Guatemala by Anne and Alfred Maudslay
- Inca Land by Hiram Bingham
- An Asian Arcady by Reginald le May