Book Review

MICHAEL SHANKS. The archaeological imagination. 168 pages, 25 illustrations. 2012. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast; 978-1-59874-361-6 hardback; 978-1-59874-362-3 paperback $21.50; 978-1-61132-784-7 e-book.

Review by Stephen Daniels
School of Geography, University of Nottingham, UK

Daniels image

This short, provocative book extends an expanding field of enquiry, studies of the wider discourse of archaeology, before and beyond its formalisation as professional, academic discipline. "We are all archaeologists now" runs the title of the first chapter of The archaeological imagination which is a fair reflection of how archaeology has expanded as an academic term, to encompass a whole range of cultural issues which appear in this book: memory, landscape, narrative, ruins, relics, personal experience, liminality, peripherality, walking, haunting. The range of archaeology includes this author's encounters in telling us of his own career: geography, literary and art history, performance, cultural and media studies, and those versions of cultural theory which operate with stratigraphic depth models of knowledge and meaning.

Given this range, it is not surprising that it is unclear what the intended readership of this book is, its three parts pulling in many directions. Much of the first and third chapters, and odd passages of the second, seem to be directed at an Impressionable if Inattentive American Student, full of blog-speak theoretical gestures, personal anecdotes, and puzzling anachronisms, including website references to Dad's Army, the X-Files, with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, introduced as "the subject of the movie of 2008". Inside this framing, a substantial, and still innovative, book is struggling to get out.

The book's second, most scholarly chapter investigates varieties of eighteenth-century antiquarianism, and in a particular region, the Borders of Scotland and England. Shanks charts the archaeological imagination in nine "sets of scenarios", elicited from a series of texts on the Borders. He shows how these texts, and some of their illustrations, perform the past, whether in a staged, theatrical way, or in forms of practice which are based on greater insider knowledge and experience of the region. The writings range in register from fact to fiction, and in genre from history to poetry. Moreover they range geographically, not just in what they are about, but where they are written from, culturally and physically, notably Newcastle and Edinburgh, and more specifically that literary region fashioned from an antiquarian Borders country house, Abbotsford, 'Scott-land'.

Some of Sir Walter Scott's historical and literary writings are the key cultural texts of The archaeological imagination, and the sixteenth-century phrase Scott popularised, 'Debatable Lands', provides the title of this chapter. In Scott's own time the term came to mean disputatious intellectual as well as material territory, and it is a term that has enjoyed a new life in studies of the Romantic period, as part of Border Studies more generally, in an age when devolution and independence are being fiercely debated, although curiously, in a book intent on connecting past and present, Shanks makes little or nothing of this political context.

The book's alignment with the aesthetically experimental but politically conservative writings of Scott is perhaps not surprising in a book suspicious of straight ahead, Whiggish versions of the archaeological imagination, whether at the time or since, say in the writings of Stuart Piggott. The attractions of Scott's wide-ranging, Romantic antiquarian imagination are evident, in long quotations from his long poem Marmion (1808) with its "numerous digressions and anecdotes and what often seem to be pointless incidents" (a characteristic of The archaeological imagination too). Scott relished telling, or re-telling, stories of the Border conflicts but he regarded the union of the two Crowns as a precondition for envisioning the Borders as a region of antiquarian enquiry. Scott is valued in this book for writing as a regional insider and for mobilising a range of discourses, vernacular, satirical and so on. But in a book which is quick to spot the colonial and aristocratic sources of authority of another writer, William Gell, we should perhaps note those of Scott: "inhabitant, magistrate, popular writer, collector, landowner, Member of the local yeomanry, literary antiquarian, witness". To be sure these are multiple roles, but still performatively Tory 'acts of union'.

This chapter provoked me to read the works of the writer Shanks sets up as Scott's antithesis, his friend William Gell, in an excursion from its Borders focus to Gell's writings on the Classical world. Gell is seen by Shanks to have a conventionally topographical rather than creatively topological imagination, meaning he took a largely detached, observational, factual, pictorial view of landscapes as opposed to the spatial 'folding' of time, place and people in Scott's works. This I reckon misrepresents Gell as a man of reason not imagination and the complexity of his writing and image making. Principally through the work of Sam Smiles, we now appreciate the scope and complication of documentary delineation, in words and pictures at this time, finding the spatialities, even topologies, of maps, diagrams, panoramas, vignettes and coastal profiles.

One of the powers of Gell's books is how laconic they are, as records of cultural encounters, of travelling experience as well as of places. And this goes for his account of Scott's visit to Pompeii, late in life, which is a great comic set piece, in which both friends played their part: "we succeeded in getting Sir Walter placed upon a heap of ruins, whence he might see the remains of the Temple of Serapis. His observation was, that we might tell him anything, and he would believe it all."