Anyone for Writing? (Special Section)

By Betty, Peter Kemmis | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Anyone for Writing? (Special Section)


Betty, Peter Kemmis, Antiquity


`The universal interest in the past is perfectly natural. It is the interest in life itself. There was a time when archaeology was voted a dull subject, fit only for dry-as-dusts; yet it was not the subject that was dull, but its exponents. Those days are over.'

Thus O.G.S. Crawford in his Editorial Notes for the very first number of ANTIQUITY 75 years ago. However admirable, this missionary zeal is far from universal among present-day archaeologists; moreover, the present-day funding of; archaeology, though lavish compared with Crawford's day, is in danger of quenching the missionary flame even when it exists. Crawford was, of course, thinking primarily of journal articles as the medium for accessible communication; to these could be added not only books and newspapers but, today, TV and the internet. However, it is the success or otherwise of the book in making archaeology exciting on which I wish to concentrate, as it is only through book publishing that I have had serious contact with the world of archaeology. To be even more specific, since I have been involved, one way or another, in publishing archaeological books for 30 years, I shall be confining myself to my own direct experience of the opportunities and difficulties involved.

It is only in the last 15 years of this period that I have become increasingly convinced of the need for more widely accessible books--and correspondingly concerned about the difficulty in commissioning appropriate authors. So what follows is, from one perspective, a shameless appeal to archaeologists who share Crawford's vision to make my life as a publisher easier. However, at the same time I do believe that a response to this appeal would be in the interest of British archaeology as a whole.

To explain this self-serving assertion I fear I need to indulge in a little ancient history. Despite reading Classics at Cambridge my interest in archaeology did not begin until some 10 years later. At that time I was employed as an editor at B.T. Batsford, largely working on a series of British Battles. The (chronologically) first volume in this series, The Roman Conquest of Britain, was authored by two academics from the University of Birmingham--one of them Graham Webster. A few years later Graham, like Crawford a natural enthusiast, somehow managed to convince me that there was room in-the market for another archaeology publisher.

As a result Graham was appointed as our Archaeology Adviser, with a brief to locate authors who could produce works of major importance, whether monographs or textbooks, and by the mid 1970s we were publishing such titles as Roman towns in Britain and Techniques of archaeological excavation by Philip Barker. Additionally we were soon publishing titles aimed primarily at the extramural student or amateur, such as Graham Webster's own book Boudica. In 1990 Graham Webster was succeeded by Professor Michael Fulford and by the time I left Batsford some five years later (when this list was sold to Routledge) about 100 titles had been published.

The raison d'etre of these books was first and foremost to give a platform to professional archaeologists, in support of their teaching activities. However, in 1988 the perspective of the list was to change significantly. Stephen Johnson, then the Publisher at English Heritage, was searching for a commercial partner to produce a series of more popular archaeology titles (having failed to persuade his own organization to rise to the challenge). The idea was that authors would incorporate the latest research, much of it funded by English Heritage, but would write for a market that would encompass a typical English Heritage or National Trust member.

English Heritage committed themselves to an initial six titles and the following year we published Stephen Johnson's Hadrian's Wall and Aveburyby Caroline Malone. I don't think English Heritage ever formally approved an extension of the series, but Stephen and I interpreted their commitment as `six titles at a time' and over the next 10 years published some 50 titles. …

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