‘Three Stones Make a Wall’, an Introduction to Archaeology, Struggles Against Its Genre Boundaries

The blur that this book will "engage all readers no matter what their background", I'm afraid, I find myself constrained to differ.

Eric H. Cline’s Three Stones Make a Wall will feel familiar to consumers of literary pop science. It is at heart an essay in popularisation, with archaeology as its object and purpose, written (of course) by an experienced and distinguished archaeologist. I say it will feel familiar because the book meets every staple of the genre: it’s a self-avowed introduction to a complex academic field, it’s broad-ranging, and it tries — not without a little bit of struggle — to be as accessible and entertaining as it can.

Divided into six main chapters that cover archaeological topics from paleoanthropology (the study of the Stone Age) to Old and New World archaeology, the book lays out a pleasingly readable survey of the main sites in the field. It also covers the fascinating stories of some of the most important practitioners of the science, from pioneers like Heinrich Schliemann and John Lloyd Stephens, through to more modern figures like Mary Leakey and George Bass.

That this book makes for effective pop science is also its crucial limit. I’m not sure if Cline was aiming to write for anyone other than casual readers with a pre-existing interest in the field, so it may even be appropriate to close off this review simply by saying that said reader will find what s/he is looking for here. But about the blurb claiming that the book will “engage all readers no matter what their background”, I find myself constrained to differ.

Cline is obviously a very experienced archaeologist, but he’s not an overly engaging story-teller. He doesn’t particularly help himself by trying to narrate three different stories, usually all in the same chapter: that of the ancient people being excavated, that of the archaeologists conducting the excavations, and his own experience in the field.

The result is a little bit muddled. It’s not hard to follow or stylistically sluggish, but it certainly doesn’t make for a gripping read, either. Unfortunately, the first section of the book is by far the weakest. Dedicated to the pioneers of archaeological studies who worked approximately 150 to 100 years ago, part one goes on for almost a third of the book, trying to show how archaeology emerged as a science in Western culture. The writing here is poorly paced and uneven, jumping back and forth between ancient history and the characters who unearthed it.

That this part of the book should be the least entertaining is astonishing, as the life-stories of the scientists in question are chock-full of daring expeditions in the desert, in jungles, and at sea. But Cline, while not terribly adept at conveying a sense of adventure, is very skilled indeed at writing informative expositions.

Thus, Three Stones Make a Wall really comes to life only after those first one-hundred pages. In the subsequent parts of the book, Cline swoops over some exemplary sites and discoveries from central Africa, Egypt, Greece, Italy, the Middle East and the Americas, and looks at them schematically, explaining what they yielded and why they were significant.

The writing here is much more orderly and, in my opinion at least, a lot more interesting too. It’s also interspersed with some (often delightful) shorter chapters, which illustrate how archaeology works in practice, explaining among other things the best ways to dig and search for a site. This type of writing, which is less about profiling past characters and more about teaching archaeology to newcomers, is patently where Cline feels most at home (which comes as no surprise, this being the man’s actual job).

Alas, the approach to this subject might have been planned quite differently. The contents of that long first section could have been integrated into the other parts, since they cover the same geographical locations and historical periods. The book’s pretensions about trying to delineate ‘The Story of Archaeology’, as the subtitle goes, might have been toned down. It would have been better to choose between writing an introduction to archaeology or a history of the discipline, rather than trying to do both at the same time (intuitive as that may sound in retrospect).

It should also be mentioned that there is no talk — literally none at all — of any archaeological studies done in India, South-East Asia, China, Japan or Australia (with the exception of a single, cursory mention of the Terracotta Army in Xi’an). I appreciate that an equally detailed look at these territories might have made the approach unwieldy, but a brief overview would benefit the text.

Three Stones Make a Wall is by no means a bad piece of work, and readers looking to introduce themselves to archaeology will probably find what they are looking for. Those who were hoping for a new pop science classic, however, or those who are just looking for a pastime read, might do best to look elsewhere.

RATING 5 / 10