Book review: Eric Cline’s gripping Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology

Three Stones Make a Wall sets straight romantic notions while explaining the fascination with archaeology, particularly when Cline digs into more recent excavations.

Howard Carter opens the doors of the second of four gold shrines surrounding the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun. The discovery of the tomb is one of the most dramatic moments in archaeology. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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It's practically a prerequisite now that all general-­audience books on the history of archaeology begin with some kind of retelling of the discipline's single most dramatic moment, and Eric Cline, George Washington University professor of classics and anthropology, doesn't disappoint in his terrific new book Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology. He's not half a dozen pages along before he tells his readers about Howard Carter.

In November of 1922 in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, Carter, who’d been searching for an unspoilt tomb for five years, had finally found one: the inner tomb of the boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun. On the 26th, for the first time, he squeezed a candle through the preliminary tomb opening and squinted into the darkness, feeling hot, ancient trapped air escaping past his face and nearly guttering his light. When his aristocratic patron Lord Carnarvon finally asked him if he could see anything, Carter, just beginning to make out the fantastic animal shapes and the glint of gold in the darkness, responded: “I see wonderful things.” (This is Cline’s paraphrase – which seems like an odd thing to do, since we have Carter’s own account of his exact words, but perhaps our author liked the sound of his own version better.)

No modern account of archaeology’s history is complete without Carter’s “wonderful things”, and yet every one of those modern accounts, Cline’s included, goes on to illustrate how odd the great Carter moment was, how little it actually represents anything that archaeology does. Yes, Carter’s find came about as a result of years of patient research and investigation (plus the usual amounts of physical hardship and liberal bribery), but virtually everything else about it is anomalous: Carter makes his find in front of an audience, in a single discreetly dramatised moment, and his find is in near-pristine condition, having been undisturbed for 3,000 years.

Most archaeological finds happen in the exact opposite way: piecemeal, through grunt work, far from watching crowds. The signature stage-light moments – Carter’s finding of Tut’s tomb; Heinrich Schliemann finding the treasures of buried Troy; Agatha Christie visiting the so-called “Death Pits of Ur” in modern-day Iraq; Basil Brown discovering the Sutton Hoo ship in Suffolk, England, in 1939; and even Robert Ballard discovering the wreck of the Titanic – enjoy their undeniable romantic allure more as exceptions than textbook cases.

Cline is certainly correct about the allure. Like other professionals, he has met many, many outsiders to the world of archaeology who wish they were insiders. They tell him: "You know, if I weren't a _____ (fill in the blank with doctor, lawyer, nurse, accountant, Wall Street financier, etc), I would have been an archaeologist." (Star Trek fans will know to add "starship captain" to that list, since the dream of Captain Jean-Luc Picard was to be an archaeologist.)

"Maybe they imagine searching for lost treasures, travelling to exotic locales, and meticulously digging using toothbrushes and dental tools," Cline speculates. "It's usually not like that at all, and most archeologists are nothing like Indiana Jones." Patient readers of books such as Three Stones Make a Wall politely refrain from pointing out that if writers of popular histories of archaeology weren't so quick to go straight to Howard Carter in his pith helmet and jodhpurs, maybe the average civilian would have a different view of what the discipline is really like. It would be useless in any case and perhaps counter-productive; Indiana Jones gets people in the door, and the hope is that some of them will stay for the grunt work.

Even so, if Cline relegates his own account of that grunt work to the rear of his book for fear of boring his readers, he underestimates his own considerable narrative gifts. No doubt echoing the experience of archeologists all over the world, he tells his readers that he’s most often confronted with the same small set of questions: How do you know where to dig? How do you date the things you find? Why haven’t they crumbled to dust after all this time?

Perhaps reflecting a long career in teaching, his answers to these simple questions are unfailingly as interesting as his recounting of famous digs in Herculaneum and Jericho. Beyond his drolly intimidating stock answer – “radiocarbon, Egyptian texts and other written records, synchronisms, dendrochronology, pottery typology, a plus/minus factor, and a willingness to acknowledge that none of it is fixed in stone” – he does a smoothly accessible job of explaining the basics of the archaeologist’s world.

But if a book such as Three Stones Make a Wall has a template, that template is surely 1949's Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte, written under the pen-name C W Ceram and translated into English as Gods, Graves and Scholars. The book became a phenomenal worldwide bestseller (it remains in print today), heavily influenced a young Cline, and set the pattern for all such popular accounts of archaeology: Ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Central and South America, picturesque digs, Howard Carter. And as much from homage as practicality, Cline doesn't stray far from that pattern in his own book, which indeed works well as a kind of modern update of Ceram's landmark account.

Cline takes advantage of the fact that he’s able to write about a vastly greater array of technological tools than anything available in Ceram’s day (although it’s interesting to notice how often things come down to toothbrushes in both cases), and of course he has later excavations to talk about as well.

One such excavation, at the heart of his book, took place at sea. In 1984, work began in earnest on the so-called Uluburun shipwreck, discovered by a sponge-diver off the coast of south-western Turkey in 1982 and soon to become the crowning glory in the career of George Bass, “the father of underwater archaeology”. Bass and his team conducted thousands of dives on the Uluburun wreck, gradually piecing together its complicated story. It had been a trading vessel that sank with its entire cargo around 1300BC (about 30 years after King Tut was buried in Egypt, Cline points out), and through painstaking research and recovery, the nature of that cargo was uncovered: ingots of copper, raw cobalt-blue glass, a ton of terebinth resin, fancy high-end pottery, elephant and hippopotamus ivory and tons of industrial tin. Cline is sensitive to the fact that each of these items had a long story of its own to tell: “The tin had traveled a long way already,” he writes, “for its origin was likely the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan, but its voyage wasn’t supposed to be over until it had reached the Aegean, mostly likely, although the sinking of the ship foiled that plan.”

Cline very expertly positions stories such as that of the Uluburun shipwreck to underscore the exciting, ongoing vitality of modern-day archaeology. His own sense of wonder seems much closer to the surface when he’s recounting more recent discoveries in which the efficiency of forensic science seems almost supernatural. When writing about Ötzi the Iceman, the 5,000-year-old frozen human cadaver found in the Alps in 1991, for example, Cline relates that specialists were able to determine the man’s age, height, weight, eye colour, season of death (pinpointed from the pollen found in his intestine), number of tattoos (61, the show-off), and last meal: red deer meat, bread and some plums. He’d also recently had some ibex steak. These forensic lab details, uncannily, only bolster that fantasy-wish to be an archaeologist – Cline somehow manages to make even strontium isotopes gripping.

Cline’s prose throughout is informed by an undercurrent of urgency that would have been familiar to his great predecessor Ceram, who had first-hand awareness of how brutal wartime can be to precious antiquities. Cline’s book appears at a time when archaeological sites throughout the Middle East and “stretching from Greece to Peru” are under physical attack “on a scale never seen before”.

For Cline, this raises a question he asserts "should concern all of us": "how we can stem the loss of knowledge about our shared past before it is too late." We can hope that books such as Three Stones Make a Wall play their part in stemming that loss.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.