On the Spot: Barry Cunliffe

‘From an early age I couldn’t conceive of life without being an archaeologist.’ 

An illustration from the Mahabharata. Nepal, c. 1800. Christies/Wiki Commons.

Why are you an archaeologist?

Because from an early age I couldn’t conceive of life without being an archaeologist.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?

That humans are amazingly adaptable. 

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

Grahame Clark’s Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

The visit of Alexander to the Oracle of Amon at Siwa.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Fernand Braudel.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

Pytheas of Massalia, who, in about 320 BC, explored the Atlantic fringes of Europe and may even have seen Iceland.

How many languages do you have?

Far too few. 

What is the most common misconception about your field? 

That archaeology is a trivial pastime and an easy option.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

I used to believe that Celtic languages developed in Central Europe and spread west. I now think they originated in the Atlantic fringes of Europe.

Which genre of history do you like least?

History led by kings and battles. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

The study of ancient DNA, which, properly interpreted using archaeological input, can give us an objective understanding of population movements.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

The Mahabharata.

What’s your favourite archive?

The countryside.

What’s the best museum?

One that presents all humanity in its interconnectedness. The one coming closest to this ideal is the British Museum.

What technology has changed the world the most?

That which gave us the ability to navigate the sea. This has allowed humans to bind the planet in a network of connectivity.

The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

The Mediterranean. 

Historical drama or documentary?

Historical drama. At least you are in no doubt that much of it is fiction. 

The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

The Parthenon.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Ignoring, for too long, the dual threats of population growth and climate change.