The Handbook of British Archaeology

Jacket of the new edition
Jacket of the new edition.

The Handbook of British Archaeology was our first book, and it was published in 1982. Over twenty-five years later, it has now been fully updated and expanded by a team of specialists. We give here a summary of the background to the book and what the revised version contains.

Jacket of the old edition
Jacket of the old edition.

Its History

Many years ago, too many to recall, we were working as field archaeologists in Milton Keynes, a new city that was then under construction and which needed archaeologists to ensure that everything was recorded before it was destroyed by the construction work. We were not long out of university and were frustrated by the lack of a decent reference book that would explain terms and techniques which we encountered every day in our work. There was not much to do in the evenings (the area was one huge building site), and we could not afford a TV, and so we naively plotted the idea of The Handbook of British Archaeology. Actually, our idea for a title was A Thesaurus of British Archaeology, as we wanted to give the impression that this was a treasury of terms and words, but with hindsight it was not the best title. We decided to write a book that would explain the numerous technical terms in archaeology – the jargon that can make people think they are excluded from the subject.

Neolithic flint leaf-shaped arrowhead
Neolithic flint leaf-shaped

Illustration of prehistoric flintworking
Illustration of prehistoric flintworking.

A lot of good archaeological books were then produced by different publishing houses, and so we looked at all the books we owned to see who might be interested in our idea. We initially wrote to Penguin, because we thought that our book would go well with their very general Dictionary of Archaeology. They disagreed and rejected us. We next wrote to Thames & Hudson (who were publishing a lot of archaeology in those days), and the editor loved the idea but could not get it past his committee. The third publisher we approached was David & Charles, and they were interested. We went to Newton Abbot to meet them on a bitterly cold November day in 1977, and were signed up. It was so much easier to get a publisher in those days, as you could contact them direct without having to go through a literary agent, and most commissioning editors were allowed to make their own decisions without having to convince their own marketing and sales departments. What is more surprising to us is that we were offered an advance of £1500, payable in three parts – £500 on signing the contract, £500 on delivery of the manuscript and £500 on publication. Over thirty years later, we are still approached by publishers who offer us less than this figure to write full-length books!

Its Writing

It took us three years to research and write the book using all our spare time. Fortunately, we moved from Milton Keynes to London and so had access to some of the major archaeological libraries, and we literally looked at every single book and journal that was available on British archaeology and archaeological techniques. We decided to exclude Ireland, because the archaeology there is so different, and it really needed a separate book. What may be horrifying to many of you was that this was a time before home computers, a time before the internet, the world wide web, mobile phones and all the other paraphernalia of modern life. Notes in libraries were therefore done by hand, and at home everything was typed up on a manual typewriter. The keys on a manual typewriter offer much heavier resistance than those of a computer keyboard, and so the process was physically exhausting. All the drawings were done with Rotring pens and ink on drafting film, and the index was compiled manually using hundreds of index cards.

Inside the Neolithic long barrow at West Kennet, Wiltshire
Inside the Neolithic long
barrow at West Kennet.

Prehistoric cup and ring marks on Long Meg standing stone, Cumbria
Prehistoric cup and ring marks on Long Meg
standing stone, Cumbria.

Bronze Age perforated stone macehead
Bronze Age perforated stone macehead.

The book was published in hardcover by David & Charles in the UK and by Barnes & Noble in the US, and then the paperback rights were sold to Macmillan, who printed it under the new title of The Handbook of British Archaeology. After a while, they let it go out of print, and Constable (now Constable & Robinson) took it on. We really had no idea how widely the book was being used, but gradually people told us that it was a key text for students. A review by Lynne Bevan in The Archaeologist in 2000 said that the book “saw me through my first degree, and accompanied me on many excavations. I still use it today, especially in teaching undergraduate, postgraduate and extra-mural students … the handbook is still essential reading.”

Updated and expanded edition

Constable & Robinson decided that a revised edition of the book was needed, but with the huge explosion of information in archaeology, we could no longer do this ourselves. Instead, they appointed Victoria Leitch at the University of Oxford to undertake the work, and she assembled a team of experts (who are cited below in the list of chapters). Under her direction, the text has been completely revised and expanded, and all the illustrations have been redrawn and new ones added. The illustrators were David Hopkins, Sarah M. Lucas and Lucy Martin. We originally had chapters on the main archaeological periods in Britain, from the Palaeolithic to the Medieval period, but a new chapter has been written on post-medieval archaeology. We also originally had two further chapters called “Archaeological Techniques” and “Miscellaneous”, but these have been replaced by three new chapters to cope with all the modern aspects of archaeology. The original book was 319 pages long, but the new one is 532 pages long, a substantial increase.

Illustration of an Iron Age coin
Illustration of an Iron Age coin.

Roman samian dish with a potter’s stamp
Roman samian dish with a potter’s stamp.

The Good Book Guide (October 2008) has praised the new book: “This is a substantial and authoritative guide to what we have unearthed about our nation’s history … It is so wide-ranging that it adds up to a one-stop shop for the real or would-be archaeologist, and is a reminder of how great a role the art and science of archaeology has played in the understanding of how we once lived.”

Excavating the Roman town of Caerwent in Wales
Excavating the Roman town
of Caerwent in Wales.

Human skeleton from Beddington Roman villa
Human skeleton from
Beddington Roman villa.

Stretch of Hadrian’s Wall near Cawfield Crags
Stretch of Hadrian’s Wall
near Cawfield Crags.

Available Rights

All rights for this book are handled by Constable & Robinson Ltd, 3 The Lanchesters, 162 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 9ER. Tel. 020 8741 3663.

The Roman ‘Saxon Shore fort’ at Portchester, Hampshire
The Roman ‘Saxon Shore fort’ at Portchester, Hampshire.

Illustration of a medieval street
Illustration of a medieval street.


The highly popular TV series “Time Team” has led to “geo-phys” becoming a very familiar term. This is an abbreviation of geophysical surveying, which is explained on pages 359–61 of the new book. This is part of that explanation:

Resistivity meters are used to measure the variable resistivity of soils – that is, the amount of resistance to the flow of electricity within it. A soil’s resistivity is a product of the amount of moisture in the soil and its distribution. It varies considerably, and these
variations can reflect the presence of buried archaeological features. Ditches and pits, for example, hold a greater amount of moisture than the surrounding natural soil, and are thus less resistant, whereas solid features like walls are more resistant. A resistivity meter consists of metal probes which have a current passed between them while they are inserted into the soil. The resistivity of the soil to that current is recorded … Ground penetrating radar (GPR) is another tool used by archaeologists to search for archaeological features beneath the topsoil. GPR works by sending high-frequency radar pulses from an antenna into the ground. Buried materials or sediments and changes in the subsoil reflect the radar pulses back up to the antenna, and by measuring the time elapsed between when the pulses were sent and when they were received, an understanding of the changes in soils, sediments and features can be gained. GPR surveys can be hindered by factors such as extremely wet soil and surface vegetation ….

Carved stone Saxon crosses at Sandbach in Cheshire
Carved stone Saxon crosses at
Sandbach in Cheshire.

Medieval tithe barn at Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire
Medieval tithe barn at Great Coxwell, Oxfordshire.

The world’s first iron bridge, of 1779, at Coalbrookdale
The world’s first iron bridge, of
1779, at Coalbrookdale.


Chapter 1 – The Palaeolithic Period (by Alexander Lang and Paul Preston)
Chapter 2 – The Mesolithic Period (by Paul Preston)
Chapter 3 – The Neolithic Period (by John Pouncett)
Chapter 4 – The Bronze Age (by Ben Roberts)
Chapter 5 – The Iron Age (by Meredith Carroll and Alexander Lang)

Chapter 6 – The Roman Period (by Matthew Symonds)
Chapter 7 – The Early Medieval Period (by Duncan Sayer)
Chapter 8 – The Medieval Period (by Duncan Sayer with Chris King)
Chapter 9 – The Post-Medieval period (by Chris King)
Chapter 10 – Archaeological Techniques (by Peter Bray and Catherine Frieman)
Chapter 11 – Archaeological Materials and Remains (by Catherine Frieman and Peter Bray)
Chapter 12 – Archaeological Specialisms, Organisations and Legislation (by Peter Bray and Catherine Frieman)

Some Reviews

‘OK, so this isn’t – strictly speaking – a dictionary, but it’s too good not to sneak in here [in a list of the top five best archaeology dictionaries]. It’s as close as you’ll get to a reference dictionary/encyclopedia that is portable enough for field trips around Britain. The Handbook of British Archaeology has been an indispensable guide for archaeologists – both professional and amateur – as well as students and heritage professionals for more than 25 years. This latest full revised edition was released in 2008 … It’s a clear no-nonsense tool’ (Lynette Eyb,

‘It contains a vast amount of information, with long bibliography and index, and will be welcomed by enthusiasts needing help with their busta burials, girdle hangers and tubular ferrules’ (Mike Pitts, British Archaeology)

‘Revising the original publication is the main objective of the new edition, and this has been admirably achieved by incorporating the huge technical advances within the past few decades and the vast knowledge set … this book covers some 711,000 years of Prehistory and history, and the way in which this huge chronological swathe is categorised and ordered makes this work especially easy to digest … This excellent book has justifiably become one of the must-have manuals of British archaeology and is a familiar sight on many bookshelves. Long may it continue to be published and revised’ (Mark Merrony, Minerva)

‘a well-documented reference book which you could happily open up at any page to find something totally absorbing’ (Edinburgh Evening News)

‘For non-archaeologists who do not have bookshelves lined with academic archaeological reference works, understandable answers to most questions in archaeology will be found in this weighty tome, and this reviewer, who is but a simple metal-detectorist, recommends it highly’ (The Searcher)

‘a fully updated and revised edition of this bestselling guide to British archaeology … For over 25 years this book has been the foremost guide to archaeological methods, artefacts and monuments, providing clear explanations of all specialist terms used by archaeologists. This completely revised and updated edition is packed with the latest information and now includes the most recent developments in archaeological science. Meticulously researched, every section has been extensively updated by a team of specialists … The Handbook of British Archaeology is the most comprehensive resource book available and is essential for anyone with an interest in the subject’ (Treasure Hunting magazine)

‘It is always difficult to recommend a good introduction book on British archaeology, but the answer could well be A Thesaurus of British Archaeology [now known as The Handbook of British Archaeology] … It deserves to have a wide success’ (Current Archaeology)

‘This is a narrative-style glossary of archaeology … this second edition is fully updated in every respect, with the sections on techniques greatly expanded. The chronological chapters have now been rewritten by specialists in each field, a testament to the massive expansion of archaeology as a discipline in the last 30 years, something now fully reflected in this excellent and ever-popular guide’ (Oxbow Books)

‘How do you tell a Levallois from a late-mesolithic axehead? A Roman melon bead from a medieval loomweight? The answers to these and a thousand other questions are to be found in this eminently practical, functional field guide … The Adkins’ book first appeared a quarter of a century ago. This second edition has not come a moment too soon’ (The Scotsman)

‘This is a substantial and authoritative guide to what we have unearthed about our nation’s history, and how we have unearthed it … It is so wide-ranging that it adds up to a one-stop shop for the real or would-be archaeologist’ (The Good Book Guide)