Last word on Current Archaeology celebrating a new milestone

Andrew Selkirk, Current Archaeology’s founder and Editor-in-chief, marks the magazine’s latest milestone, and looks to the future.

Is it really CA 400? Was it really 56 years ago that we launched a new magazine called Current Archaeology? Were we really rash enough to send it out to 5,000 names that I had collected, offering a subscription of six issues a year for the princely sum of £1? We held our breath – but on the very next day, 28 subscriptions came in. Each had a cheque for £1 – and we faced an immediate problem: they were all made out to ‘Current Archaeology’, and we had not registered the name with the bank. We hurriedly did so, and by the time the second magazine came out we had 1,000 subscriptions. It had worked! We were the proud publishers of an archaeological magazine.

From then on, Wendy and I spent our time chasing up articles, driving furiously round the country in our Dormobile to visit excavations, meet the archaeologists, and write up their stories. We always aimed to do three digs a day, and in the evening we would find a convenient spot to write up the reports and camp for the night. Every year we also aimed to get up into Scotland, where the archaeology felt exciting and slightly exotic – we liked raiding Scotland.

Computers have changed everything in the publishing world, but in those early days putting the magazine together was very different. We sent the text to the printers, who sent back galleys – long strips of paper with a column of text printed on it. Illustrations went to a block-maker who prepared a sheet of copper with a wooden backing. We then ‘pasted up’ (literally, using glue) the galleys on a large sheet of paper, and sent it off to the printers, who put the corrected proofs and the blocks together by hammering them into position. The compositors worked so speedily that they would often hold a row of nails between their teeth, ready for use.

On press day we would go to our printers at Bletchley, where we supervised the final layout. They gave us a book with samples of all the typefaces they had, and we had great fun choosing them for the headlines. We loved using a different typeface for each article, and if you look at those early editions they are an eclectic set – though this is all quite wrong, of course, and sure to prompt shudders from professional designers. I do not think our readers minded the lack of uniformity, though, and it all added to the crazy excitement of those early issues. When the magazine was finally put to bed, late in the evening, we drove back to our home in Hampstead, stopping on the way for fish and chips at our favourite café.

The long-suffering Bletchley Press taught us so much. I remember having a long argument with their typesetter over the spelling of ‘supercede’ or ‘supersede’. He won, of course – never argue about spelling with a typesetter! (I still can’t remember which is right). We were introduced to the printers by John and Jackie Rotheroe, another young couple settling out in the publishing world, with the wonderful series of Shire Publications. They helped us so much in those early issues, and also found us our first designer to ensure that the magazine was properly laid out. This was Reg Bass, who worked on the Daily Mirror twice a week, and laid out elegant magazines in his spare time. That first issue of CA was a stunner: Reg created a splendid cover page with the big bold ‘Current Archaeology’ at the top, in a daring new sans serif typeface that lasted us for our first 100 issues.

left Trimming the cover of issue 1 of Current Archaeology.
Trimming the cover of issue 1 of Current Archaeology.

A colourful past

The whole magazine was initially in black and white, but we could just afford to have one splash of colour on the front page. Then, with CA 100, everything changed. The price for colour printing had been falling, and we were able to afford eight pages of colour. A 32-page magazine (as we were then) is printed on just two sheets, with eight pages on each side, so we could have one side of one sheet in colour. It became a great jiggle to decide which articles had colour pages – but soon we were able to up this to 16 pages, and then the whole magazine. Today, the layouts are all done in-house by our wonderful Art Editor, Mark Edwards, who has been with us for 15 years and makes all of Current Publishing’s magazines beautiful.

Bringing the designs in-house was made possible by the rise of computers – today, our printers (now based in Wolverhampton) receive whole issues as a PDF. I have always been a computer enthusiast; they are wonderful for my style of writing, which involves lots of changes. They have also revolutionised how we process subscriptions and input addresses – once an epic task for me, in the beginning, but now all done by magic by our son Alexander.

And how has Current Archaeology changed over time? From the start, we have aimed to be a ‘news’ magazine, telling you what is ‘current’ in the field, and we were fortunate to launch in what proved to be a golden age of excavation, with exciting discoveries at sites including Winchester, Fishbourne, Durrington Walls, and South Cadbury. (See Joe Flatman’s column this month for more on the evolution of archaeology as told through the pages of CA.)

Moving to the present, recent decades have seen the rise and huge success of commercial archaeology: vast numbers of excavations have taken place to a very high standard, and great quantities of new data have been added to archaeology – though these professional projects are not as accessible to the public as the early days of digging, and too many results still languish in ‘grey literature’, unseen and unknown. It would be good to see more connections with local societies, and with larger communities like the Society of Antiquaries. At our own annual conference (which this year returned as an in-person event for the first time since 2020), more than 400 archaeologists and members of the public eagerly come together to hear the latest news, which includes discoveries from some of the major units.

And as for the future: archaeology magazines like CA must guard against the evaporation of our market. We appeal to what I call the ‘middle market’; not particularly to the professionals and academics (who read us nevertheless, because they need to know what is going on), nor indeed to the general population. I like to think that the heartland of popular archaeological publishing lies in between, with people who explore the past for its own sake, and who are prepared to spend their own money on their favourite pursuit. They form the local societies, they write the local histories, and they need to keep up with the commercial discoveries that are helping to transform these narratives.

CA’s international sister magazine, Current World Archaeology, is proving a great success across the pond, where we now have more subscribers than we do in Britain. I believe that this popularity is down to the fact that we never talk down to our readers; we must always remember that you are probably more intelligent than we are, probably earn lots more money than we do, and it is our humble duty to assemble the news for your delectation.

right Issue 4’s cover, featuring Barry Cunliffe’s excavation at Portchester, appeared in a lot of CA’s early advertising.
Issue 4’s cover, featuring Barry Cunliffe’s excavation at Portchester, appeared in a lot of CA’s early advertising.

New ventures

Finally, how am I? I am now 86, I can no longer walk very far, but I am otherwise surprisingly well. Our other son, Robert, has taken over as Managing Director of Current Publishing; our stable of magazines has expanded (most recently acquiring Ancient Egypt); and each title now has its own editor, so I am kicked upstairs to be Editor-in-chief, which means retired. I am therefore spending my retirement doing what every good archaeologist should do in retirement: that is, writing a book to put the world to rights.

My book is called Money and Freedom, and sets about reorganising the Greeks and Romans. I argue that the secret behind the Greek civilisation was the invention of money. Money gives you choice, choice leads to freedom, freedom leads to innovation, and it is this freedom and innovation that produced the Greek miracle. My narrative begins with the Minoans, who represent the world before money, centred around the palace or temple, where the ruler became very rich from the tribute of his people. The Greek model was very different: their cities were centred around the marketplace, where the Greeks invented democracy as well as philosophy, drama, history, and the modern world.

As for the Romans, they built up a great empire not so much by making war, but by making peace. They turned their enemies into allies, adopting the market economy (along with so many other ideas) from the Greeks and making it work. They also practiced a sort of democracy, but that did not work very well – I explore the paradox of how Rome flourished in spite of this. It is a book about philosophy and economics, as well archaeology, providing a new explanation for one of the major revolutions in history. When it appears, I hope you will all enjoy it. It contains plenty of provocative ideas – you will doubtless disagree with some of them, but I hope it will make you think, and that you enjoy the ride.

Can I end by thanking you all for being the most important part of Current Archaeology: our readers. Thank you for teaching me so much, for all your tolerance of my shortcomings, for putting up with my teasing, and for all the friendship that you have extended to me for so long.

Thank you!