Grounded: a journey into the landscapes of our ancestors


Grounded is a book that will divide opinion. Rarely as a reviewer have I read something that I was so unsure about at the end. It is a highly personal travelogue through the archaeology of south and east England, primarily in East Anglia and, to a lesser extent, in Wessex, especially Wiltshire. It ranges widely in time and place, visiting sites from prehistory to the present day, including everything from modern-day churches to Bronze Age burial mounds. It also includes much insight into the life of the author as part of his reflections on the place of historic sites – especially ‘landscape’ sites like barrows, as places of continuity of sacred practice down the ages, including as locations for pilgrimage and connection to our ancestors – as well as his observations on the connection of people to the natural environment in the past and present.

Ostensibly, it ticks every box of good writing about the past: it references the works of some of the most distinguished of archaeologists, and also includes some wonderful pen-and-ink drawings of the archaeological sites mentioned. The hesitancy in my review comes in its style, which some will love, and others will hate. Canton is Director of Wild Writing at the University of Essex, and the book reflects the popular modern-day literary style, very different from traditional archaeological narratives, in the mode of nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane. At its best, the book benefits hugely from this approach – it has a natural flow that pulls the reader along, making it easy to read. At its worst, though, this style – at least to an archaeological ear – can feel jarring and self-absorbed: ‘more on the past, less on the present, please’ was my repeated inner cry.

But ultimately this is a matter of personal taste, and even I, with my cynic’s eye and ear, was drawn into a book that felt like the kind of easy-going conversation about old ways between old places that might be had with a friend on a long country walk. I might not like everything that was said and the ways of its saying, but I was glad nonetheless for the journey.

James Canton
Canongate Books, £18.99
ISBN 978-1838855871