In the Land of Giants: Interview with Max Adams

Ever wondered what it is really like to view the world from an Anglo-Saxon perspective? Want to know how Aelfred defeated the Vikings? Just look at the landscape, argues archaeologist Max Adams.

Alex (A) interviewed Adams (MA) on his recently published book, Aelfred’s Britain: Life and Death in the Viking Age (Head of Zeus, E. Book, available at £9.99), how archaeology and history should relate and what drew him to uncovering past societies in the soils of the British Isles.

Max Adams 1
Frontpiece of Adam’s most recent publication.

Recent Book

A: Your recent book, Aelfred’s Britain, reveals a fascination with Britain in the early middle ages. Why do you think this period is still relevant to a modern reading public?

MA: What I especially like about the early medieval period is that the rules of western politics are being constructed in this period; the way power works now might seem a little more sophisticated, but it isn’t really. 

Patronage, land and legitimacy are the currency.  And if one looks at comparisons between the ages, the effect of the Vikings in many ways look like the effect of Isis if, ultimately, it was more benign.  The lessons are there to be learned.

A: It is evident, from the many surviving monuments, that the Victorians were obsessed with Alfred the Great. Why do you think this 9th century king appealed to the mentality of 19th century Britain?

MA: Victorian imperialist patriarchs liked the idea of the noble savage learning his letters, reading philosophy and educating the masses (at least that’s what they liked to think Aelfred was up to). 

The idea that the English monarchy rested on foundations built by such a man and that he somehow legitimised and prepared the ground for an English, then British empire, was very attractive to both Whig and Tory historians.

A: In your book, you construct a ‘tube map’ showing travel routes used by Vikings moving around Britain. How important do you think visualising ideas is for formulating academic theory?

MA: I think it’s vital; that’s why I spend so much time sailing and walking around Britain’s sea and landscapes, and poring over maps.  Theory must have a context and shape; and as a framework for experimenting with ideas about how the past works, political and physical geography provides many structural components.

Relationship between archaeology and history

A: How do you think the disciplines of history and archaeology should interact?

MA: Personally I like not to have a boundary between them: for me they are tools from the same box; slightly different in the way we handle them, but both subject to rules of critical analysis, rigour and peer scrutiny. 

As it happens, they meld rather well in the study of coinage, which has elements of both and provides a beautifully dispassionate voice where the historical narrative runs out and where archaeology fails to deliver chronological precision.

Max Adams 4
In 2013, Max Adams produced a biography of St Oswald of Northumbria. Adams argues Oswald’s achievements have been underrated and are in need of reappraisal.

A: Being an archaeologist, would you propose archaeology can provide more in terms of creating the historical narrative?

MA: No, I’m not partisan.  I am comfortable with the archaeological universe, which is so rich.  What we can say is that archaeology has yet to deliver its full potential; that there is plenty more out there that will enable us to fill in many, many gaps.

A: How do you feel both disciplines contribute to wider society?

MA: There are many aphorisms about learning from the past – if we forget it, we are condemned to repeat all our mistakes… etc.  But politicians are usually lawyers, not historians.  A pity.


A: It is evident you are a passionate archaeologist. Was there a moment or event which encouraged you to follow this vocation?

MA: It’s hard to say: I had determined on that career by the time I was 11; I went on my first dig at 14 and was never going to study anything else at university.  Archaeology is what I am.

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In this book, published in 2015, Adams argues in order to enter into the mindset of our ancestors, we need to approach the landscape from their perspective.

A: Archaeologists have the opportunity to excavate all over the world. Why did you choose Britain?

MA: I like the smell of the soil, especially in autumn.  I feel rooted to this part of the globe, although I have also dug in Arizona (hot; snakes; scorpions) and France (good food and wine; no dart boards)

A: What advice would you provide to aspiring archaeology students?

MA: Don’t expect to get rich: do it for the love of it and for the intellectual excitement.

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