Book review: The Search by John Henry Phillips

The Search by John Henry Phillips

There are no stories in archaeology. It’s the nature of the science. Rather than a continuous story it produces a series of snapshots through time, like a strobe light illuminating single pages of the past: a series of frozen tableaux stretching into the past.

As a writer writing about archaeology, this lack of stories is a problem I’ve struggled with. But John Henry Phillips confronts the problem head on, and brings two compelling stories into the heart of his new book. In this, he’s helped by this being the archaeology of the relatively recent past: the D-Day landings.

At a D-Day commemoration, Phillips found himself sharing a hotel room with D-Day veteran Patrick Thomas. The two men, a veteran in his 90s and the the 20something archaeologist, struck up a friendship and Phillips, acting from the heart and certainly not the head, vows to find the wreck of the landing craft that Thomas had been crewing, sunk by a mine off the coast of Normandy. Thomas was one of the few survivors. The promise was reckless for a number of reasons. The location of the sinking was not known. There was no reason to believe the boat had survived on the seabed. And, most obviously, Phillips had never done any marine archaeology before; in fact, he had never done any diving before.

The book interweaves the present-day archaeological search with the events leading up to and beyond D-Day. Both men, Philips and Thomas, are young in these accounts. The sailor becomes one of the crew of the landing craft, forging the sorts of bonds that men at war make. The archaeologist faces the burden of Thomas’s hopes, and the final settling of the guilt burdens that men of his generation carried silently after the war. And running as a thread between these stories is the archaeology: the difficult, painstaking and downright dangerous task of marine archaeology.

The three threads make for a thrilling narrative and Phillips emphatically proves that, yes, sometimes archaeology can have a story, particularly if cast into the hands of a masterful storyteller. In a final twist, [spoiler ahead] the book shows dramatically the provisional nature of archaeology and how archaeological dreams can collide with historical reality when the wreck that Phillips has found and dived proves not to have been Thomas’s landing craft after all.

The Search is a book that brings the reader into the heart of archaeology, to that place where it meets people and the lives they lived and died, and illuminates them all.


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