Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.28

Laurence Bowkett, Stephen Hill, Diana Wardle, Ken A. Wardle, Classical archaeology in the field: approaches. Classical World Series.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2001.  Pp. 138.  ISBN 1-85399-617-3.  £8.99.  

Reviewed by Nicolas Beaudry, Université de Montréal (
Word count: 903 words

Among a wealth of introductions to field archaeology available in Britain, Classical archaeology in the field comes as a welcome initiative in considering conditions that are different from those of professional archaeology. The book is written for British A-level and undergraduate students by four field archaeologists, offering different "approaches" through projects in which they have been personally involved. An "Introduction" is followed by chapters on "The development of classical archaeology" (Chapter 2), "Project development" (3), "Archaeological prospecting" (4), "Excavation" (5), "Recording the site and finds" (6), and "Study, analysis and presentation" (7); a short section on "How to become an archaeologist" is followed by "Suggestions for further readings" and by an index.

Though they take a position on a number of issues, the authors avoid being overtly prescriptive on field methods and provide instead different "approaches" through historical narratives or through the juxtaposition of "case studies" taken from their own experience. The book is thus an introductory portrait of classical field archaeology rather than a manual. It provides an optimistic, but sensible overview of the discipline and of "how the work of discovery proceeds and how the new information acquired is interpreted" (p.1). As such, it will be of interest to students of classics and to prospective or first year students of archaeology, in Britain and abroad.

On fieldwork proper, the discussion of individual issues is generally sound and relatively detailed; the conditions of classical field archaeology are underlined, from funding and staffing a project abroad to the effects on soils of the Mediterranean sun. The general emphasis in Chapter 5 is on caution; a definition of excavation in which one is taught to look for change after removing a spit (p. 67) is thus a little clumsy. Chapter 6 stresses the importance of recording, and notes that it should be completed "while the evidence still exists" (p. 76) and have priority over excavation. The structure of the book itself, however, reflects a more traditional approach in which excavation and removal of evidence come first and dominate (Chap. 5), while its recording comes next (Chap. 6); the structure and formation processes of the evidence are discussed even later (Chap. 7).1

Recording implies a key conceptual difference between "description" and "interpretation", which is illustrated through examples taken as "self-explanatory" (p. 77). It is unfortunate that a filled "context" record sheet (fig. 78-79) is also taken as "self-explanatory", for it could have supported a discussion of the nature and potential of the descriptive record, without which it may look like a pointless bureaucratic exercise. An alternative recording method, based on finds volume, is added to the standard, "context"-based record; while it does contribute an alternative "approach", one wishes the latter had been described earlier and in more detail as it is the one that beginners are most likely to meet on British excavations, in the U.K. or abroad. Without proper background, this alternative method actually evokes a more traditional, finds-oriented archaeology.

The authors readily confess that classical archaeology has taken decades to catch up with "stratigraphic excavation" (p. 107-108); it is thus ironic that stratigraphy is tackled here with post-excavation analysis. Formation processes are discussed within a sequence of "construction", "use" and "destruction/decay" which, though relevant, excludes non-architectural deposits such as garden soils and ploughsoils. An imaginary section proposed to the reader as a vertical stratigraphic exercise lacks the descriptive background essential for the proposed solution (p. 111); above all, the reader is left without an introduction to the most useful analytic tool, the stratigraphic matrix.

The book is generally well illustrated, save for one or two poor graphics. Chapter 4 ends with a relevant exercise on the possibilities and limits of remote sensing, but surveying is illustrated by traversing, which is hardly explained and will be esoteric to a beginner (p. 49).2 The "case studies" are often brought piecemeal by the authors; phrases such as "as at Çiftlik" bring little more than a claim for first-hand experience. By sticking to their experience, the authors actually limited the scope of the book to Britain, Greece and Turkey; further study material is proposed on a Website, but the address provided (p. 1) is either misspelled or dead.3 By failing to merge their individual experiences and to agree on a coherent set of concepts (or on a coherent use of the words "context" and "feature"), the authors do provide a certain range of "approaches" but they fail to clearly define a strong theoretical and methodological frame for field archaeology. It may not have been their intention to come up with a manual, but this undercuts their claim to a scientific approach (e.g. p. 4).

Classical field archaeology has long lagged behind other archaeologies, and its conservatism is part of the image delivered by the book. Still, it pictures a healthy discipline, open to different "approaches", thus to debate and to change; above all, it portrays classical archaeology as a full sub-discipline of archaeology, rather than as a companion to the classics or to art history. As an overview, it is well worth including on reading lists for students of classics; to students of archaeology, and to students wishing to work with field data, it will provide an interesting classical perspective on field archaeology, provided that they rely on a proper manual to further their theoretical and methodological training. The book remains a worthy introduction, and it demonstrates the need for a full-sized manual of classical field archaeology.


1.   For a different approach, see e. g. S. Roskams, Excavation, CUP 2001.
2.   Moreover, the surveyor's data lacks a final reading on the benchmark, from which the final error is to be plotted; the height of the level itself is irrelevant. In the discussion of radiocarbon dating (Chap. 7), read C12 for C13 (p. 122).
3.   On the other hand, the following URL does work:; when last visited in January 2003, its "latest additions" dated to November 2001.

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