BMCR 2004.06.25

A Companion to Archaeology

, A companion to archaeology. Blackwell companion to archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 1 online resource (xxiv, 544 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 1405128879 $124.95.

The bibliography of archaeological theory and methods is ever growing and constantly evolving. Field manuals, readers in theory, and conference volumes centered on terminology and interpretation have appeared in a steady flow. A recent volume devotes itself to the relationship between archaeology and the ‘outside world’, while another to old and new world perspectives.1 The reception of such publications is mixed amongst classical archaeologists, as is their level of involvement as instructors and researchers. Some are more welcoming than others. Many meet the entire issue with a measure of suspicion laced with contempt. The book under review here, aptly entitled ‘a companion’, crosses disciplinary boundaries and places all archaeologies, classical and other, into a wider professional framework.

The book’s divisions are friendly and inviting: ‘Thinking About Archaeology’ (Part I); ‘Current Themes and Novel Departures’ (Part II); ‘Major Traditions in Archaeology in Contemporary Perspective’ (Part III); ‘Archaeology and the Public’ (Part IV). The introduction, authored by John Bintliff, the primary editor, mentions the need for a single volume of this type, separating it from the existing textbooks (e.g those of Greene or Renfrew/Bahn), as well as from postmodern/postprocessual publications failing ‘to represent the true range of intellectual approaches and ways of seeing that exist in the current discipline’ (xvii). His abbreviated comments on each of the following 27 chapters are an extremely good guide to content, approach, and inherent usefulness for individual readers. The contributors, mostly British, are based at a range of institutions from a handful of countries, including the UK, USA, Netherlands, and Australia. Several of the names will be familiar to classical readers (Morris, Layton, Shanks), as well as those versed in more theoretical matters (Bintliff, Sorensen). At the same time, a number of authors may well be unknown, and their subjects very little thought about. The themes vary from science and technology, to language and gender, and expectedly to art, anthropology, and politics.

Part I, comprising two chapters (Shennan, Thomas), continues in introductory mode. Readers are familiarized with some of archaeology’s past and present concerns and a hat tip is given to David Clarke’s Analytical Archaeology (1968). The relationship between field methods, interpretive methods, and the function of new information technologies comprise our current, general ‘thinking about archaeology’. Although the authors set individual agendas, as is clear throughout the book, there is a sense as we read on that no particular approach or attitude is consistently being presented here.

Part II gains momentum and the story builds quickly. Martin Jones’ “Archaeology and the Genetic Revolution” (39-51) is positively not to be missed. This is our first confrontation with archaeology and science, a theme permeating this book. Not only are we presented with some useful historical data about our own discipline, we learn the history of DNA research and its potential to inform the ancient record. Those interested in ethnicity, multiculturalism, and globalization are offered a fresh perspective here. Other chapters in this section, concerned with ‘current themes and novel departures’, address sociological and cultural issues we have come to expect: language (Blench), gender (Sorensen), social theory (Johnson), settlement (Fletcher) and community (Gerritsen), agency (Bintliff). To the more conservative scholarly set much of this might read like the stuff of neighboring departments: anthropology and/or ethnography, literary theory or art history. Perhaps more appealing to some is Kevin Greene’s “Archaeology and Technology” (155-173), where he calls for ‘greater integration between archaeology, anthropology, and the history of technology’ (156). He takes an unfair swipe at classical archaeology, claiming ‘elegance is preferred to utility’ (160), and that ‘the minor role’ of technology in this area of classical studies is to be explained in terms of ‘high culture’ (166). Although this may have been the case in the days of Winckelmann, Hamilton, and Soane, one need only read studies by Coulton (Greek architecture), Lancaster (Roman architecture), A. Wilson (Roman hydrology), or Schreiber (Greek pottery) to replace this sadly outdated view.2

Part III, devoted to ‘major traditions in archaeology in contemporary perspective’, is in many regards the strongest and most relevant to classical readership. Several chapters are concerned with science-oriented issues, including dating and chronology (Gowlett), bone and plant remains (Rowley-Conwy), ecology (Hassan), and the role of scientific thinking (Pollard). Indigenous peoples (Jansen) receive attention, as does ‘historical archaeology’ (Orser) — a term implying something quite different to an Americanist than to a classicist. Landscape archaeology and surface survey are well treated by Wilkinson and Bintliff, the latter of whom makes a rather unexpected declaration of the importance of fieldwork and the ordering of resulting data over and above his own contributions to ‘theory debates in archaeology’ (400). Art and archaeology (and anthropology to a lesser extent) are compared and contrasted in a multi-authored chapter (Corbey, Layton, Tanner), which is indeed one of the most useful for any person working in visual culture. Ian Morris’ chapter entitled “Classical Archaeology” (253-271) revisits and expands upon information presented in the second chapter of his own Archaeology as Cultural History (2000: 37-76). He accurately portrays the marginal status of the classical branch within archaeology as a whole, its uneasy relationship with prehistory, and the reluctance of practitioners to enter into theoretical debates.3 While he sees inevitable change (indeed, students learn less Latin and Greek at a young age than ever before), his required list of skills for ‘all students’ seems a rather tall order for most, and would depend largely on country (e.g. UK vs. υσἀ, university (e.g. Cambridge vs. Heidelberg), and departmental home (e.g. classics vs. archaeology). A minor point of clarification: although John Boardman was Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art at Oxford (1978-1994), John Beazley’s immediate successor was Bernard Ashmole (1956-1961), followed by Martin Robertson (1961-1979; cf. 263).4

Part IV on ‘archaeology and the public’ should be of benefit and significance to archaeologists of all types. It is unfortunate that the American public is less enamored of archaeology beyond the striking and monumental than their British counterparts, who celebrate their material past with everything from “Time Team” to National Archaeology Days.5 That being said, one chapter is devoted to cultural resource management in America (Tainter), another to similar issues in Europe (Darvill); and in each case the intended audience are professionals in the area of ‘public archaeology’. Two of the most pressing public concerns, museums and politics, are the subjects of Ellis and Shanks respectively. Martin Bell’s “Archaeology and Green Issues” (509-531) returns the reader to archaeological and environmental science, with its focus on extinctions and biodiversity, deforestation and soil erosion, landscape acidification and pollution history. His concluding remarks that green perspectives have contributed a ‘quiet revolution’ in archaeology seem an ideal ending to the volume, and a much needed reality check for many readers. While highly relevant in general, Michael Rowland’s “Relating Anthropology and Archaeology” (473-489) seems oddly placed in this section.

On the whole this book is clearly organized and the material presented in a fair and often innovative manner. It does not claim to be a companion to archaeological theory; however, many names familiar from those circles — Binford, Clarke, Hodder, to cite some obvious examples — pepper the lengthy bibliographies concluding each chapter. It is certain that the readership for such a book will be mixed as a result of the great chronological span (Miocene to the Mary Rose), not to mention the cultural and contemporary issues covered (Druids to DNA). One of the book’s main themes, though nowhere stated, is the relationship between archaeology and science. One recurring question concerns the scientific or pseudo-scientific nature of archaeology as a discipline. Another is the working relationship between field archaeologists and laboratory-based ones (zoologists, botanists, etc.). One wonders why landscape archaeology receives such careful attention, and maritime archaeology virtually none. In what appears to be its only mention, it is relegated to a ‘sub-discipline’ alongside gardens and military remains (411-412). Surely, this is misleading. There is repetition between chapters, and even contradiction. For example, we are told the story of the New Archaeology and its aftermath by several different authors. In one instance we learn that archaeology was invented as a discipline alongside art history during the 18th century (357), while in another we are told that its common origin is with anthropology in the late 19th (473). At the same time, there are many subjects of vital importance touched on throughout: illicit excavations, repatriation of antiquities, funding, and new directions. Indeed, no ‘companion’ attempts to have it all, say it all, or even capture the last word. Whatever is missing from the one under discussion is readily available elsewhere. It would be wise for any person considering this book for teaching purposes to use it alongside a more general introduction to theory, method, and, practice.6


1. C. Finn and M. Henig (eds), Outside Archaeology: Material Culture and Poetic Imagination. Oxford: BAR International Series [999], 2001; and J.K. Papadopoulos and R.M. Leventhal (eds), Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives. Los Angeles: UCLA, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2003.

2. At the same time, and fortunately so, studies in reception and the history of collecting are stronger than ever. See D.C. Kurtz, The Reception of Classical Art in Britain: An Oxford Story of Plaster Casts from the Antique. Oxford: Beazley Archive and Archaeopress, 2000, along with others in the series; and V. Norskov, Greek Vases in New Contexts: The Collecting and Trading of Greek Vases — An Aspect of the Modern Reception of Antiquity. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2002.

3. Missing from his bibliography are S.L. Dyson, “From New to New Age Archaeology: Archaeological Theory and Classical Archaeology — a 1900s Perspective”, AJA 98 (1993), 159-162; and R. Osborne, “Greek Archaeology: A Survey of Recent Work”, AJA 108 (2004), 87-102.

4. Details of the Oxford professorship are available in Kurtz, op. cit., 231-339.

5. On the television program, see also Tim Taylor, The Ultimate Time Team Companion: An Alternative History of Britain. London: Channel 4 Books, 1999. National Archaeology Days are organized by the Council for British Archaeology and are currently held during the month of July.

6. For classical we now have L. Bowkett, S. Hill, Diana and K.A. Wardle, Classical Archaeology in the Field: Approaches. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2001; and in general, C. Gamble, Archaeology: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2001.