BMCR 2011.08.19

Describing and Interpreting the Past: European and American Approaches to the Written Record of the Excavation

, Describing and Interpreting the Past: European and American Approaches to the Written Record of the Excavation. Bucureşti: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, . 261. ISBN 9789737378811 (pb).


While there is a wide-ranging literature on the subject of excavation methods on the one hand, and of excavation reports on the other, the topic of recording in archaeology—which forms the crucial link between these two—is not very widely discussed, even within publications on method and theory. Therefore, the book under review makes an extremely valuable contribution to the topic of archaeological method and theory. It describes the state of art in the sphere of recording systems, and discusses important topics in their history and development.

This book is based on the author’s 2009 University of Bucharest Ph.D. dissertation. In his study, Pavel discusses various aspects of archaeological recording systems, considering them as a linking element between fieldwork and archaeological theory. The work is based on an analysis of more than sixty case-studies presented in the book as an illustrated catalog. The geographical scope of the research includes (with three exceptions) Western European, Near Eastern, and American field projects.

The monograph has two major parts: The first is theoretical and comprises chapters I-VII. The second half of the book is a catalog of case-studies (chapter VIII) and their summary in chapter IX.

The introduction describes the scope and research questions of the present study, and provides the reader with definitions of basic terminology (additional useful explanations are in the summarizing chapter IX).

The author begins the monograph with the explanation of the importance of recording in archaeology, and proceeds to a very detailed, well-studied and interestingly written history of archaeological recording in Chapter II. I would say that some long critical passages about Heinrich Schliemann are written in a somewhat unnecessarily aggressive tone. Given the author’s close relations to the Troy project and his familiarity with the history of excavations on the site, it is understandable that he is irked by what Schliemann has done to it. Still, Schliemann was a product of his time, and his role in archaeology should not be seen as strictly negative. At any rate, many of the questions raised here would be more appropriate for a discussion of archaeological ethics. In contrast to Schliemann, the figure of Flinders Petrie, his ideas and principles, are presented quite idealistically. Yet, archaeologists of the Levant who have had to work with Petrie’s site-reports have not found them much more illuminating than Schliemann’s, and his site-conservation methods (excavating one quarter of the tell to bedrock level) leave as much to be desired. Although very progressive for his times, Petrie’s system did not leave any place for excavators’ doubts or opinions to be recorded.1 On the other hand, Petrie’s less renowned student Frederick J. Bliss, whose contribution to stratigraphic excavation and recording methods are invaluable, would be worth mentioning.

Chapter III delves most deeply into theoretical issues, namely the ongoing discussion on the relationship between description and interpretation in archaeology. The history of this subject is briefly covered here, as a prelude to Pavel’s reflections on the post-processual approach and its most recent theoretical and practical outcomes. What is missing here (and throughout the book), is the follow-up to the most interesting theoretical passages: a discussion of how field-recording methods are being influenced by the described theoretical attitudes. The responsibility for applying these theories to the case-studies presented in the book is left to the reader.

The chapter on Harris matrices presents the story of their “invention”, critically reviews the literature discussing Harris’s stratigraphical theory, and provides the reader with his own account of developments of the matrix in the computer era. Beyond doubts, the idea of Harris matrices is exceedingly important for the history of archaeological thought and recording, as an attempt to represent complex stratigraphy in a schematic way. But there were other innovations just as significant in the history of twentieth-century archaeological recording methods, so it is not entirely clear why the author chose this one and neglects others. For instance, the ideas of numbering excavated features or drawing plans showing a layer with contemporary features (phase plans) are taken for granted now, but they were very revolutionary for their times, about half-century before the Harris matrix appeared.

In a rather short chapter on archaeological reasoning the author introduces his own definition of this subject and gives a brief overview of its history. Pavel tries to strike a balance between all three main sources in this matter: Binford, Gardin and Hodder.2 His conclusions about the state of archaeological thought today are based on West European and Near Eastern perspectives, while American trends (to develop archaeology in the direction of cultural anthropology) are not taken into consideration.

The section on case studies is a catalogue that includes descriptions and illustrations of the recording systems presented in this book, grouped geographically, and limited mostly to the second half of the 20th century. Pavel has explicitly not attempted to make this catalog comprehensive, standardized or objective in any sense. It can be noted that the database subdivision of the chapter on case studies, which groups several electronically created recording systems, is less accurate and some important conceptual details of these databases (like, for example, Integrated Archeological Database) are missing. The author tries to be concise in his presentation of the chosen recording systems, and although it is clear that the descriptions reflect the level of the author’s familiarity with a given system and his opinion about it, he provides the reader with a great deal of basic information from which to continue.

In chapter IX, following the catalogue, Pavel emphasizes the importance of context recording forms (called context sheets, proforma, or otherwise) among other components of archaeological registration systems. He argues that a context-oriented, standardized recording method is a requirement for successful excavation, registration and publication. I completely agree that the shift from field diary to context forms, as basic recording method, marked one of the most important transitions in the history of archaeology, from writing history of excavations to writing history of a site. At the same time, I believe that the quality of recording and publication depends not only on a system applied but also very much responsibility of a person in charge.

Among the technical problems the only serious one is poor readability of several recording forms provided to illustrate the case studies. The editing of the text is generally good.

The book has a strong theoretical background and good raw data for future research. A reader can further link the two parts of the book, test the presented theory using the case-studies, or analyze the data in her own way. It invites scholars to continue Pavel’s research and to explore the topic further. It is of interest for a very wide audience: from students of archaeological method to theoreticians and historians of archaeology. The catalog of context sheets, along with brief descriptions of very diverse recording systems will serve as an invaluable source of inspiration for any field archaeologist inventing or improving an excavation recording system. The list of bibliographical references grouped by topics is useful for everybody studying subjects related to archaeological theory, recording methodology and history of archaeology.


1. Petrie, W. M. F. 1904. Methods and Aims of Archaeology. London: Macmillan, pp. 49-50.

2. Binford, L. R. 1967. Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning. American Antiquity 32.1:1-12; Gardin, J. C. 1980. Archaeological Constructs. An Aspect of Theoretical Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Hodder, J. 1999. The Archaeological Process. Oxford: Blackwell.