Geoarchaeology in the Great Plains

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Geoarchaeology in the Great Plains. Edited by ROLFE D. MANDEL. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 2000. xiii + 336 pp., figures, tables, photographs, maps, index. $29.95 (paper, ISBN 0-- 8061-3261-2).

A number of good books on geoarchaeology have been published recently. Some are international in scope and follow along the established tradition of focusing on the "what is geoarchaeology" and the "how does it fit with archaeology" kinds of theoretical questions, while others focus on a particular area and cultural period. Truly excellent and thorough geoarchaeological "how to" volumes are also available. This mini geoarchaeological publishing boom is perhaps to be expected of a discipline with growing memberships in U.S. and international scholarly organizations.

Most of the recently published books on geoarchaeology contain some discussion of the historical development of geoarchaeology as a subdiscipline of archaeology, although this is usually not their focus. In contrast, Geoarchaeology in the Great Plains focuses specifically on the history of geoarchaeology and treats geoarchaeology as a scholarly discipline in its own right. As such, I believe this volume represents an important milestone for geoarchaeology in North America. A discipline that has its own "history" has truly arrived. Moreover, it is fitting that the geographic focus of the volume is the Great Plains of the United States, a region with a long history of challenging scientists and policymakers (who erroneously viewed the mostly treeless region as "the Great American Desert", misnamed prairie ground squirrels and bison as "dogs" and "buffalos" respectively, suggested "rain follows the plow", homesteaders could make a living by dry farming 160 acres, and other such nonsense). Certainly the Great Plains of the United States proved equally challenging to early geoscientists and archaeologists who worked in the region. Certainly the challenges they faced while attempting to make sense of this deceptively complex and dynamic landscape influenced some to champion interdisciplinary efforts to better understand and interpret the archaeological record.

Mandel begins the book with a brief introductory chapter. Though a mere 9 pages long, Mandel crafts an elegant extended abstract in which geoarchaeology is defined, the objectives and organization of the volume is succinctly presented, and the chapter authors and the geographical extent of their contributions to this volume are introduced. For the purposes of this volume, geoarcheology is defined as "the application of concepts and methods of geosciences to the study of archaeological deposits and the processes involved in the creation of the archaeological record."

The objectives of the volume Mandel identifies are lofty. To provide historical overviews alone, mere chronicles of events, Mandel would dismiss as unsatisfactory. In my opinion, assembling such chronicles is a worthy endeavor by itself, but Mandel is more ambitious. This volume is an attempt to build on such chronicles and identify the driving forces and research questions that brought geoscientists and archaeologists together while providing the context within which North American geoarchaeology evolved through time. Fulfilling this objective is both more difficult and, if successfully accomplished, more illuminating.

The list of contributors to this volume is a "who's who" of the geoarchaeologists actively conducting research in the Great Plains. Each contributor presents a history of geoarchaeology in that part of the U. S. Great Plains with which they are most familiar. The contributors are Vance T. Holliday (Chapter 2, Historical Perspective on the Geoarchaeology of the Southern High Plains), C. Reid Ferring (Chapter 3, Geoarchaeology in the Southern Osage Plains: A Historical Perspective), Rolfe D. Mandel (Chapter 4, The History of Geoarchaeological Research in Kansas and Northern Oklahoma), E. Arthur Bettis III (Chapter 5, A Brief History of Geoarchaeology in the Eastern Plains and Prairies), David W. …