Geoarchaeology: The Earth-Science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation, 2nd Edition

By Mandel, Rolfe D. | Plains Anthropologist, May 2007 | Go to article overview
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Geoarchaeology: The Earth-Science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation, 2nd Edition


Mandel, Rolfe D., Plains Anthropologist


Geoarchaeology: The Earth-Science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation, 2nd Edition. By GEORGE (RIPP) RAPP and CHRISTOPHER L. HILL. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2006, xv + 339 pp., figures, tables, notes, glossaiy, bibliography, $35.00 (paper)

Reviewed by Rolfe D. Mandel, Kansas Geological Survey/Department of Anthropology, University of Kansas

Rapp and Hill's first edition of Geoarchaeology was published in 1998, and at the time was one of only two comprehensive guides to the basic principles and methods of geoarchaeology. This subdiscipline has grown dramatically over the past ten years and is part of anthropology and/or geoscience curricula at a number of universities and colleges in the U.S. and elsewhere. Responding to the demand for an updated textbook, Rapp and Hill produced a second edition of Geoarchaeology that is a significant revision of the original edition. It includes many new examples and illustrations, as well as an expanded bibliography. Although the authors claim they targeted first-year graduate students in archaeology and those in the earth sciences considering a focus on geoarchaeology, their book is a suitable text for an upper-level undergraduate geoarchaeology course and will not intimidate students or practitioners with limited earth-science experience.

The book opens with an overview of the historical and theoretical interactions between the earth sciences and archaeology. Rapp and Hill explore how the geoarchaeological approach can be used to evaluate and understand the archaeological record and the dynamic forces that produced it. They also go to great length identifying and describing individuals who have made important contributions to geoarchaeology.

The second chapter is mostly a lesson in geomorphology. It focuses on the formation and properties of sedimentary deposits and soils. This review is relevant to archaeology because soils and sedimentary deposits often harbor the material remains of the human past, and processes that produce soils and sediments shape the archaeological record. The authors consider how paleoenvironmental information can be gleaned from soils and sediments, but a detailed discussion on paleoenvironmental reconstruction is reserved for Chapter 6.

In the next chapter, "Initial Context and Site Formation," the authors build on the principles of sediments and soils introduced in Chapter 2. They describe landscape contexts and processes in a variety of depositional systems that influence the nature of the archaeological record. The following systems receive thorough treatment: deserts, stream valleys, lakes and associated basins, caves and rock shelters, glaciers, and coastal and marine settings. Postdepositional processes that may affect the integrity of cultural deposits, such as mass wasting, cryoturbation, and bioturbation, are briefly addressed.

Chapter 4 deals with methods for discovering and analyzing archaeological sites. Several remote sensing techniques are presented, including geophysical prospecting, aerial photography, and satellite imaging. This is followed by a description of coring techniques used in geoarchaeological investigations. Rapp and Hill then move on to explain how data gleaned from these methods can be integrated in a geographic information system. They also describe how an understanding of the complexities of scale is critical for discovering and interpreting the archaeological record.

Chapter 5, "Estimating Time," focuses on techniques used to date archaeological landscapes and cultural deposits. Although much of the chapter is devoted to stratigraphie and radiometric dating methods, other techniques, such as fissiontrack, paleomagnetic, archaeomagnetic, electron spin resonance and luminescence dating, are discussed. Complex laboratory procedures are explained in a comprehendible fashion, and many good examples of archaeological application are presented. Accurate time control is essential to studies that examine relationships between landscape evolution, bioclimatic fluctuations, and human activities, the topic of the next chapter.

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