A Companion to Archaeology

By Lamb, Connie | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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A Companion to Archaeology

Lamb, Connie, Comparative Civilizations Review

Bintliff, John, ed., A Companion to Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

The word archaeology conjures up images of people in pith helmets digging into the sandy earth of the desert or monumental buildings rising above jungle foliage. But archaeology is much more than that. It has a wide range of components and is interdisciplinary, as shown in this book which covers topics as diverse as art, ecology, gender, social theory, technology, landscape, museum studies, and politics. Archaeology is the study of past human life as derived from the remains/relics of early human cultures. The true domain of archaeology is the dynamic relationship between the material and sociality (135). It is a way to understand the past and its development, hence its connection to civilization (discussed further later in the review).

This book is a compilation of essays on various aspects of archaeology. It contains 27 chapters, each by a different author. It is a massive work of 544 pages providing both theoretical and practical insights that make it indeed a companion to the study of archaeology. It is a type of reference work that contains insights, inquiries, discussions and opinions on the varied topics. At the time of publication, John Bintliff, the main editor of this volume, was the Chair of Classical Archaeology in the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University. Advisory editors were Timothy Earl of Northwestern University and Christopher S. Peebles of Indiana University. Of the 27 contributors, 25 are connected to a university, one is a researcher and the other is selfemployed in development anthropology; they are located throughout the world, including in the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and Australia. Some chapters are mostly descriptive, while others are more theoretical, but all grapple with issues, some controversial, that over time have become integral to the discipline of archaeology.

The book is divided into four sections with chapters in each related by theme. Before describing each of these, it is useful to review the stages of academic archaeology as a discipline. It began and continued for some time as an activity concentrating on the actions of surveying, excavating, taking apart and putting back together, etc. In the 1960s, the new archaeology emphasized thinking about how all these things ought to be done. This eventually led to a postmodern archaeology, where we think about how we think about everything - the reflective mode (398).

Archaeology is not just an activity or interpretation, but it is a cultural production. "Archaeology is a process in which archaeologists, like many others, take up and make something of what is left of the past" (503).

Section One is titled "Thinking about Archaeology" and contains two chapters that discuss culture change and interpretation. "The most that we can do is to experience and interpret prehistoric artifacts and ancient landscapes through our own embodiment and own prejudices.... but at the same time, the contingent position from where we take a stand on ourselves does provide a point from which we can engage with the past" (34). The challenge remains: appreciating the diversity of ways in which any past world must have been understood. Methods, challenges, opportunities, and theoretical approaches are covered in this section.

Section Two, entitled "Current Themes and Novel Departures," contains eight chapters that cover concepts such as genetics, gender, dispersion (the language and agriculture connection), social theory, settlements (space, social, material), household archaeology, technology, and time, structure and agency. This section has broad coverage and investigates some new ideas and controversial issues. Section Three is called "Major Traditions in Contemporary Perspective". The eleven essays in this part deal with some traditional, well-known aspects of archaeology. These include dating artifacts and sites, creating chronologies, determining art, discovering land use, analyzing animal and plant remains, considering indigenous interpretations, and using science as a method of inquiry.

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