New Book Chronicle

Article excerpt

Big books for students, glossy books for their parents, small books for use or distraction, things that are not books: these constitute the elements of this spring chronicle.

Big books

KENNETH L. FEDER. The past in perspective: an introduction to human prehistory. Fourth edition, xxiv+ 696 pages, over 300 b&w & colour illustrations. 2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-539430-6 paperback 50 [pounds sterling]. Companion website: 9780195394306/student/?view=usa

BARRY CUNLIFFE, CHRIS GOSDEN & ROSEMARY A. JOYCE (ed.). The Oxford handbook of archaeology. xviii+1162 pages, over 100 illustrations. 2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-927101-6 hardback 85 [pounds sterling].

CHRIS SCARRE (ed.). The Human past: world prehistory and the development of human societies. 784 pages, 770 b&w & colour illustrations. Second edition 2009 (first published by Thames & Hudson in 2005). London: Thames & Hudson; 978-0-500-28780-4 paperback 32.50 [pounds sterling]. Companion website:

Fat textbooks, well established across the Atlantic, made their mark on the British undergraduate market with the publication of Renfrew and Bahn's Archaeology: theories, methods and practice back in 1991. Now in its fifth edition (2008, costing 29.95 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 978-0-500-28719-4) and augmented by a companion website ( containing summaries, flashcards, quizzes and exercises, this undergraduate staple has been joined over the years by a number of contenders for students' meagre allowances. The uneven 2-volume set of the Handbook of archaeological methods (2005) and theories (2008; review by Ethan Cochrane in this reviews section, pp. xxx) would give little change out of 200 [pounds sterling]. So, what is more affordable? Three big textbooks have come out recently, either new editions (FEDER'S The past in perspective in its fourth edition, and Scarre's Human past in its second edition) or brand-new publications (CUNLIFFE, GOSDEN & JOYCES'S Oxford handbook of archaeolagy). Let us take a brief look at them.

KENNETH L. FEDER'S nearly 700-page long The past in perspective must be popular in the US since it has reached its fourth edition since 1995. It comes with a companion website (the usual summaries, flashcards and quizzes, plus instructor resources). The book is essentially in two parts: the first 8 chapters are devoted to the Pleistocene and early humans, the next 8 chapters to the Holocene and manifestations of complexity around the world. To a European student, the balance is radically different from what might be expected. Indeed, in the second part of the book, it gets harder to find European examples or case studies, once past Star Carr, Stonehenge and Minoan Crete (e.g. nothing on the European Iron Age). There is of course much to commend in this book, such as explicit didactic purpose, clear exposition and intelligent debunking of myths (which is one of Feder's abiding interests). I found it however rather prescriptive and could not shake off my first impression of an author who spends twice as much space thanking his cats ('kitties'; urgh!) than his wife in the acknowledgements. Petty? Yes. So, to make amends, I conclude by pointing out the benefits of seeing a textbook with a different global balance and would recommend that The past in perspective be consulted for its wealth of well-organised information mastered by a single author.

Neither CUNLIFFE, GOSDEN & JOYCE nor SCARRE would contemplate attempting world-wide coverage single-handedly in their respective Oxford handbook of archaeology and Human past, opting instead to edit a vast range of specialist contributions. Since the Oxford handbook is the new kid on the block, comments will be mainly on this book. This does not in any way lessen the quality of Scarre's Human past, which in my opinion is the best textbook on world archaeology http://antiquity. …