Picking the Lock of Time: Developing Chronology in American Archaeology

By Hodge, Phillip R. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Picking the Lock of Time: Developing Chronology in American Archaeology


Hodge, Phillip R., Southeastern Archaeology


Picking the Lock of Time: Developing Chronology in American Archaeology. JAMES TRUNCER (ed). University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2003. 208 pp., 11 figs., 3 tables, notes, references, index. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8130-2678-4.

Reviewed by Phillip R. Hodge

In Picking the Lock of Time: Developing Chronology in American Archaeology, James Truncer has assembled a short yet highly informative collection of essays on the formative ideas, institutions, and individuals behind the development of chronological method in prewar American archaeology. Truncer classifies the volume as a "history of archaeology" because the contributors rely on largely historical methods to understand the evolution of chronology, as both a concept and problem, and the development of methods appropriate for measuring time.

Truncer 's volume is organized into eight short chapters of about twenty pages each. The middle five chapters (3-7) outline a time period in the history of early American archaeology during which professionals and amateurs developed and applied stratigraphie excavation methods. These "middle" chapters are bracketed by ones (chapters 2 and 8) that discuss the transitional events that led to the "stratigraphie revolution" and, ultimately, the development of absolute dating methods.

Following Truncer's introductory chapter, Robert Dunnell (chapter 2) discusses the role that the "American Paleolithic" and Moundbuilder controversies played in the emergence of a methodological trend toward making archaeology scientific. This concern led to greater emphasis on methods in general and on chronological method in particular. Dunnell argues this shift was important enough that early archaeologists distinguished their archaeology from their predecessors with the descriptor "new archaeology." The volume ends with Stephen Nash's (chapter 8) discussion of the development of dendrochronology, which marked a transition to an even greater concern with chronological method since it permitted actual scale measurements of time. Nash openly confronts the idea that culture historians during this period were "measuring time" by correctly arguing that there was a discrepancy between what culture historians said they were doing and what they were actually doing. Nash attributes this to the position of archaeology in the academy as a social and not natural science. This situation, compounded by archaeology's nineteenth-century legacy of discovery for discovery's sake, led to a concern with description and comparison rather than hypothesis testing.

The majority of the volume deals with the "stratigraphic revolution." David Browman (chapter 3) traces the genealogy of stratigraphie excavation methods in American archaeology to William Pengelly's excavations at the English site of Brixham Cave. Chapters 4 and 5 can be seen as a pair, since both focus on NeIs Nelson's 1914 excavations at San Cristóbal, New Mexico. James Snead (chapter 4) uses Nelson's work to explore the influence of sponsoring institutions in the development of chronological method, whereas Michael O'Brien (chapter 5) successfully argues that Nelson's use of stratigraphie methods was in and of itself not unique. O'Brien documents the use of stratigraphie methods before 1914 by other scientists in other places, eventually suggesting that the revolutionary aspect of Nelson's work was his analysis of materials derived from stratigraphic contexts rather than mere application of the method.

Although the remaining chapters conform to the larger theme of the volume, they deal with different aspects of the stratigraphie revolution. Truncer's (chapter 6) contribution dovetails with Snead's discussion of the institutional context, but takes it further by exploring the long-term effects of institutional sponsorship and competition for funding, patronage, and personnel on regional developments and ultimately the discipline's move toward science. …

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