Review of ‘Archaeological Typology and Practical Reality: A Dialectical Approach to Artifact Classification and Sorting’ by W.Y. Adams and E.W. Adams

09th January 2014

Summerhayes Book Review Cover 1995‘Archaeological Typology and Practical Reality: A Dialectical Approach to Artifact Classification and Sorting’ by W.Y. Adams and E.W. Adams, 1991, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, xxiii + 427 pp.

Review by Glenn R. Summerhayes

Written by two brothers, one an archaeologist (WYA) the other a philosopher of science (EWA) they aim to open a dialogue between the two disciplines. The major thrust throughout the book is that classifications are subjective, situational and are TOOLS. They push down the reader’s throat the following medicine: ‘typologies are created to serve human purposes, which strongly affect the ways in which they are made and used’ – not such a bitter pill to take – but why does it have to take 427 pages!

The book is structured into 5 parts totalling 25 chapters: I – Introduction (Chapters 1-2); II – Nature of types and typologies (Chapters 3-8); III – Typology in action (using as an example WYA’s extensive experience in Nubian ceramics) (Chapters 9-12); IV – Pragmatics of archaeological typology (Chapters 12-21); and lastly V – Classification, explanation and theory (Chapters 22-26). The 26 chapters on typology can be taxing even on the most dedicated of readers, yours truly included. The book could have been written in half the space, and still lose none of its significance.

Parts I and II are basic introductions, while Part III uses a great example of Nubian ceramics as typology in action. Here they follow the origin and development of Nubian typology and then dissect and pull it apart examining its basic features and the uses. One disturbing line that the authors push in Chapter 7, The Nature of Types, is that a theoretical justification of a type is not necessary ‘To know that they work, it is not necessary to know why they work’ (p.74). This apparent dig at Binford, who insists that types have a theoretical underpinning, seems Mickey Mouse stuff.

The essence of the book is in Part IV – Pragmatics of archaeological theory. In this section they return to definitions and look in detail at topics such as attributes, variables, taxonomy, and seriation. A lot of repetition is encountered, following on from Part II

Part V is a review and critique on the work of others from a historical and theoretical perspective, and is probably the most easy to read and satisfying part of the book. Any work that brings in oldies but goodies such as Brew, Ford, Rouse, Krieger and Taylor into the debate gets my blessing. Any book that attempts to make sense of Dunnell’s Systematics in Prehistory also gets my bravery award. Even the French (Gardin) and English (David Clarke) get a mention in this otherwise American dominated book. Topics covered in this section include the typological debate, natural versus artificial, lumping and splitting, induction and deduction, emic and etic, formal and functional, and attribute clusters and so on. All in all it’s a good review. The authors’ approach is both empirical and eclectic. Their stance is simple but direct – typologists make typologies for specific purposes. Their theme is about dialectics – ‘the continual feedback between objects and our concepts of them (is what) we see as the basic feature of the typological concept formation’ (p.273).

The book has weaknesses – one can’t address two audiences and satisfy both all the time. As a result it lacks a tight structure and is probably twice the length needed to convey the message the authors wish to push. Having two authors, each with a different bent but similar purpose means a break in style and content between many chapters and the repetition of key concepts.

Books are definitely not cheap these days, and at $155 this is no exception. It’s a pity because although the cost pushes the book beyond the bank balance of most students I would recommend this as introductory reading in any undergraduate course on classification and archaeology.

Summerhayes, G.R.
Review of 'Archaeological Typology and Practical Reality: A Dialectical Approach to Artifact Classification and Sorting’ by W.Y. Adams and E.W. Adams
June 1995
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