Book review. Making archaeology happen. Design versus dogma by Martin Carver

19th December 2012

Martin Carver
Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, 2011, 184 pp, ISBN 9781611320251

Reviewed by Tim Murray
Department of Archaeology,
La Trobe University,
Bundoora VIC 3083,

This is an engaging reflection on contemporary archaeology. Carver considers the conduct of archaeology in both academic and commercial spheres, doing so by raising the shade on the long dead, but certainly not forgotten, Mortimer Wheeler. For Carver, Wheeler had figured out what archaeology needed to do to prosper: to be engaged, creative and, above all, consequential for the people who practice it, and for those who consume its products. In Carver’s view contemporary archaeology has forgotten Wheeler’s approach and suffered as a consequence. Never one to mince his words (for example, ‘unambitious’, ‘unquestioning’, ‘standardised’, ‘low quality’), Carver sets out to attack the dogmas of the present (both methodological and theoretical) and fire up a new generation of archaeologists about what Jim Deetz used to refer to as the ‘art and mystery’ of the discipline.

So this is a book about method, theory and the primary purpose of archaeology. For a book embarking on polemics and controversy Carver is pretty conventional in the development of his argument and the deployment of evidence. Spanning six chapters, Carver pursues his goal of reinstating archaeological fieldwork (or the process of archaeological investigation) at the core of the discipline. It is through fieldwork and the analysis of field findings that the true contribution of archaeology to humanity can be made to occur. Carver sees the design of field projects as being intellectually stimulating and creative—far more so than arid debates about theory that until recently were the prime focus of activity and imagination.

Field design in the collection and analysis of raw archaeological information (flexibility, responsiveness, creativity) lies at the heart of Carver’s message, and in the first chapter (‘A Visit to the Ancestors’) he contextualises this by reference to his personal history as an archaeologist. The connection with Wheeler is strengthened by Carver’s first life as a military officer—reflecting a passion for planning (design) and process—which both share with one of archaeology’s first great typologists, General Pitt-Rivers.

The focus on fieldwork, which really gets seriously underway in Chapter 2, deals with what Carver calls ‘terrain’ (sites and landscapes). This is a highly effective discussion of the evolution of what has become primary archaeological data from the mega-scale (pots and architecture) to the nano-scale (lipids and other data used in proteomics). It’s not that Carver is creating new knowledge about any of these things in particular, but it’s more the distinctively fresh way that familiar elements are discussed and lessons drawn. This approach continues for the rest of the book—a brisk and opinionated discussion of well- chosen examples drawn from a wide variety of contexts that engage potential readers from outside the UK or North America. Carver’s discussion of the contemporary relationships between archaeologists and the societies that spawn them and have to cope with their doings, is based around clear examples drawn from all over the world. Carver’s style is straightforward and focused on persuading us that the time to rescue archaeology from being just another social or human science is now. Archaeology has the capacity to be so much more.

Of course there is much to debate and potentially to disagree with in this book, and without doubt this is something Carver would heartily embrace. The message is loud and clear and it is one that all archaeologists (whatever their context of practice) should at the very least consider.

Tim Murray
Book review. Making archaeology happen. Design versus dogma by Martin Carver
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