Review of ‘Archaeological Investigation’ by Martin Carver

01st December 2010

Archaeological Investigation book coverArchaeological Investigation by Martin Carver. Routledge, London, 2009, xxxviii+ 424 pp., ISBN 978-0-415-48918-8 (hbk), 978-0-415-48918-8 (pbk).

Reviewed by David Frankel

Archaeology Program, School of Historical and European Studies, La Trobe University, Bundoora Vic. 3086, Australia

There are now many books on excavation and other aspects of archaeological research designed for readers and students of all levels. Is there room in this increasingly crowded marketplace for yet one more? This book gives a clear and positive answer, for it provides an important, refreshing and different perspective. It brings together a number of concepts and approaches that Martin Carver has developed and promoted over several decades, integrated here to provide a coherent model of process and practice: a model of archaeological projects as ethical activities, with responsibilities to people in the present and in the future. Although written from a European perspective it is relevant to archaeologists everywhere.

The book is divided into four main sections, dealing in turn with principles, fieldwork, writing up and project design. Part 1 (Principles) begins with a brief outline of the nature of archaeological sites, their formation and aspects of stratigraphy. It leads on to a key chapter ‘Approaches’, where Carver sets out his central concept – his ‘evaluative archaeology’ – set against, or rather developed from, other major trends in fieldwork and associated relationships to problem definition and explanation. Four current broad approaches (historical, empirical, processual and reflexive) are briefly described in their historical and intellectual context of evolving and developing practice, aims and styles of research. All operate today. Carver does not set out to replace them but to draw from them and apply their particular strengths as appropriate for each new specific, practical circumstance. Within this framework the reader is introduced to the issue of project design, which, operating at all stages of work, lies at the heart of good practice. An example of the general approach and the development of a clear, formal Field Research Procedure is given in Chapter 3, where Carver outlines his project at Sutton Hoo as an model of the various stages of work from initial reconnaissance through evaluation, project design, implementation, analysis and on to publication. Alongside and affecting the research agenda is the ‘ethical stance’ of engagement with all the official and unofficial stakeholders in this major complex project.

Part 2 (In the field) briefly covers much of the same ground as many other books on archaeological methods, but provides a valuable introduction to the variety, complexity and challenges inherent in fieldwork rather than a simpler prescription of correct methods. Here approaches to landscape survey, site survey and excavation are dealt with through anecdotal accounts and summaries of examples, neatly linking their aims, rationales and strategies. Once again, the underlying message is one of flexibility and the selection of appropriate strategies coupled with the need to understand how attitudes and techniques affect observations and the identification of relationships as archaeologists construct the primary contextual record in the field.

Part 3 (Writing up) includes all post-excavation activities, not just the final component or set of tasks implied by the title. Synthesis and publication are seen as essential elements of seamless process involving all aspects of material and contextual analysis. Once again we are presented with an introduction to potentials rather than a more mechanistic definition of techniques as Carver provides sufficient material to appreciate how and why evidence of varied kinds may be collected and dealt with in particular ways or grouped into different contextual sets to permit a range of questions to be addressed. Synthesis – the integration of disparate data and construction of explanatory and interpretive models – leads on to ‘publication’ where an array of outcomes including primary archives, formal technical reports and those designed for a more general audience are all considered as valuable if not essential. The final part (Part 4: Project Design) outlines the social and academic context within which archaeologists work. In some ways it returns the reader to the early parts of the book as Carver develops and explicates the consistent theme that none of the stages of archaeological investigation, from conception to publication, should happen by accident or be seen in isolation. All can be integrated into a designed programme of work. This is not to say that flexibility and variation are excluded, for one must always be responsive to the opportunities and limitations that emerge as ideals meet the challenges of reality.

There is no doubting Carver’s passion for archaeology and his commitment to all facets of our complex endeavours, and his great enthusiasm for fieldwork shines though. But it is not simply an enjoyment of the personal experience and the pleasures of research, but also a pleasure in the work of others – in seeing good work done and new approaches developed. The wealth of examples described or illustrated reveals this broad engagement with the world of archaeology. These examples encourage both the student and the established scholar to look at the discipline as a whole, to consider principles and diverse solutions. Archaeological Investigation is therefore more of a stimulus to good practice than a technical manual of procedures. It is an important introduction to the field, for students, researchers and managers, and one where the reader is expected to follow up the issues outlined; to look up the examples illustrated, referred to or summarised; and to discover the processes leading to creative syntheses, models and approaches. It should be read by all involved in both pure and applied archaeology, and will certainly be a core text in the senior courses which I teach.

David Frankel
Review of 'Archaeological Investigation' by Martin Carver
Dec 2010
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