Review of ‘Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses’ edited by Jane Balme and Alistair Paterson

01st June 2006

Ross BR coverArchaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses edited by Jane Balme and Alistair Paterson. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2006, xxvi+438 pp., ISBN 978-0-631-23574-3 (pbk).

Anne Ross

School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

It is rare that a book is written as a text book but also provides an important contribution to the discipline and this volume deserves this dual recognition. As a text book it introduces undergraduate students to non-excavation techniques in archaeology, including site recording, sediment interpretation, artefact analysis, documentary research and report writing. For postgraduate students there is an emphasis throughout the volume on the importance of the links between research questions, methods and conclusions. As a contribution to the discipline, it evaluates a range of different methods used in excavation research, and both reviews and grounds several theoretical approaches to analysis.

The chapters follow a standard format, commencing with a detailed summary that lists the key elements addressed and provides an overview of the theoretical direction of the chapter. The main body of text uses a number of headings and sub- headings, located in the wide margins, to guide the reader, step- by-step, through the arguments and ideas presented. Case studies in shaded boxes present grounded examples of more abstract ideas and analytical techniques. At the end of each chapter there is a summary and conclusion along with an evaluation of other resources on the topic; ideas for future research ensure that students and researchers can extend their understanding of the topics raised by further detailed reading and research.

The book is structured logically. It commences with survey and site location, then proceeds through community consultation to rock art research, stratigraphic analysis and site dating, before introducing the main core of the volume, which is techniques for analysing finds. This core addresses artefact analyses (stone tools, residues and ceramics), the study of food remains (bone, plants and shells), and other relevant aspects of archaeological research (sediment analysis, documentary research and research into modern artefacts). The book ends with a chapter on writing up results for both reports and publication. As in any edited volume, the quality of the chapters varies, although in the main I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the volume is to read, how interesting the case studies are and how engagingly the analytical techniques are presented.

The first chapter, ‘Finding Sites’ by Andrew David, was the most disappointing for me. Focusing almost entirely on remote sensing of large structures, with an emphasis on the United Kingdom, the relevance of this chapter for teaching undergraduate students in Australia about site survey techniques for Aboriginal sites is marginal. Without any critique of survey design techniques or site recording problems, its value for many Australian archaeology courses is limited.

By contrast, the second chapter on ‘Consulting Stakeholders’ by Larry Zimmerman is extremely relevant to Australian archaeology and research. Consultation with traditional owners and members of the local community is now recognised as an integral component of both Aboriginal and historical archaeological research. As well as practical guidelines for undertaking consultation, Zimmerman also develops the idea of multivocal constructions of the past, an important development in cultural heritage discourse over recent years.

The notion of varying cultural constructions of the past is taken up in the third chapter, ‘Rock Art’, by Jo McDonald. The multivocal nature of rock art interpretation is clearly discussed in this chapter, which also includes a variety of practical measures for recording rock art in a way that ensures that all the relevant voices are able to be heard in the analysis process. The practical tips and illustrations provided for achieving best results is an additional highlight of this chapter.

The fourth chapter, ‘Stratigraphy’, by Jane Balme and Alistair Paterson, relates to stratigraphic recording and interpretation. It is a well-written and easy to follow review of geomorphic processes and laws of stratigraphic layering and includes step-by- step instructions for disentangling natural and cultural processes in sediment accumulation, using useful case studies.

The fifth chapter on ‘Absolute Dating’ by Simon Holdaway concentrates on interpreting dates rather than on describing dating procedures, which is a sensible focus for an archaeological text. Holdaway presents a list of likely contaminants (although unfortunately does not gives clues to avoiding contamination during sample collection) and reviews advantages and disadvantages of different dating techniques. Case studies demonstrate the problems of time averaging and the use (abuse?) of depth-age curves.

I was lucky enough to have Chris Clarkson present the approach to stone tool analysis outlined in Chapter 6 (by Clarkson and Sue O’Connor) to a class in 2005. Although I personally prefer a more technological/reduction approach to stone tool analysis than the rather typological approach to classification provided in this chapter, the methods introduced by Clarkson and O’Connor are easy to apply and the diagrams supplied make for easy explanation of terms commonly used in literature.

In Chapter 7, ‘Residues and Usewear’, Richard Fullagar cautions against the widely held misconception that all use leaves residues and that all use-wear traces found on an artefact relate to object use. However, where residues and use-wear traces do occur, Fullagar’s guide for artefact handling, preparation of comparative collections, key to the identification of residues and wear patterns, and sample recording forms are very useful.

Linda Ellis examines ‘Ceramics’ in Chapter 8. As well as giving guidance on artefact handling, analytical techniques, and generating interpretations, Ellis describes how pottery is made and, therefore, how analysis must be conducted to reveal the steps of manufacture. Ellis also emphasises the importance of conducting all artefact analysis in a research context – a vital message for any archaeology student.

The importance of analysis within a research framework is also well demonstrated in Chapter 9, ‘Animal Bones’, by Terry O’Connor and James Barrett. For example, O’Connor and Barrett argue that there is no need to struggle to identify all finds to species level if the research question only requires identification to genus or even class. The chapter also provides a thorough review of sampling strategy (including mesh size), taphonomic processes, sample handling, and basic analytical techniques.

In Chapter 10,‘Plant Remains’, Wendy Beck demonstrates that plant remains are often better preserved than people think and she provides tips on retrieval and analysis of plant remains, as well as an interesting and useful discussion on the interpretation of results from plant analysis.

Sandra Bowdler, in Chapter 11 ‘Molluscs and Other Shells’, provides a useful flow chart of midden analysis, from sampling and sorting to analysis and interpretation. Bowdler summarises the debate on how to separate cultural from natural shell deposits and provides thought-provoking ideas on advanced analysis and interpretation. Figures and diagrams to assist in the identification of shell fragments are very valuable.

In my view, the chapter on ‘Sediments’ by Gary Huckleberry would have fitted better with Chapter 4 ‘Stratigraphy’, with its emphasis on the contextual value of sediments for chronology, site formation and palaeoenvironments. The clear explanation of particle size analysis and interpretation of soil formation processes would have linked nicely to Chapter 4, as both chapters share an emphasis on the importance of disentangling cultural and natural factors in soil formation and deposition processes.

The thirteenth chapter on ‘Artefacts of the Modern World’ by Susan Lawrence looks at cataloguing based on attribute analysis and provides a step-by-step guide with useful definitions and examples. The fourteenth chapter on ‘Historical Sources’ by Barbara Little relates concepts of ways of knowing to the notion of multivocal pasts as introduced in Chapters 2 and 3. This chapter provides an excellent framework for the development of a research plan, which is a particularly useful tool for Honours and postgraduate students.

The final Chapter 15 by Peter White is arguably the most useful chapter in the volume. Entitled ‘Producing the Record’, it is all about how to write, and is an echo of every annotation made on an undergraduate essay or Honours thesis by an assessor, every editor’s mark, every anguished plea for clarity by any reader! This chapter sets out the steps needed to write an essay, a thesis, a report and a journal article. White sets out guidelines that include:

• Answer the question
• Define the topic
• Plan the work
• Write drafts
• Don’t rely on spell-checkers
• Don’t plagiarise

and also provides tips for producing clear yet concise figures and tables.

Overall this is an excellent book and should be the handbook of every student of archaeology, regardless of age and level of knowledge.

Annie Ross
Review of ‘Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses’ edited by Jane Balme and Alistair Paterson
June 2006
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