Review of ‘Contemporary archaeology in theory: A reader’ by R.W. Preucel and I. Hodder

08th January 2014

Review by Bryce Barker

Barker Book Review Cover 1997‘Contemporary archaeology in theory: A reader’ by R.W. Preucel and I. Hodder, 1996, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, xiv + 678 pp ISBN 0-631-19561-0 (pbk)

Contemporary Archaeology in Theory is divided into nine parts, beginning with a Prologue in which the editors discuss, in a general sense, various approaches to archaeological theory within a post-processual critique. Each of the other sections is preceded by a short discussion or critique of the approach presented, followed by papers exemplifying the various frameworks. The main sections deal with ecological theory, political economy, evolutionary theory, meaning and practice (material symbols), feminist and gender theory, theory relating to the past as power and finally a section dealing with archaeology and Indigenous peoples’ responses to it. The authors conclude with a theoretical archaeological discourse, between and with archaeologists and indigenous peoples. The papers selected range from well-known published work, from journals such as American Antiquity, to material from occasional papers or regional journals, not readily available in Australia.

Preucel and Hodder state that the impetus for the book was to provide a degree of clarity to the often bewildering diversity of theoretical approaches in contemporary archaeology, and to encourage students to think about the relationship between theory and practice. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is that it is not just a text on pure theory in archaeology (an approach which often leaves students confused as to practical applications), but one that utilises case studies of applied theory in each section. Thus, the brief overviews of various theoretical approaches which precede the papers of each section, provide constructive critiques and highlight possible shortcomings of the approaches, providing a good spring- board for student discussion. For example, under ‘Ecological Approaches’, the editors use Binford’s (1980) ‘Willow smoke and dogs tails: Hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation’ as an example of an ecosystems approach, and Mithen’s (1989) ‘Ecological interpretations of Palaeolithic art’ as an example of an evolutionary ecological approach. The third paper in this section, by Hastorf and Johannessen (199l), looks at palaeoeconomics as it relates to prehispanic Andean fuel use. It incorporates an ecological approach (in this case economic resources) with social, symbolic and political dimensions. These sections are not only of value in providing examples of theory in action, but also in relation to further reading, as many of the major proponents of various theories are referenced. For Australian archaeologists, I feel the sections dealing with representations of the past as an inherent part of the power relations of the present are particularly relevant theoretical issues, especially ‘Responses of “the Other”‘, in which it is seen that dominant western cultures construct the past and cultures of non-westem countries as inverse images of themselves. These sections are neatly framed in the final part, a dialogue between archaeologists and a Native American which serves as a summing up and conclusion to the book. I believe all archaeology students in Australia need to be familiar with these theoretical issues, relating as they do to the archaeology of living cultures and European colonial history.

An important feature of Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: A Reader is that it does not eschew existing theories for a new dogma. Rather, it views archaeological theory as in many ways fluid and overlapping. This is neatly set out in the excellent first part, in which the editors state:

We regard archaeology as an increasingly diverse and changing discipline, with a growing multitude of perspectives espoused. Any attempt to congeal this proliferation, to categorize the moving diversity must ultimately be an attempt to impose a particular perspective from within a particular set of interests. Our aim, therefore, is to acknowledge this condition in constructing this Reader. We seek not to close down debate by asserting a stability, or declaring a new dogma. Rather we want to use this Reader as an opportunity to foreground some of the tensions which exist both within the discipline and across its boundaries. We view this Reader as a context for exploring these tensions as potential sites for future theoretical differentiation and development (p.4).

Similarly, it is stated that archaeological theory should not be seen as a set of historical oppositions representing distinct evolutionary stages in the history of archaeological theoretical development (such as processual archaeology evolving as a response to culture history or post-processual as a reaction to processual), but rather that connections and interactions as well as the contemporaneity of different approaches should be emphasised. This inclusive approach is of particular importance in a text, as a range of theoretical views are to some extent accommodated.

Archaeological theory is somewhat neglected in Australia as an essential part of students’ archaeological training. In this context I believe Contemporary in Theory makes a valuable contribution to contemporary archaeological theory by making it accessible to students and archaeologists generally, in a structured and comprehensive way. This book would provide a good basis for an advanced level archaeological theory course.


Binford, L.R. 1980 Willow smoke and dogs’ tails: Hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation. American Antiquity 45:4-20.

Harstorf, C.A. and Johannessen, S. 1991 Understanding changing people/plant relationships in the prehispanic Andes. In R.W. Preucel (ed.) Processual and Post-Processual Archaeologies: Multiple Ways of Knowing the Past, pp. 140-55. Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Occasional Paper No. 10

Mithen, S.J. 1989 Ecological interpretations of Palaeolithic art. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 57:103-14.

Barker, B.
Review of ‘Contemporary archaeology in theory: A reader’ by R.W. Preucel and I. Hodder
June 1997
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