Review of ‘Environmental Archaeology: Principals and Practice, by Dena Dincauze

01st June 2002

Tim Owen

Owen book review cover AA54Environmental Archaeology: Principals and Practice by Dena Dincauze. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, xxx+587 pp., ISBN 0 521 31077 6 (pbk).
Environmental Archaeology: Principles and Practice delves into the complex world of environmental science, this multi-faceted discipline with concepts of human landscape use. The volume has been produced for both archaeology students and professionals. The field of environmental archaeology is immense and Dincauze’s volume has managed to explain and intermix details regarding climatic systems (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and cryosphere) whilst providing clear archaeology models.

This work is structured into eight sections each pertaining to the different ways humans adapt to and interact within their environment. The chapters within each section break down the themes into smaller units, providing an introduction, aspects affecting the subject, archaeological techniques and applications and relevant case studies. The book’s black and white figures integrate well with the text to contribute to the reader’s understanding.

Part 1 of the book introduces the modem applications of environmental archaeology within a theoretical archaeological framework, explaining environmental data collection and applications. Heed is given to the modes and techniques used by modem archaeology when interpreting human cultural patterns. The chapter provides a good introduction to the book, although the theoretical content may be too advanced for early archaeological students.

Part 2, entitled ‘Chronology’, provides a clear and concise description of time and concepts ofrelative time. The array of methods used currently in archaeology to date deposits, sites and artefacts are explained, with a comprehensible discussion on sampling, and the benefits and limitations of each technique.

Part 3, two chapters and a case study on ‘Climate’, takes the reader through a detailed explanation of climate and the importance of climate on human decisions regarding subsistence, economy and culture. Explanation of models and isotope use are very clear, and detailed enough for professionals to gain valuable insight into the topics discussed.

Part 4, ‘Geomorphology’, describes how the earth has been formed. Explanation is provided on several scales, and geological techniques and theories are presented in a format that may be understood and comprehended by non-geologists. A tenable link is established between humans, landscape and archaeological remains.

Part 5, presents two chapters on sedimentology, soil science and archaeological matrices, combined under title ‘Sediments and Soils’. Description of how and why sediments are important to archaeologists are combined with theory concerning depositional environments and pedogenesis. The chapter manages to explain a very difficult subject and offers extensive reading lists, whilst generating ideas and presenting issues to the reader on the inter-connectedness of depositional sediments and human behaviour.

Part 6, ‘Vegetation’, starts by providing a basic biological explanation of taxonomy and the various splits in the plant community. The second chapter explains the required procedures necessary for compilation of a palaeoecological database, detailing data collection, sampling (and sampling errors), cross disciplinary co-operation, potential pit-falls and inherent archaeological biases.

Part 7, entitled ‘Fauna’, considers how animal and human realms share land space and interact. Information regarding basic archaeozoology is described, as is the recovery of faunal materials, taphonomy and diagenesis, isotope analysis and reconstruction of fauna! environments. The information in this section provides a vast quantity of detail and can only be surpassed by reference to specialist yolumes such as Reitz and Wing (1999) or Lyman (1994).

The final section, ‘Integration’, explains why a combined archaeological and environmental approach is necessary when attempting to reconstruct past human life. Insistence on the importance of accurate data collection and multi-disciplinary research is expounded. Finally the future of environmental archaeology is discussed and a small case study is presented that has successfully combined environmental sampling and archaeology. The chapter gives a summation of many of the over-riding issues discussed thr-0ughout the preceding seventeen chapters and provides closure on the volume as a whole.

Most of the eight sections listed above include detailed case studies. These case studies are intended as an addition to the preceding text and as such are appropriate. They draw together many of the themes discussed throughout the chapters and present real world applications for theory and data. For the archaeology student the case studies represent actual use of many ideas and topics that may otherwise appear a world apart. For the professional archaeologist the case studies present the information within a tangible framework, and provide a starting platform for additional research into the themes discussed.

However some of the chapters in this volume are highly complex and archaeology students may be left wondering about the applicability of the themes discussed. Additional, possibly smaller, in-text, case studies that present applied archaeological data could rectify this situation and provide access to practical application in the field.

Dincauze’s text provides a lot more specialist information than other general introductory archaeological volumes, such as Renfrew and Bahn (1991) or Greene (1995) and fills a void in the current literature. Environmental Archaeology provides an excellent introduction into the fascinating world that recreates past human lives and subsistence patterns, and as such, is highly recommended.


Greene, K. 1995 Archaeology: An Introduction. The History. Principles and Methods of Modern Archaeology (3rd ed.). London: B.T. Batsford.

Lyman, R.L. 1994 Vertebrate Taphonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reitz, E.J. and E.S. Wing 1999 Zooarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Renfrew, C. and P. Bahn 1991 Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.


Tim Owen
Review of ‘Environmental Archaeology: Principals and Practice, by Dena Dincauze
June 2002
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