Review of ‘Handbook of Landscape Archaeology’ edited by Bruno David and Julian Thomas

01st June 2011

Whitley book review cover AA72Handbook Of Landscape Archaeology edited by Bruno David and Julian Thomas. World Archaeological Congress Research Handbooks in Archaeology Series, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2008, 719pp, ISBN 978-1-59874-294-7.

Reviewed by David S. Whitley

ASM Affiliates Inc., 24160 Woodbine Ct., Tehachapi, CA 93561, USA

Regional approaches have a long and important place in archaeological research. Interest in trade and diffusion were early if not traditional disciplinary concerns, with settlement pattern studies (distributions of sites across the terrain) gaining prominence in the mid-twentieth century. By the late 1960s the emphasis had shifted to settlement systems (the geographical organisation of societies, including their relationship to the natural environment) and, shortly thereafter, to spatial archaeology. Following in the footprints of urban geographers, this involved the use of increasingly sophisticated statistical techniques to analyse distributions of sites, artefacts and traits. Despite its early promise, archaeologists soon discovered that inferring social processes from geographical patterns alone is very difficult, if not impossible: to cite one significant example, migration and diffusion appear the same from the perspective of the geographical and temporal distributional patterns they create.

Yet regional analytical research did not abate, with landscape archaeology emerging as the catch-phrase in the 1980s, and it has gained increasing traction since that time. The concept of ‘landscape’ again derives from geography, in particular the earlier work of Carl Sauer and his students on cultural landscapes. This was not terrain, geomorphology, geology, or even the distribution of human behaviour and social processes across these phenomena, so much as the way that the natural world was humanly modified and conceptualised.

What is an archaeologist to make of landscape archaeology in light of our longstanding disciplinary interests in a regional perspective, matched against the shifting empirical, theoretical and analytical approaches that have been taken to satisfy this concern? Bruno David and Julian Thomas provide a useful guide to this problem in an excellent volume that covers the range of approaches that are or have been deployed to study the archaeological record at a geographical scale. Although they are explicitly aware of the definitional issues that ‘landscape archaeology’ might imply (historical, analytical and otherwise), they wisely opted to be inclusive and holistic in their assembly of themes, topics and authors. The result is 65 chapters, conceptualised in terms of three broad categories: how humans engage the landscape, the environmental context of human behaviour, and how landscapes are represented. As they succinctly state, ‘the binding glue of contemporary landscape studies [is] a concern for the where of all human practice, in any or all its dimensions’ (p.39; added emphasis).

Individual chapters are then diverse in their scales of interest, analytical and theoretical approaches, and questions asked of the archaeological record. Starting with the intellectual and philosophical history of landscape archaeology, as David and Thomas have defined it, the volume moves through the evolutionary implications of the engagement with place, to the differing conceptualisations of landscape, various phenomenological reactions to it, and how archaeologists accommodate archaeological data at a geographical scale. The volume ends with discussions of the contemporary implications of landscape in terms of heritage management, indigenous concerns, ideologies and structures of domination.

There is, in other words, something for every archaeologist in this volume, and this fact has an important (even if perhaps unintended) consequence: any reading of this handbook cannot help but promote the cross-fertilisation of theories, approaches and ideas. In an era of increasingly specialised (and often too narrowly focused) research, this can only be seen as an advantage.

The Handbook of Landscape Archaeology is the first volume in the World Archaeological Congress Research Handbooks in Archaeology series, and it is an especially appropriate and strong start for a series directed at a global perspective on our discipline. Although it is a well-worn cliché to conclude that a particular book should be on every archaeologist’s library shelf, in this case this claim is entirely true. Although the volume will be particularly useful for students, it is also likely to serve as a valuable tool even to old and grizzled professionals. It is highly recommended.

David S. Whitley
Review of 'Handbook of Landscape Archaeology' edited by Bruno David and Julian Thomas
June 2011
72
60-61
Book Reviews
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