A valuable source, bar the odd dig

A Dictionary of Archaeology

September 10, 1999

A dictionary of archaeology is a strange thing. It purports to explain the complexities of the subject by defining specialist terms in everyday language. Unlike linguistic dictionaries, subject dictionaries are not straightforward. They vary according to whether their aim is to provide definitions of almost every term or adopt a thematic approach. It is always a balancing act and often difficult to achieve, as the plethora of pedestrian titles attests.

Archaeological dictionaries are perhaps among the hardest of all to compile. Changing political boundaries, sensitivities to names and affiliations, and developing ideas, theories and significances all complicate the structure and layout. The subject has also widened its remit over the past three decades, embracing issues hitherto the preserve of anthropology, geography, history and a raft of scientific disciplines. In recent years, encyclopedias and companion guides have blurred distinctions, offering arguably more attractive and accessible formats for the purveying of increasingly complex interdisciplinary knowledge.

In A Dictionary of Archaeology , Ian Shaw and Robert Jameson and their more than 40 contributors have taken a brave step. Instead of opting for the traditional inclusive approach to every term, culture and object, they have produced a volume that reflects the changing

nature of archaeology - as a process rather than simply a body of knowledge. Where once thumbnail sketches of a multitude of sites, place names and ceramic and stone-tool styles would have filled the pages, now there is a more considered and intelligently thematic approach. The result is a stimulating and comprehensive volume that should be on every archaeologist's bookshelf.

One of the undoubted strengths of this dictionary is the coverage accorded to recent developments in archaeological theory and associated movements in anthropology, sociology and philosophy. This is the place to find cogently written and well-referenced accounts of such critical and diverse issues as "Cognitive archaeology", "Contextual archaeology", "Foraging theory", "Decision theory" and "Gender archaeology". Also invaluable is the coverage accorded to such often under-represented topics as "Islamic archaeology", "CIS and the Baltic states", "Africa" and "Asia". Geographical spread is vitally important if a true "world archaeology" is to be achieved - an aim the editors have embraced wholeheartedly.

Reinforcing this global approach, and an impressive scholarly achievement, is the number of lesser-known sites and cultures that appear, which makes browsing an unusually rewarding experience. I was fascinated to discover the "Sirikwa holes" - saucer-shaped depressions from 13th to 18th-century Kenya; the "Go Mun" phase of the Vietnamese Bronze Age (1000-600BC); and the revealing history uncovered by excavations of the "Masjid al-Jami (Isfahan)" mosque. Apart from such entries, science and mathematics are particularly well served. There are detailed descriptions of "Argon-argon (Ar-Ar) dating", "Regression analysis", "Bayesian statistics", "Nitrogen profile dating", as well as the more usual "Radiocarbon dating" and "Dendrochronology". And all entries are connected by the now-standard upper-case cross-referencing system.

So far so good, but inevitably there are downsides, some of which could have been avoided. Despite the fact that the dust-cover boasts coverage of previously neglected areas - such as China and Oceania - there are still large gaps. For example, there is a surprising lack of

coverage, indeed hardly a mention, of the Caribbean, either under "C" or "A", where the Americas get a comprehensive treatment. No entries occur under individual islands, sites

or even the more important cultural complexes or ceramic traditions. Thus the region's unique archaeological heritage, its importance for island and plantation archaeologies, and for culture contact and slavery is missing. This is all the more worrying as it is a geographical region within which an increasing amount of multidisciplinary work is being done.

Another drawback is the annoying number of entries that are followed by "see ..." - the quick definition being embedded in contextualising data. Although this results from a conscious editorial decision, it makes rapid searching a frustrating affair. Also, many entries seem perverse. While there is nothing under Pompeii - one of the world's most famous and remarkable archaeological sites - the term "Pompeii premise", an important but fairly obscure reference to archaeological theory, does have an entry, which perhaps predictably says, "see Behavioural archaeology". Similarly, while "C" ignores the Caribbean, it includes such ultra-

specialised terms as "Coatepantli" - a mainly Aztec-period architectural feature. It also has "Chron" - "see Palaeomagnetic dating" - and "Cham", a first-millennium Austronesian language for which the latest bibliographic reference is dated 19. More surprising still is that while "G" has three excellent pages on "Gender archaeology", there is no entry or even a cross-reference under "Genetics" - the place where the extraordinary role molecular genetics is playing in modern archaeology might logically have been found and explored. There is more than a touch of inconsistency in all this.

This is a modern, thoughtful, and extremely useful dictionary with a wealth of contextualised definitions, and important if comparatively lesser-known sites and cultures. As such it complements rather than replaces the traditional site-culture-style-object approach with its typical European and North American geographical bias.

Bearing in mind its simple black-and-white format and dearth of photographs, the Pounds 75 price seems excessive, especially when compared with the larger, equally comprehensive and brilliantly indexed Oxford Companion to Archaeology at £35. The price differential is pointed, especially for students. Sales of A Dictionary of Archaeology will inevitably be confined to university libraries, and the opportunity to provide undergraduates and public libraries with much-needed, affordable, yet state-of-the-art dictionaries will be missed. A well-priced paperback on the other hand would be another matter.

Nicholas J. Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

A Dictionary of Archaeology

Editor - Ian Shaw and Robert Jameson
ISBN - 0 631 17423 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £75.00
Pages - 624

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