Desert-island archaeology

The Oxford Companion to Archaeology
May 16, 1997

What is the difference between a companion, a dictionary, an encyclopedia and various publications which can be best described as archaeology's "greatest hits"? In the case of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, the answer is its sheer readability. However unlikely it seems for a reference book without a single illustration (endpaper maps excepted), this volume may be pleasurably read from cover to cover. It maintains a quality of writing and depth of analysis across a huge variety of topics whose adjacency depends solely on their sharing first letters of the alphabet. The reader with a real interest in archaeology can move, for example, from the Adena culture of the United States to Aegean cultures and the hominid fossil region of Afar in Ethiopia with ease and interest.

According to editor-in-chief Brian Fagan, archaeology is one of humanity's greatest quests - its transformation during this century from an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt to a sophisticated multidisciplinary study being one of the great triumphs of science. Fagan sees archaeology as we archaeologists would wish it to be, as the recovering of the intellectual past of all humankind, a universal heritage owned by no one yet belonging to all. But it has also to be said that site destruction, looting, the re-use and "trading" of other cultures' objects, intolerance, prejudice and murder have always been part of archaeology. Like the archaeological record it studies, the history of archaeology is a palimpsest of the totality of human behaviour.

There are 700 articles written by 400 experts extending over a total of 775 text pages. The framework is provided by main entries, supported by blind entries which refer the reader to a location where the topic is discussed. There is an exhaustive index and an easy-to-use cross-referencing system, using asterisks in the text and a "See also" section at the end of each article and index entry. At the end of each main entry, there is a useful, though occasionally quixotic bibliography.

As one would expect, the chronological, geographical, and cultural coverage is good-everything from hominid footprints to cave art, Stonehenge to Pompeii, Mycenaeans to Incas. There are also clear and enthusiastic explanations of the many technologies used by archaeologists to locate, survey, excavate, date, and identify the record. Substantial entries on such topics as gender, cultural resource management, theoretical and cognitive archaeology are also welcome, and are an indication of how far archaeology has progressed in the past 20 years.

Several major entries have benefited greatly from the explosion of archaeological investigations and the broadening of the discipline's interpretive horizons in recent times. The extensive discussion of writing not only discusses its 5,000-year-old Sumerian origins, and Egyptian and Mesoamerican hieroglyphs, it also includes a thoughtful account of petroglyphs and another on manuscripts and codices. (Strangely, there is no mention of the Inca quipu/khipu (knotted string), though this does appear in the Inca entry.) Metallurgy and metals are two separate, adjacent, and extremely informative entries, and the sections on Islamic civilisation and mounds of the Amazon are perfect examples of the editors' painstaking efforts to achieve a truly global perspective.

Particularly impressive, because not expected unlike the above, is the inclusion of a host of less obvious but equally important topics - ones which, in similar publications, often are not even mentioned, and certainly are not embedded in a web of fruitful cross-references. For example, a short global account of industrial archaeology is tied into entries on the Industrial revolution and historical archaeology, making clear the intricacies and potentialities of what were until recently widely regarded as peripheral concerns. While the main entry is perhaps too brief, when paired with mission archaeology and an extended account of plantation life in the southern United States, it makes compelling reading.

Other unexpected but fascinating topics include commercial archaeology (the study of 20th-century ephemera, such as roadside petrol stations and tourist camps), the benefits and dangers of mass tourism, and a thorough engagement with pseudo-archaeology: everything from Atlantis to extraterrestrial visitors. These issues contribute to the creation and manipulation of popular views of the past and have to be addressed in such a book, even if it raises professional eyebrows.

The space given to astronomy in the ancient societies of the Old and New Worlds surprised and delighted me. This is a rich field of investigation, yielding insights into religion, ideology, art, architecture and nonwestern conceptions of the natural world. Despite dramatic advances over the past two decades, mainstream archaeology has been slow to acknowledge such evidence. This wide-ranging account shows how short sighted this attitude can be.

Undoubtedly, the extent and quality of coverage has been aided by the absence of illustrations. This is a text-heavy book in an age of images. With no visuals to fall back on, contributors have had to work hard to convey a blend of excitement and significance, detail and overview, which often leaves the lavishly illustrated competition standing. At a deeper level, the absence of seductive images has had a levelling effect; less visually dramatic topics are placed on a par with more spectacular ones and can be assessed accordingly. For the reader, who also has to make an effort, there is no temptation to compare objects or monuments on the basis of personal aesthetics.

The thumbnail biographical sketches of such key figures as Gertrude Bell, Mortimer Wheeler, and Gordon Childe are pithy, with a human touch, their value enhanced by cross-references to the figure's major contributions. All are dead: I feel that some key figures who are still alive should also be included.

It is always possible to find faults, particularly in one's own area of expertise, in a multi-author volume. The entry on the precociously early Chinchorro mummies from Chile should have cited two important and recent books on the subject. Similarly, a simple spell check could have eliminated discrepancies between alternating English and Spanish spellings, Saladoid and Barrancoid, of the same significant ceramic style in the Amazon and Caribbean. More important is that the author of the Caribbean entry is apparently unaware that Trinidad has yielded several radiocarbon dates of c. 5,000 bc, a full millennium earlier than those given for the earliest human settlement of the region.

The New World seems to be somewhat overprivileged. Out of 36 index references for Spain, it is disconcerting that no fewer than 25 relate to the Americas - and not one mentions the unique megalithic structures of the Balearic Islands, despite the fact these are mentioned under astronomy. Battlefield archaeology, similarly, is restricted to the US, even though, for example, important work has been undertaken on the archaeology of memory and landscape associated with the battles and cemeteries of the first world war.

Cavils apart, this book is an authoritative and clearly written global assessment of archaeology that judiciously balances the well publicised with the less well known. One measure of success is to apply the archaeologist's "desert island book" test. If I could take three, they would be Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram (my childhood introduction to archaeology), Archaeological Methods and Theories by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn - and The Oxford Companion to Archaeology.

Nicholas J. Saunders isvisiting fellow in archaeology, Southampton University.

The Oxford Companion to Archaeology

Editor - Brian M. Fagan
ISBN - 0 19 507618 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 844

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