Iceman cometh through the window

Archaeology
May 3, 1996

Few introductions to archaeology worked as well as the first (1991) edition of Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn. The well-thought-out structure and clarity of writing made it a valuable and usable book that concisely presented the many concerns of modern archaeology. In this welcome second edition we have 64 extra pages of text and illustrations that bring the original up to date.

Where this book scores over its rivals is in its "Windows"-like structure and the attention it gives to theoretical and scientific advances. Instead of continuous prose with incidental illustrations we have the intelligent use of cross-referenced "boxes" to explore particular issues in well-illustrated depth. A prime example is the inclusion of a new section on gender in archaeology.

Whereas the 1991 edition had not one index entry for this topic we now have three pages plus several other references that include the role of elite women in 5th-century bc France. The highlight is a two-page box which explores gender relations in ancient Peru between 200 bc and ad 600 at the site of Queyash Alto. A site plan, archaeological, historical and ethnographic illustrations combine to bring this issue to life.

Similarly effective is the coverage given to new scientific techniques such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), optical dating and DNA research. With GIS, information on a site's location, physiography, excavation history and its relationship with other sites can be stored and manipulated in the form of overlapping layers. To date this has been used effectively to predict where sites with similar characteristics may be located. GIS played a key role also in mapping the present, and "recreating" the past landscapes around Cahokia, a huge settlement which flourished in the Mississippi river valley around ad1100.

The use of DNA studies in archaeology is another topic that receives fuller treatment than before. In a fascinating box on genetics and languages we learn how language is the best predictor of a community's genetic characteristics. In the Americas the hitherto controversial classification of indigenous languages into three major macrofamilies has been confirmed by studies of mitochondrial DNA taken from living native peoples.

The wealth of new data presented here includes such recent discoveries as the Alpine "Iceman", the world's oldest cave paintings (c.30,000 years old) at Chauvet cave in southern France, and the extraordinarily rich golden burials from Sip n on the Peruvian coast. Equally important is a six-page addition that explores the origins of rice farming in Southeast Asia through a multidisciplinary investigation at the site of Khok Phanom Di in Thailand.

Less spectacular but equally significant developments are skilfully woven into the existing text. For example, the analytical concept of the chaine operatoire or sequence of actions shows how the making of Palaeolithic stone tools can be understood in terms of human cognitive development.

The authors have done an excellent job in updating what was already the best introduction to archaeology.

Nicholas J. Saunders is visiting research fellow in archaeology, Southampton University.

Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice

Author - Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn
ISBN - 0 500 867 9
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 608

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