Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

November 26, 1999

It was the end of September 1976, and the train journey north to Yorkshire from Southampton seemed never-ending. I had just returned from two months roughing it around the Aegean, taking in as many archaeological sites and museums as my schedule could accommodate. I described it as preparation for an archaeology degree at Sheffield University and I believed I had prepared well, by reading all kinds of books on archaeology and ancient history, with a preference for Mexico and Peru. But it was an illusion.

Whatever notions I had of archaeology, and of the kinds of books I would be expected to read, nothing had prepared me for the Colin Renfrew-edited The Explanation of Culture Change: Models in Prehistory .

It was not just the size that daunted, though it was a brick of a book. It was the nature of the beast. Here was my introduction to modern archaeology and it dealt with issues I had never heard of. In my readings and wanderings, I had never once encountered paradigms, models, spatial analysis, culture change, multi-variate approaches, ethno-ecology or lexico-statistics. I know I was not the only fresher to think: "Is this really what archaeology is and do I really want to do it?" The various library copies were constantly broken, being rebound, and covered with pencil ticks and underlinings. I remember thinking how innocuous paragraphs could seem so vital to others yet so devoid of significance to me. However difficult it was to absorb the book's contents, it accurately embodied the state of archaeology at the time and I am glad I persevered. By the mid-1970s, Renfrew was at the peak of his influence as dean of processual archaeology - the British variant of Lewis Binford's positivist "new archaeology" in the United States. This approach saw archaeology as a multi-disciplinary endeavour, which should generate and test new theories and ideas.

For some, this was supposed to make archaeology a science, with scientific laws testable against the archaeological record. Renfrew never went this far, but the book accurately records the heated views of the time, as well as the emerging approaches to issues and problems unrecognised by previous generations of archaeologists. It was a formidable introduction to archaeology and dominated the reading lists in a way which perhaps no other book has since.

Today's plethora of multi-edited, multi-disciplinary volumes appear as if on a conveyor belt. Back then, it was different. Of all the chapters I struggled with, only one still sticks in my mind - the concluding address by the Cambridge social anthropologist Edmund Leach. His views on the anthropologising of archaeology were acid and have stayed with me. Not that I think he was totally right, but that is the advantage of hindsight, and the mark of a "supertext".

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

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