SAS Bulletin
Volume 19 Number 1/2 January /June 1996


Book Reviews



Whither Environmental Archaeology? Rosemary Luff and Peter Rowley-Conwy (eds.). Oxbow Books, Oxford, England, 1994. 212 pp. 32 (paper).

Reviewed by Mark Nesbitt, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London WC1H OPY, U.K.

This book originates in a conference held in Cambridge, England in 1990, on the topic of integration of environmental archaeology with other aspects of archaeology. A conference report by Delwen Samuel appeared in SAS Bulletin 14(2): 5-6. The whole question of integration is one that is endlessly discussed amongst archaeological scientists. We all agree that it is highly desirable because it makes our work much more effective and much more personally satisfying. So, why is it that so much bioarchaeology especially that carried out as part of salvage archaeology is characterized by poor recovery of ecofacts in the field, their study in intellectual (and often physical) isolation from other key members of the excavation team, and publication typically as appendix 132, usually on microfiche?

The editors of this book offer one perspective in an entertaining, but all too short, introductory chapter that should be compulsory reading for all archaeology students. They draw a contrast between two types of excavation director: the Grand Seigneur, who believes that only he (and it is usually a "he") is a real archaeologist, and therefore that he should plan and carry out the excavation with no input from "specialists," whose only role is to provide a set of appendices to pad out the final publication. In contrast, the Primus inter Pares (first among equals, or PIP) project director sees "specialists" as archaeologists who contribute to the planning and execution of the field project, and who work together most crucially at the level of pre-publication meetings to jointly author excavation reports. The aim of this book is to "exemplify and encourage this trend towards PIP-type project management." How well does this book achieve these aims, and how likely is it to be read by anyone except practicing archaeological scientists?

There are three parts to the book. The first part contains seven case studies of bioarchaeological input into archaeological projects. These range widely, from designing a database for animal bones, and phytolith analysis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, to the taphonomy of cooked bone. Most of the papers sit uneasily in a book on integration: they approach purely bioarchaeological research questions from a methodological viewpoint, rather than addressing wider archaeological questions. However, some papers raise issues that reappear later on. For example Peter Rowley-Conwy, in his paper on the deposition of desiccated plant remains at Qasr Ibrim in Nubia, picks up on a theme unraveling site formation processes that is an underlying topic of about half the papers in this volume.

The second part of the book features four papers by bioarchaeologists who acted as site directors. The first two papers are, again, straight bioarchaeological reports that deal with the invertebrate remains from an Icelandic midden, and a comparison of hand-picked and wet-sieved bone samples from a cave site in Greece. The two other papers are more directly relevant to the theme of the book: well-written accounts of the problems and successes of two excavations, that place them within the context of changes in the policies of British salvage archaeology in the last twenty years. Francis Green and Kris Lockyear grapple with the dynamics of pottery and seed deposition in a medieval town, while Mark Robinson reveals the true story behind the publication, 15 years on, of a small Iron Age site near Oxford.

It is the third and final part of the book that contains the real food for thought: three substantial multi-authored accounts of integration at three major archaeological projects. I was intrigued by the way the presentation in these three papers reflected some of the problems of integration in archaeology. In the first paper, by S.J. Dockrill et al., six different analytical techniques are applied to a sequence of buried soils at a Bronze Age site in Scotland: phosphate analysis, soil micromorphology, identification of molluscs, stable carbon isotopes, and identification of faunal and botanical remains. An interesting range of techniques is applied to the question of whether the soils were cultivated, but the lack of integration between them and, most critically, the lack of any information on the provenance of the samples studied by each specialist (each of whom uses a different numbering system), left me a frustrated reader. A section drawing showing where each sample comes from is badly needed as is a conclusion that integrates and compares the results from each technique. With effective editing this paper would have been much more convincing and the reader would be spared the frequent infelicities of phrasing, misprints (some serious, e.g. maize as a C3 plant on page 125), and the type of incomplete and inconsistent references that mar many other papers in this volume.

Next, Barry Kemp, Delwen Samuel and Rosie Luff explore state-household relations in food supply at the ancient Egyptian city of Tell el-Amarna. There is a curious structure to this tripartite paper: firstly, Barry Kemp, the excavation director, offers a fascinating and masterly survey of the question, using textual, artifactual, botanical and zoological evidence to show that supply of provisions was channeled through a complex mix of state and private sources. This substantial paper which contains ideas and approaches to data that will interest anyone else working on food supplies in complex societies elsewhere is then followed by two shorter, separate contributions authored by the archaeobotanist and zooarchaeologist at the site, repeating data and conclusions already extensively presented in the first section. It is not at all clear why this is not just one multi-authored paper, rather than three separate ones.

The final paper in the book is the longest and by far the best and the main reason I would recommend that all archaeological libraries should buy this book. Wendy Matthews and Nicholas Postgate integrate results from excavation, systematic quantified recovery of bones and charred plant remains, and soil micromorphology to understand spatial patterning at the Bronze Age Mesopotamian site of Abu-Salabikh. This is a very clearly written demonstration of how a carefully thought-out sampling program can be designed to answer wider archaeological questions, as well as ensuring recovery of economic data on plant and animal husbandry. This is also the first extensive publication of Wendy Matthews' innovative work on soil micromorphology as a tool for characterizing use of space. This paper will not just be of interest to many excavators especially those digging mudbrick sites in any part of the world, but would also be an excellent example for students of a well-integrated approach to excavation and publication.

By now, you will have gathered that I don't think this book quite hits the spot: it contains many good things, some of which deserve a wide circulation, but I fear that the diverse, rather diffuse nature of the subject matter of the papers, combined with a less than charismatic title (and cover) for the book as a whole will put off many readers. This would be a real shame: the first paper and the last two in the volume are highly stimulating and should be influential beyond the world of bioarchaeology. Do get your library to buy this book and do read those papers.


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