Traces of the Past: Unraveling the Secrets of Archaeology through Chemistry. Joseph B. Lambert. Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1997. 319pp. $30.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-201-40928-3.
Reviewed by James H. Burton, Laboratory for Archaeological Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706 USA
SAS Bulletin readers who have participated in archaeometric symposia of the American Chemical Society have likely questioned why the A.C.S. has archaeometry under the roof of its "History of Chemistry" division. In Traces of the Past, Joseph Lambert, the recent chair of that division, offers an explanation. Traces posits that what separates humankind from other species is the use of chemistry, humanity as "the chemical animal". Thus one can understand the past through the study of humankinds progressive use of chemistry to manipulate the environment and its materials.
While the human species as "the chemical animal" might be contestable, it is not offered as a proposition so much as an efficient heuristic scheme for a materials-oriented presentation of archaeological chemistry. Lambert partitions his subject in order of increasing chemical modification, starting with stone tools and soils and progressing through pottery, pigments, and glass to organic molecules and metals. He concludes with a thematic non-sequitur on the analysis of human remains themselves.
This "history of chemistry" theme works well within each of these sections to organize the technological developments chronologically. The chapter on pottery, for example, starts with early pottery from the eastern Mediterranean and progresses through the black color of Attic pottery through glazes and majolica to porcelain. "Colors" begins with ocher and other mineral pigments then moves through madder and indigo to Prussian Blue.
Nonetheless Traces is not simply another text on the history of technology. Lambert blends into the text a second theme, the "chemistry of history", i.e. the utility of archaeometric analyses for understanding these technological developments. For this Lambert draws abundantly from the proceedings of recent archaeometric symposia, from journals such as Archaeometry and the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, and from his experience as editor of Archaeological Chemistry. Lambert shows how chemical techniques can be used to address popular topics such as the Shroud of Turn, the Vinland Map, and mitochondrial Eve.
Rather than having an isolated section on techniques, Traces presents modern analytical methods within appropriate archaeological contexts, furthering the perspective of archaeometry as archaeology. One will find no detailed or separate discussions of mathematical methods, spectrophotometric principles, or organic nomenclature. The text uses terms with which some readers will be unfamiliar, terms such as "allele", "racemization", and "wootz", but a thirteen-page glossary covers much of this unfamiliar vocabulary.
Readability is strongly enhanced by an extraordinary number of illustrations, more than a hundred of which insure that one can hardly open the book without encountering graphical illumination. Traces includes more than a dozen color plates to portray Mayan frescos, Paracas textiles, the Lycurgus cup, and other examples for which line drawings would fail. Readability is further enhanced by omitting citations from the text itself and placing them in a nineteen-page collection of "Further reading", divided according to topic.
Although Traces could easily be used within an archaeology curriculum as an introductory survey of archaeological chemistry, the tenor of the text is aimed toward those more familiar with chemistry than archaeology. As such the text would be most appropriate within chemistry or material science programs. But a warning: although it is probably too late for our Bulletin readers, who have likely already succumbed to the sirens call of archaeology, this book could still be quite dangerous to physical-science students currently safely ensconced in a traditional career pathway in the physical sciences.