Archaeometry: An Australasian Perspective. W. Ambrose and P. Duerden (eds.). Occasional Papers in Prehistory 12, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University Press, Canberra, Australia, 1982. 391 pp. A$ 28.70 (paper). ISBN 0-86784-239-3.
Archaeometry: Further Australasian Studies. W. R. Ambrose and J. M. J. Mummery (eds.). Occasional Papers in Prehistory 14, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University Press, Canberra, Australia, 1987. 350 pp. A$ 28.70 (paper). ISBN 0-7315-0040-7.
Archaeometry: Current Australasian Research. Barry L. Frankhauser and J. Roger Bird (eds.). Occasional Papers in Prehistory 22, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University Press, Canberra, Australia, 1993. 160 pp. A$ 28.80 (paper).
Reviewed by Suzanne M. M. Young, Archaeometry Laboratories, Harvard University, Peabody Museum, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, MA, 02138 USA
These books are the proceedings of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Australian Archaeometry Conferences. The first two volumes prove to be much more than mere proceedings, and make an important contribution to the small base of archaeometric literature. The 3rd proceedings is more typical of this class of publication.
The 1982 volume is the first of its kind from Australia, and this is reflected in its contents. They start with a concerted attempt to define what is meant by the term archaeometry. The first paper in the book is a history of scientific measurement in archaeology by Fleming. This is followed by "Ions and Eons", a wonderful paper by Rhys Jones, comprising a complete discussion of what archaeometry is - nothing, if not archaeology, according to Jones. That is the final statement in his paper, but not the final point. Jones makes it quite clear that studies must be done correctly, and well integrated into the field from which they come. This paper should be required reading for method and theory students as well as introductory archaeometry students everywhere. As stated, the point seems painfully obvious, yet from time to time it gets lost or overlooked - forests and trees come to mind! The defining is not as important as the doing, but if seeking the definition brings about a conscious evaluation, which in turn inspires excellent work, then may it always be included.
The 1982 volume contains 41 papers in sections on characterization studies, geoarchaeology, geomagnetism, palaeoecology and environment, chemical reaction rate dating, thermoluminescence dating, isotope dating, radiocarbon dating, and conservation and experimental archaeology. A very wide range of topics are covered, and covered very well. Each section contains a review article, usually at the start of the section, as well as application papers.
Among the most noteworthy are two useful papers on PIXE (one by J. Allen and P. Duerden, the other by W. R. Ambrose and P. Duerden); a re-examination of hearths and comparative study of palaeomagnetism by P. Clark and M. Barbetti; and two papers beginning seriously to address environmental and diagenesis studies. In "The degree of degradation of fossil material from archaeological sites: can the influence of past environments be defined?" M.J. Head presented a promising and important preliminary study of structural changes in wood and a discussion of factors affecting the incorporation of exogenous carbon. "Heavy metals in bones from archaeological sites: an indicator of palaeoenvironmental conditions" by B. Noller, R. Jones and J. Stockton is an excellent study as complete with archaeological discussion as with examination of physico-chemical aspects of metal migration between bone and soil. This is a very important emerging line of study. A new UK funding initiative, coordinated by A. Mark Pollard (Bradford) and Martin Jones (Cambridge), for research on the relationship between the environment and the diagenesis of archaeological material is currently under consideration by the Natural Environment Research Council.
The first volume brings itself to a close with a directory of Australian archaeometry and conservation. This is a highly useful practice and a very good idea.
The 1987 volume of 37 papers continues in the tradition established by the 1982 volume of providing reviews and updates on the topics included. It perfectly complements the first volume in its choice of topics. It covers the chemistry of rock art, residues and microscopic remains, pedology and diagenesis, electron spin resonance and thermoluminescence dating, carbon, beryllium and chlorine isotope dating, artifact composition and computation, conservation, and technical studies of Chinese bronzes.
Still concerned with definition, this time the discussion was provided by A. Anderson who argues for the use of the term "Archaeological Science" rather than "Archaeometry". This self-consciousness serves to focus the attention on interests truly shared in art, archaeology, and science; to find and develop reliable instrumental methods; and to keep contributors focused on the broader stage of archaeometry or archaeological science rather than on very narrow specialist booths.
The volume also holds many noteworthy papers, to mention a few: A. Rosenfelds "Rock Art and Archaeometry" is a presentation of well-defined neglected problems, a paper very well suited for delivery to this community and capable of addressing such matters; H.J. Halls "The detection and identification of parasites in Prehistory" is a fascinating paper which draws attention to the remarkably great potential of palaeoparasitological studies and clearly outlines what recovery techniques are necessary for such studies; in "The Ageing Chemist can Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) help", D.A. Caddie et al. give a very thoughtful and honest evaluation of this technique and its problems. There are many more very well integrated reports and case studies found in this volume.
These first two volumes, with such complete reviews followed by a collection of application research papers, serving as case studies (in conjunction with some articles that update advances since the 1980s) could be used as texts in an introductory survey course on archaeometry. They did very well "serve the interests of both sides of the specialist fence", as was their stated goal. Unfortunately this was not achieved with the 3rd volume.
Something rather drastic seems to have happened to the archaeometric population in Australia in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The 1993 volume contains only 21 papers - almost half of each of the two previous volumes. It is broken into 5 sections: residues and microscopic remains; characterization studies; dating; prospection and geoarchaeology; and metals. This final section contains only a single paper. It becomes a simple conference proceeding in that the collection of papers contain as many weak, vague, inconclusive, and preliminary report type papers as good research papers, and the sections no longer hold together. The book lacks any kind of unity and makes no better a read than any broad conference proceedings would. Given the drop in quality of the work and the diminished number of research papers, it looks like the strength of the archaeometric population suddenly disappeared during those years. Where did they go?
A few papers stand out in the 1993 volume. J.R. Birds "Ion beam analysis in art and archaeology" is a very concise but useful introduction and includes discussion of a very broad range of archaeological materials. W.R. Ambroses "Obsidian hydration dating" and A. McConnells and J.W. Magees "The contribution of microscopic analysis of archaeological sediments to the reconstruction of the human past in Australasia" are good reviews of their methods complete with the history of development and practical problems as well as examples of use. "New views on the origins of copper metallurgy" by P. Budd, A.M. Pollard, R.G. Thomas, and P.A. Williams is a provocative and well argued paper, but it seems a bit lost or lonely tacked on to the end of this string of papers on organics, dating, and prospection.
In the preface this volume claims to "reinforce the definition of archaeometry as the application of the natural sciences to archaeological problems," but it does so by simply providing a collection of examples. A few good ones, quite complete and well presented, stand out, such as "Taphonomy and tool-use: A role for phytoliths in use-wear and residues analysis". But it suffers in the publication in being surrounded by weak, vague and inconclusive work. While not yet ready for publication, much of this work should indeed be pursued. Unfortunately this volume can stand as an example of what is wrong with the publish or perish academic system in which the majority of us struggle.
On the cover of the 3rd proceedings is a diagram of the "four elements" as postulated by Empedocles in ca. 430 BC. This concept formed the foundation upon which alchemy was built. Robert Boyle, in The Sceptical Chymist (1661), made the destructive cracks in this foundation by questioning the validity of the very definition of "element" - in particular, these four "elements" as elements. Out of this raised consciousness - this ability to look at whole pictures and form questions, even about accepted concepts - chemistry was eventually born. I found this cover an appropriate step back since this volume was more than a step back from the preceding two.
Finding the right path and staying on it are among the most difficult accomplishments in any science. Led by Jones paper in the first volume, the first two proceedings strove towards this goal, but the spirit was lost in the third as a step back to ill-defined elements was often made. Questions need to be constantly asked. Effort has to be expended into maintaining high standards. We can only hope the participants of the fourth meeting, held in February 1997, can reach for the level of scholarship and conscious evaluation achieved in their first two proceedings. We look forward to the papers from a very large debate on the earliest arrival of humans to Australia, at the heart of which is the dating methods of thermoluminescence and radiocarbon, their limitations and accuracy.
Watching the close of the radiocarbon lab at the Australian National University, one can only hope that the world is not seeing the collapse of Archaeometry or Archaeological Science in Australia. Archaeometry in Australia was off to a wonderful start as evidenced by the first two volumes in this series. The first two meetings succeeded in reaching a much larger audience including field archaeologists and historians. Current debates in Australia make it clear that many researchers, not themselves natural scientists, are educated in Archaeometric studies relevant to their own interests. Australia has in many ways broken down barriers and reached a point toward which Archaeometry in other countries still strives. Archaeometrists have the responsibility of integrating their work into the archaeology, but meetings of specialists can be quite useful for evaluating and educating each other in ways that archaeologists cannot. It would be a quite loss to Australia for a field which started off with such promise to collapse. I hope that the third volume and the closing of the ANU radiocarbon lab are not a harbinger of things to come.