Geological Methods for Archaeology. Norman Herz & Ervan G. Garrison, Oxford U Press, 1998. 352 pp., 79 linecuts and 31 b/w photos, ISBN: 0-19-509024-1 (cloth $75.00)

Reviewed by Professor Brooks Ellwood and students from his Geoarchaeology course at the University of Texas-Arlington.


I decided to use this textbook during the Spring semester, 1998, in teaching a course titled Geoarchaeology. The course is taught to a difficult mixture of students; junior and senior undergraduates, freshman graduate students, students in geology and students in archaeology and anthropology. Early in the semester I asked the students in the class to evaluate the textbook from their perspective and provide me with a written review; two of their reviews are included at the end of this review, one from a graduate student and the other from an undergraduate student.

In teaching the course I cover first how archaeological sites are impacted by and controlled by the geological setting. I then go on to look at how archaeometric methods are useful in solving archaeological problems. This approach requires that the text I use for the course have strong sedimentological, pedological and geomorphological chapters, with good introductory level but general and easily understood chapters on geophysical, geochemical and isotopic methods.

Text Overview

There are three main topics covered in this textbook. These are geology (including soils and geomorphology), geophysical and geochemical methods, and included are a number of archaeological examples where these topics are applied. In the text, 48 pages are devoted to geology, 31 pages are devoted to geophysics and 184 pages are devoted to geochemical and dating methods. The rest of the book is devoted to introduction and notes. Given the title and length of the book, there is a very disproportionate weight given to the topics covered in the book. There should have been more weight given to geological discussion and contexts, more weight given to main-stream geophysics applied to archaeology, and much less emphasis placed on sourcing and geochemical methods.

The quality of the diagrams in the book is very poor (not the authors fault) and in many cases better examples (diagrams) should have been used to illustrate methods. The discussions of methods is often too detailed or complex for most students in archaeology or anthropology to grasp, and thus these students are forced to go to other sources to understand critical concepts.

The book is broken into four major parts as follows:

Part I of the book (48 pages; 2 chapters) gives a brief and general overview of sediments, soils and geomorphology. For my purposes this is too brief and I was forced to supplement this material with quite a number of additional readings. Chapter 2: This provides a good introductory discussion of geomorphology. Chapter 3: This gives a very brief discussion of sediments and soils, again, necessitating additional material. A good, long discussion of paleoclimates based on plants and pollen was also included in this chapter but did not include other paleoclimatic estimators.

Part II of the book (74 pages) was dedicated to dating, and this was useful and gave good examples. Chapter 4: This chapter covered relative dating primarily using chemical methods, and provided a good overview. Chapter 5: Absolute dating methods were covered in this chapter with some chemical and radioactivity introductory comments. The chapter discussed many of the methods used in the field and a number not used at all. Chapter 6: This provides a discussion of radiation damage methods, Carbon-14 dating and gives some interesting examples. Chapter 7: Other non-radioactivity based dating methods were discussed including archaeomagnetic dating, dendrochronology and tephrachronology.

Part III of the book (Site exploration, 43 pages) included geophysics plus phosphate analysis. Of these few pages, 9 were dedicated to phosphate analysis, 9 pages were dedicated to seismic exploration, and all the rest of geophysics was covered in 22 pages. This created a serious problem for me because I had to require a good amount of external reading to cover the most important areas (in my view) in archaeological geophysics. Seismic exploration is little used in main-stream archaeological site exploration, but it received 9 pages of coverage, while electrical, ground penetrating radar and magnetic exploration methods, those methods used most commonly today, together only received 12 pages of text. This section should have been significantly expanded. Chapter 8: This chapter included all of geophysics and should have been expanded. Some of the material is out of place, for example ground penetrating radar and microgravity are sandwiched between magnetic discussions to which they are unrelated. Chapter 9: A stand alone phosphate chapter in the scheme of main-stream archaeological exploration techniques and in an introductory text was unwarranted.

Part IV of the book (Artifact analysis, 101 pages) involved mainly geochemical methods and sourcing. A significant area in archaeology, oxygen and carbon isotopic analyses, important in terms of relative dating, climate, and other areas, was covered extremely briefly and then these were only covered as sourcing methods. However, this portion of the book does provide an excellent resource for those methods used in artifact analyses including sourcing. Chapter 10: This covers basic rocks and minerals and should have been included early in the book in Part I. The Sphinx, Stonehenge and Roman were good examples. Chapter 11: Covering instrumental analytical techniques, this chapter is a good resource. Chapter 12: Economic geology applied to archaeology is an interesting chapter but might better be placed in a textbook titled archaeometry. Chapter 13: Ceramics is another area that is more specific and less general and introductory, although again, the chapter does provide an interesting resource. Chapter 14: This chapter deals with sourcing using stable isotopes and again is less introductory although is a useful resource.

Graduate Student Review

The required text for the Geoarchaeology course, Geological Methods for Archaeology by Herz and Garrison, was not a sufficient reference manual. The text barely seemed to scratch the surface of topics that required greater explanation. If the target audience for the book was college level geology, archaeology, and anthropology majors, I feel the book did not do its job.

Overall, the text assumed a greater knowledge of the subject material than most of the students taking the course had. From what I know of most universities, students in anthropology and archaeology are not required to have a technical physics course. Without a detailed explanation of the basic terms, most of the material within the Geophysical Methods section would be lost to these students. The text assumes, at minimum, a college level physics course in the students background.

My biggest complaint of the book is the way the authors presented the material. First there would be a brief, inadequate introduction followed by a case study. There was no section on how to interpret data from the field. This feeling is directed towards the geophysical methods and the soil and sediments chapters.

The text was also a poor quality product. The figures and graphs were very fuzzy and difficult to read. Often the figures had been sized down to a point where the words were not legible. There were technical photographs in the text that lacked a scale for size. For some students, these photographs would be meaningless.

It seemed like the authors wanted to cover too much material in one book and in order to do that, a significant amount of information was left out. This book did not serve as an educational tool as well as did the class notes, extra readings, Internet searching, and my individual research. The book may introduce new concepts to a student, but after that, it is up to the student to find other sources that can actually educate them about the material.

Undergraduate Student Review

In looking back at Geological Methods for Archaeology by Herz and Garrison, I focused on how useful it was in helping me to succeed in this class. I found that the book was not reader friendly and at times intimidating for a beginning class in geoarchaeology. The text is short on plain explanations and long on equations and examples, which seem to require a more detailed background for accurate understanding. The text is by the nature of its subject, meant for a narrow audience but it makes little attempt to reach out for a larger audience. The text is difficult to follow at times and the obviously Xeroxed photos and diagrams do little to illustrate points brought up in the text. This is not a total condemnation of the book, as there appears to be quite a bit of information in its chapters that perhaps with further education in the field will become more useful. I am curious to see if my impression of this text changes in a few years with more study. I do not think that this book serves its purpose if it was intended for an introductory course in geoarchaeology - I do not feel that this book encouraged me to dive into its pages and extract the information inside. There are obviously informative parts contained inside but it was hard to persevere through its often over technical pages to get to it. I think that the authors have tried to put too much into too short of a text to succeed, the lengthening of the book with the inclusion of better introductory sections would make it a more useful text.