Geoarchaeology: The Earth-Science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation.George (Rip) Rapp, Jr., and Christopher L. Hill, Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1998. xiii + 274 pp., 80 figures, 4 tables, 1 appendix, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-300-07075-6; $22.50 (paper), ISBN 0-300-07076-4.
Reviewed by William E. Boyd, School of Resource Science & Management , Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia.
"Geo-archaeology implies archaeological research using the methods and concepts of the earth sciences. The term is not synonymous with archaeological geology, and it is not necessarily linked to geology....Geo-archaeologists dedicated to elucidating [environmental] contextual issues must be more than casual practitioners of applied science. They should be committed archaeologists....[G]eo-archaeology must extend its roots deep within archaeology, the better to serve the discipline." (K.W. Butzer, Archaeology as Human Ecology (1982), pp. 35, 42)
In this flurry of ideas (albeit somewhat condensed in the quote), Butzer encapsulates some of the dilemmas faced by practitioners of geoarchaeology. Archaeology, at one level, is about humans, human behaviour, and human culture. However, the evidence most frequently drawn upon is, in essence, geological. Geoarchaeology provides the medium through which to address the myriad of physical problems faced by archaeologists in their search for a soundly contextualised understanding of past human behaviour issues of palaeoenvironmental and landscape context and evolution, sources of natural resources, their extraction, modification and deposition, site construction, metamorphosis and preservation, and so on. On the one hand, geoarchaeology is grounded in the earth sciences, and yet on the other, it is distinct and separate from them; to be effective geoarchaeology needs to be grounded within the archaeological domain, and yet it draws its vitality from conceptions of landscapes and landscape analysis which lie beyond the constructions of archaeology. A geoarchaeologist must be geologist, geographer and archaeologist, probably with a healthy touch of palaeoecologist thrown in for good measure. To progress, Butzer finally called upon geoarchaeologists to "contribute actively towards implementing a contextual approach in training and research." (p.42). Geoarchaeology must indeed extend its roots deep within archaeology.
And this is where Rapp and Hills textbook enters the scene. Here we have a full and nicely presented review of much of what geoarchaeology does. The book is a text book, aimed, according to the authors, first to archaeologists in the early stages of their careers, and secondly to geologists who may be involved in archaeologically-related problems. There is, of course, a broader anticipated audience senior archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, ethnologists and Quaternary scientists. The text is structured (although not explicitly) around several themes: intellectual context and methods; the construction of the archaeological record; and geological process.
The intellectual context is set in the opening chapter, "Theoretical and historical overview", in which the problems of discipline definition (which, it should be noted, are often encountered in the related fields within the Quaternary sciences), are briefly aired: What are the relationships between geoarchaeology and archaeological geology, geoarchaeology and archaeology, and geoarchaeology and other environmental archaeological fields? What is the scope of geoarchaeology? And so on. While this discussion is most important, the authors manage it is a succinct manner, providing enough food for thought without getting too bogged down in it. Their approach to the discussion of these points, indeed, reflects the general tenor of the book. As a textbook presumably largely aimed at undergraduate university or college students, there needs to be a fine line drawn between the superficial and the overly complex: Rapp and Hill have to a large extent succeeded in achieving this. Returning to the issue of definition, the authors conclusion that "geoarchaeology may best be considered a meeting ground where the full range of earth sciences is applied to artefactual evidence to infer past processes and events" provides, for me, a partially satisfactory evaluation of the scope of the discipline. While it begs the question of geoarchaeology as merely an applied science (or, by the definition above, just another term for "geology", or "Quaternary science"?), it still leaves open the issue of, what in my view, is the essential (but often absent) integration of geoarchaeology into archaeology. My concerns have long lain in the emphasis on method (the usual interpretation of the "full range of earth sciences") rather than on the intellectual integration of these earth sciences into the archaeological issue. To some extent this textbook continues this tradition, with a strong emphasis on the geoarchaeology.
The two other themes identified above the construction of the archaeological record, and geological process overlap throughout the book. Whereas chapters 2 ("Sediment soils and the creation of the archaeological record"), 3 ("Contexts of archaeological record formation"), 5 ("Raw materials and resources"), 6 ("Provenance studies") and 9 "(Construction, destruction, site preservation, and conservation") overtly consider the creation of the archaeological record, the content is predominantly geological, and whereas there are passing references to archaeological example, these are relatively uncommon and generally not developed. Chapters 7 ("Estimating age in the archaeological record", which could have contained the oddly-placed and short (4 page) appendix, "Geological time divisions") and 8 ("Geological mapping, remote sensing, and surveying") are standard methods sections. Dating of archaeological and geoarchaeological materials is, of course, crucial, and with a rapidly expanding collection of available dating tools, it is helpful to review these. However, with the growth of methods such as ESR, TL and so on, issues of the non-equivalence of age estimates from multiple methods are increasingly becoming debated. While the examples used in this chapter showed what can be done with dating techniques, some discussion of the problems which arise when alternative dating methods do not agree would be most useful if not essential. Chapter 8 ("Geological mapping ...") is, to my mind, one of the most useful; the role that the most elementary of geological tools, field mapping, can play in archaeological studies, is, in my opinion, under-rated. This chapter illustrates the potential neatly, culminating in an example of the Holocene landscape evolution model of the Yellow River Plain. Using landscape are a medium, geoarchaeology has the opportunity to integrate fully into archaeology by providing a perspective which differs fundamentally from the archaeological perspective. In this way, it is possible to contribute details of environmental context (past, contemporary and future) (this is often the only expectation of geoarchaeology), but go further to consider analytical issues of the relationships between people and past landscapes, and to contribute the development of archaeological strategy by providing a full understanding of the dynamics and structures of the landscapes within which the archaeological record is lodged.
The broader palaeoenvironmental context is covered in chapter 4 ("Palaeoenvironmental reconstructions, humans, climates, and ancient landscapes"). Something of a catch-all, this chapter offers an introductory glimpse into the world of palaeoecology and climatology, and with less details, is something of a contrast to the other chapters. Given the importance of regional and global climatic change, the few pages on this issue and its relationship with human behaviour is surprisingly brief. All the more surprising is the absence of reference to El Niño or ENSO as a potential crucial climatic force in interpreting the prehistoric record throughout (at least) the circum-Pacific and Asian regions. This subject area of global and regional climatic reconstruction provides another opportunity where geoarchaeology may make some fundamental contributions to the archaeological construction of social and cultural change in antiquity. Without running an environmental determinist line, it is nevertheless clearly essential to understand the major palaeoenvironmental processes which have been operating throughout the Pleistocene and Holocene and demonstrably influences the course of human action. The Quaternary sciences are well able to provide the palaeoenvironmental reconstructions we may use in this context. However, it is the geoarchaeologist who has the advantage of an intimate archaeological perspective and knowledge allows him or her to identify the critical indicators of environmental change, the very specific processes, barriers and thresholds, which may influence, hinder, advance or redirect the course of human action. By being able to integrate geological and archaeological perspectives, the geoarchaeologist has something quite unique to offer. Chapter 4 could have been the springboard for such discussion.
The text is unlikely to provide much new to geologists and Quaternary earth scientists, but does provide accessible overviews of the earth sciences for archaeologists. However, how to apply these earth science approaches to specific archaeological issues is less clear. This book is clearly more a source book than a handbook, and as such, performs the duty well. It is comfortable and accessible to read, well referenced and supported by a set of explanatory notes, a glossary and an extensive bibliography. The illustrations are clear and well annotated with usually long captions. Despite my reservations implied above, the text is most useful, and is one I am already recommending to my (geoarchaeological) students as a point of departure for specific issues. Undoubtedly I will continue to do so for some time to come, and I have no difficulty in recommending it to students and colleagues for purchase.