Jane McIntosh
The Practical Archaeologist:
How We Know What We Know About the Past

The subtitle says it all. Beginning/amateur archaeologists and those just curious about the subject and how the science works will want to start here. McIntosh blends scientific methodology with some of the more interesting digs from the past couple hundred years in this informative and interesting book. Every page has photographs; many are in full color.

The kinds of archaeology explored cover a broad range--from underwater archaeology to industrial archaeology and everything in between. The limitations of what is typically considered scientific methodology are also discussed. Should hypotheses be formulated and then tested or, as is common in science when dealing with history, should data just be collected and theories created after all the evidence is in? Archaeological tests often cannot be repeated and not all of the variables can be tightly controlled. However, like most sciences, historical elements come into play and that aspect alone should not rule out the use of scientific methodologies. (see the quote on the top of this page) Rigorous approaches to collecting and analyzing the archaeological information helps to keep archaeology firmly within the domain of science.

Two features of archaeology are clearly based on the scientific method. They are experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology.

Experimental archaeology aims to test hypotheses--particularly, though not exclusively, those associated with function, technology or economic matters--about specific aspects of the past. Ethnoarchaeology entails the study of contemporary societies from an archaeological viewpoint for the light they may shed on their ancient counterparts. (p. 144)
Some of the experiments described are quite novel. The outcomes, too, are sometimes quite surprising. Although they can never completely confirm a theory, they can help to extinguish unlikely scenarios which were previously put forth.

One minor criticism of the book that I have is the referencing. Approximately a third of the book deals with specific discoveries/excavations. It would have been nice to have a reference or two at the bottom of each of those pages pointing the reader to additional materials to read about that specific excavation. On pages 92 and 93, for example, we read about a particularly well preserved Mesolithic camp from 9,500 years ago. Although this excavation "is now regarded as a landmark of modern archaeology" the reader is not given any pointer of where to turn next to find out more of the details. The less than 1 1/2 pages of "Suggested Further Reading" in the rear of the book isn't nearly enough. I couldn't find any of the titles to specifically address the aforementioned "landmark" case which I wanted to read more about.

The Practical Archaeologist even touches on archaeological fakes and forgeries. Like anything else rare and in demand, incredible prices can be obtained. The section detecting fakes (and an earlier one) include a great deal on dating techniques. I highly recommend these sections to my creationist friends who continually send me email trying to debunk the age of fossils, the earth, and the dating methodologies used by scientists. Numerous dating methods are discussed including thermoluminescence (TL), radiocarbon, dendrochronology, amino acid racemization, archaeomagnetism, uranium series disequilibrium (USDD), electron spin resonance dating (ESR), varves, fluorine/uranium/nitrogen level measurement (F-U-N dating), and the older (and cheaper) methods of stratigraphy and typology. For the dating of older sites other techniques such as potassium-argon dating, fission track dating, paleomagnetism, ocean sediments, and biostratigraphy are used. Multiple methods can and have been used in many cases to assure accuracy. Dendrochronology, for instance, has helped to confirm and refine the dates of the well known dating method of radiocarbon, or Carbon 14, dating.

History buffs will find much to enjoy in the commentary McIntosh includes. The focus isn't in on one area of the world in particular although England probably gets a bit more space for its size compared to other places. Ancient America, Egypt, Asia, and numerous other places are touched on. If you're interested in archaeology--not just the finds but also how it works--then this is the book for you.

from the publisher:

"A first-rate book" --Scientific American

"...A treasure trove for anyone interested in archaeology." --Biblical Archaeology Review

This vital reference to the world of modern archaeology provides a thoroughly practical understanding of what archaeology is, how archaeologists work, and how they interpret the evidence they find--all vividly explained by a working archaeologist. In color throughout, with more than 200 photographs, drawings, diagrams, and charts, this revised edition focuses on such critical new developments as

Jane McIntosh, Ph.D.
, studied archaeology at the University of Cambridge, where she earned her doctorate. She has dug extensively in India, Britain, and Cyprus. McIntosh is a contributor to South Asian Archaeology and Timelines and the author of Archaeology and the CD-ROM Ancient Origins, as well as a consulting editor for the Philips Atlas of World History.

The following is an excerpt from the book: The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know About Our Past, Second Edition, by Jane McIntosh
Published by Facts On File, Inc.; 0816039518; $19.95US; Sept. 99
Copyright © 1999 Jane McIntosh

The American Approach

American archaeologists, in the first half of this century, were just as preoccupied with chronology as their counterparts in Europe but their approach was rather different.

Dendrochronology--the use of the annual rings of certain trees in dating (see pages 130-131) enabled the age of many Pueblo villages in the Southwest to be determined quite precisely. Since many American sites had shallow deposits lacking stratigraphy, relative chronology often depended on serration, or sequence-dating--the chronological ordering of groups of artifacts on the basis of similarities in their composition (see pages 126-127). But stratigraphy was not ignored and played a part, for example, in the work of Alfred Kidder (1855-1963) at Pecos in New Mexico.

Another major difference from Europe was that archaeology in the United States developed alongside anthropology, in some respects as a junior branch of it. As a result, many archaeologists focused their attention on the cultural history of groups of surviving American Indians, such as the pueblo-dwellers of the Southwest and the horse-riding Plains Indians. Little attempt was made to consider broad overall trends in American prehistory.

One exception was the "archaic hypothesis" proposed by Herbert Spinden (1879-1967). He envisaged a basic American culture, practicing farming and making pottery, that spread through, out the continent of North America from the Valley of Mexico. Although the pattern of development was later shown to be far more complex than Spinden himself had thought, his hypothesis was an important stimulus to the growth o American archaeology.

The views of Eliot Smith and the hyperdiffusionists remained popular for several decades. But by the 1930s, a less extreme theory of the diffusion culture was becoming accepted among archaeologists in Europe.

The man with whom this change in attitudes is most often associated is Gordon Childe (1892-1957), an Australian who settled in Britain. Childe, who had an amazing grasp of European languages, studied both excavated material and publications from all over Europe. In 1925, he produced a major synthesis that represented the fruits of his research in his book The Dawn of European Civilization

Childe introduced the important concept, already in vogue among some German archaeologists, of "archaeological cultures." Such cultures are ethnically or socially distinctive groups that can be distinguished from one another by their characteristic artifacts. Variations in the nonfunctional aspects of artifacts are taken as an expression of variations in cultural conventions. Childe's extensive body of work fostered a pan-European view of the past and counteracted the narrow preoccupation with regional chronologies. It also concerned itself with the mechanisms behind major technological and socioeconomic changes in prehistory.

Copyright © 1999 Jane McIntosh