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Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice

by Colin Renfrew, Paul G. Bahn

Buy the book: Colin Renfrew. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice

Release Date: June, 2000

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Colin Renfrew. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice

Archaeology as Science? The view of the Disney Professor

This is certainly one of the better general summary books on archaeological method and theory out there. To the student, the book comes with serious credentials: Colin Renfrew is the Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge while his co-author is a professional writer on archaeological topics. Like many other introductory texts, there is, however, a serious agenda behind this book. Therefore, while I think the authors do a fairly good job of introducing the different aspects of archaeology to the novice, (contrary to the blurb, there is no real way in which this book could function as a serious reference for a professional archaeologist), I have a couple of comments I want to make about the book from a theoretical point of view.

While Renfrew and Bahn position themselves as heirs to all the different schools of archaeology, they do in fact, pick and choose the archaeologists (and the theoretical paradigms they support) quite specifically. Certain works and authors are praised effusively and others are presented with cautionary tags attached to them. This is of course Renfrew and Bahn's perogative. However, the overall effect of the book is the promotion of a fairly traditional positivist view of archaeology (not the radical extreme of Binford exactly, but certainly archaeology as science nonetheless except where Renfrew's own "mentalist" leanings towards specific issues such as the peopling of Europe still come into play). If you are looking for a book that seriously tries to introduce some of the real theoretical advances in archaeology over the last twenty years, this is not the book to read. Renfrew and Bahn are not really presenting a synthesis of old and new approaches to archaeology, but the old dressed up in a new party dress (one that doesn't fit too well at that).

This may seem a little nit-picky to non-archaeologists but the point I want to make is this: Archaeologists use scientific techniques and approaches but we are different kinds of scientists than say physicists or mathematicians. We deal with people (much more complex than subatomic particles) and the cultural and political contexts of the past. Many of the advocates of archaeology as science hold the view that only science and scientists are the proper and legitimate custodians of the past.

Anyone who doubts where Renfrew and Bahn's sympathies really lie should check out the section on archaeology and indigenous people. One should bear in mind that the Disney Professor did not come of age when such concerns were really prominent in people's minds. However, the apparent open-endedness of the authors' commentary, at least to my way of thinking, overlies a much more conservative stance in which indigenous people are a problem to be overcome rather than partners to be accomodated.

So here's my view: buy the book if you want a how-to manual. But please please be aware of its limitations. Renfrew and Bahn do a pretty good job presenting their point of view but it's a point of view not a law of physics.

From Amazon.com

Great Reference as well as Introduction

Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice provides a great introduction to the various aspects of archaeology. It would be a marvellous addition to the library of any archaeology enthusiast. It provides the theory and description of archaeological methods as well as many real world examples. As a result, despite a potentially very dry subject matter, this book is not a hard read.

It is especially appropriate for any amateur who tries to keep up on archaeology and encounters new words/ideas. Since the coverage is encyclopedic, you will undoubtably find the explanations you want in this book!

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