Theories, Methods and Practice

Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn’s Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice is required reading if you’re interested in archaeology.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Back in 1998, when I started studying Archaeology & Prehistory at the VU University in Amsterdam, one of the first books I had to buy was Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, written by British archaeologists Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn. I think it was the second edition.

I don’t quite recall which edition I used back then, because I bought the latest edition – the seventh, published in 2016 – a few years ago to replace it and saw no reason to hang onto the older book. I also hate making notes in books, so it wasn’t personalized in any way, either. In any event, I felt that after 18 years I ought to buy a fresh copy.

In this article, I’ll review the contents of the book, which consists of 16 chapters divided into three parts. It’ll mostly be a rundown of the book’s contents, because there’s simply no reason for you not to go out and buy it. There’s nothing like it out there, so if you have an interest in archaeology – and you should, if you’re here – you need this book on your shelf if you don’t have it already.

The framework of archaeology

The first part of the book is entitled “The framework of archaeology” and deals with the basics. Chapter 1, “The searchers”, is about the history of the discipline, from ancient speculation to the earliest more or less scientific excavations in the eighteenth century and beyond. Archaeology has a rich history of itself, intertwined as it is with developments in philosophy and science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular.

Scholars challenged the notion that the Earth was relatively young, embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution as offering new ways to understand developments not just in the natural realm, but also in the cultural sphere, and developed new frameworks to better understand the past, such as the Three Age System, in which humankind’s early history was divided into Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Various text boxes add detail to Renfrew & Bahn’s account of archaeology’s history, including an important spread on “pioneering women in archaeology”, which wasn’t there in the edition I read back in the nineties.

Chapter 2, “What is left?” is about the evidence that archaeologists have available and especially about how that evidence has come to be. Just how does stuff end up in the ground? How is an archaeological site formed? A central concept here concerns formation processes, which can be divided into two types: cultural formation processes and natural formation processes. These processes affect how the archaeological record is formed.

Cultural formation processes are the ways archaeological evidence has entered the archaeological record through human action: think of a half-finished sculpture that was abandoned in a quarry, flakes of stone at a site where a hunter-gatherer once sharpened a tool, or a pot that was deliberately placed in a grave. But humans may also affect the archaeological record in other ways, for example by ploughing the soil (and thereby disturbing the remains that are buries underneath), through deliberate destruction, by looting, and so on.

Natural formation processes are the ways that the natural environment and climate affect the archaeological record. Wind, rain, and floods can cause sites to get buried or exposed. Extreme conditions may sometimes preserve organic materials that would otherwise perish: think of the preservation of papyri and mummies in Egypt or Ötzi the ice man in the Alps. Natural formation processes also involve animals that disturb an archaeological site: a rabbit or a mole digging a burrow and thereby moving pottery sherds from a higher (younger) layer down to a lower (older) layer, posing challenges to interpreting the archaeological evidence.

Chapter 3 asks the question “Where?” and deals with how archaeologists engage in fieldwork. There are two main types of fieldwork: surveys (where you scour the surface of an particular area in a systematic way) and excavations (where you dig in a particular area in an equally systematic way). In truth, there are more types of fieldwork, including underwater archaeology, geophysical surveys, non-disruptive examinations of archaeological remains in situ (like studying fortification walls), and more. Much of this is covered in detail in the book.

Of course, archaeologists need some way of organizing their material. Chapter 4 turns to answer the question, “When?” When it comes to dating material remains, there are two methods: relative and absolute. Relative dating relies, among other things, on stratigraphy (an object lower in the ground tends to be older than one closer to the surface) or on typological sequencing. In the latter case, we rely on changes in form and style to date things, as most objects tend to change across time. The classic examples involve looking at how phones and cars have changed over the course of the last one hundred years.

With absolute dating methods, you’re able to connect a particular object (or type of object) to a specific date. Calendars and other historical chronologies, like the regnal years for kings and emperors, or the dates calculated for Athenian archons or Roman consuls, can sometimes be connected to specific objects. For example, if you were to excavate a tomb at Lefkandi in Greece and you find an Egyptian scarab inscribed with the name of an Egyptian king, you’d know that the grave must date from after that king started his reign. But there are many more methods to date something absolutely: tree rings, for example, or radiocarbon dating.

The variety of the human experience

Archaeology is, put succinctly, about using material culture to understand people in the past. Part 2 of Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice forms the bulk of the book and includes eight thematic chapters. The first of these, chapter 5, deals with how societies were organized. Even in this newest edition, the backbone of this chapter is the anthropological classificatory system devised by Elman Service and expanded upon by later writers.

In this system, societies are classified in broadly four types: mobile hunter-gatherer bands, segmentary societies (what used to be called “tribes”), chiefdoms, and finally states. But such classificatory schemes are often unsatisfactory, especially since they’re based on anthropological studies rather than archaeological ones. Reliance on such models may lead researchers to contort the evidence to fit a model rather than try to create a model based on the evidence. If you’re ever tempted to rely on these anthropological models, please read Adam T. Smith’s The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities (2003) first.

Fortunately, newer editions of Renfrew & Bahn’s book have expanded on chapter 5 in meaningful ways, for example by adding sections that deal with the archaeology of the individual, gender and childhood, and recent developments in the sphere of (molecular) genetics.

Chapter 6 deals with environmental archaeology: how did landscapes form and what plants and animals did humans in the past share their environments with? The box features in this chapter are particularly strong, featuring discussions of El Niño and global warming, pollen analysis, cave sediments, and using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to map ancient environments. If any chapter proves that archaeology benefits from a truly multi-disciplinary approach, this is it.

Chapter 7 focuses on the economic basis for ancient societies by asking, “What did they eat?” The focus here is on human exploitation of plant and animal resources, domestication of flora and fauna, and determining the diet of people in the past. Chapter 8 deals with technology, specifically how people made and used tools, the subject people perhaps associate most clearly with the work that archaeologists do.

The next two chapters deal with subjects that are higher up on the “ladder of inference” that archaeologist Christopher Hawkes once proposed.Show According to Hawkes, archaeology could more easily answer questions regarding e.g. how sites were formed and what people in the past subsisted on rather than what people believed. Chapter 9 deals with interaction, and more specifically with trade and exchange. How did certain raw materials or finished goods end up in certain places? Were these part of strictly economic exchanges or were they traded as prestige objects as part of gift exchange?

Chapter 10 turns to what Colin Renfrew refers to as “cognitive archaeology” and asks how archaeologists can figure out what people in the past thought. It’s about art and myth, religion, monuments, and more. But a central theme in this chapter is “symbols”, and I find the use of that term slightly problematic. Adam Smith, in the book cited earlier, explains that symbols are not just symbolic, but are in fact constituent elements in creating (and maintaining) power and authority. So again, I’d recommend you read his book to better understand this chapter and its issues.

Chapter 11 deals with “the bioarchaeology of people”. Concretely, this is about physical attributes of people in the past (e.g. how tall were they?), what diseases they suffered from, and so on. Especially the shorter sections of this chapter should perhaps have been included in chapter 5 (identity and personhood) or chapter 7 (nutrition), but it’s useful for offering a broad-strokes introduction to physical characteristics of people in the past.

What should perhaps be the most important chapter in this part is the final one. In chapter 12, the authors write about how archaeologists try to explain – rather than merely describe – change over time. What follows is a mostly chronological treatment of different theoretical frameworks. The earliest of these believed that change was largely the result of migration: people would make new types of artefacts or construct new types of houses as a result of immigration.

More sophisticated theories were developed from the 1960s onwards. The placement of Renfrew’s own “cognitive archaeology” as the culmination of this process still seems a little disingenuous to me, as does the rather curt dismissal of “postprocessualists” who have embraced Critical Theory (p. 501), in a section that doesn’t seem to have changed much since I first read it in 1998. A new section has been added that deals with agency and materiality, but it’s rather superficial.

On the whole, this final chapter is a bit disappointing. As a very general overview for (first-year) students, this may be fine, but anyone who really wants to delve into archaeological theory is better serviced by other books. Pride of place goes to Matthew Johnson admirably accessible Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (second edition, 2010), published by Wiley-Blackwell. If you care about archaeological theory (and you should), you ought to get yourself a copy of that book.

The world of archaeology

The third and final part of the book places the discipline into a wider context. Chapter 13 provides five case studies that give an idea of the breadth and variety of archaeological research. This chapter doesn’t just deal with fieldwork, but also with preserving and presenting the past to a wider audience (using York). On the whole, this chapter gives a good idea of how archaeologists go about their business, though perhaps there should have been a greater emphasis on how much research is done in the library.

In chapter 14, the authors seek to answer the question, “Whose past?” A noteworthy section contrasts popular archaeology (like what we do here on Ancient World Magazine) with pseudoarchaeology (e.g. aliens built the pyramids and comparable nonsense). Just as important is the section that deals with claims to ownership of the past: is it okay for the British Museum to keep the Elgin Marbles, should archaeologists excavate burial grounds that some today hold as sacred, and so on?

Chapter 15 is about managing cultural heritage. It starts off with a section on the destruction of past (both deliberate and otherwise), and how archaeologists respond to this, e.g. by mitigating destruction or preserving sites. This chapter also briefly poses questions that are in line with those of the previous one chapter on archaeology and the public. Just who interprets and presents the past? What use is the past? The authors skirt the issue of politicization of the past. A passage on p. 582 even suggests that “some colonialist and racist preconceptions have been rooted out”, which, in this age of rising populism and the normalization of extremists, strikes me as rather naive.

The book’s final chapter was definitely not part of the book back when I first read it. Entitled “The new searchers”, it deals with “building a career in archaeology”. Two of the six are university professors, one is a contract archaeologist in the UK, one works in cultural resource management (CRM), one is engaged in archaeometallurgy (in a lab that is part of a university; he is also a lecturer), and the last is a curator in the British Museum. Half of them are women.

This final chapter is a disappointment. The emphasis here is on people who conduct research, who are “actively engaged […] in the creation of new knowledge” (p. 585). This immediately ignores archaeologists engaged in public outreach who do not, necessarily, conduct original research. Three of the people interviewed work at universities, where the pickings for prospective employees are slim; one works at the British Museum (good luck getting a job there), and the other two are (self-)employed with commercial companies.

The fact of the matter is that many people who study archaeology (or related fields) will not be able to build a career in their chosen field. There are simply not enough jobs to go around and applying for grants year in, year out is only for those who are unable (or unwilling) to find employment beyond the narrow confines of a university campus or a museum. I myself have been working in publishing for nearly a decade and I know many others who have left academia behind simply to be able to pay rent and buy food.

A future edition of Renfrew & Bahn’s book should be more honest when it comes to career prospects in archaeology. It would be useful for readers, especially students, to hear from people who have found work outside the narrow band of academia, museums, or commercial archaeological endeavours. Paul Bahn, of all people, should have felt the need to include at least one person who has managed to carve out a niche for him- or herself by simply writing books and organizing talks about the past for enthusiasts. After all, good work, including the “creation of new knowledge”, is still done by trained archaeologists, historians, and classicists in their spare time, when they conduct “independent research”.

Still, despite all my criticism, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice remains a foundational read for anyone interested in archaeology. Indeed, anyone with an interest in the past should get this book. Just be sure to treat this as a starting point to learn more about the discipline.