Review: Archaeological Theory Today by Ian Hodder (editor) (2001) Assessment 3 out of 10

Disappointing. Has that curate’s egg quality of being good in parts.

There are good chapters:

-Colin Renfrew puts forward the big idea sedentism explains the “sapient paradox”, that new behaviour, evidenced in the archaeological record, appeared only gradually and with a long delay after appearance of modern Homo sapiens.

-the always marvellous Steven Mithen writes on cognitive evolution, including the evolution of human life history, mental modules and the extended mind, sexual selection and Acheulian handaxes and why religious thought is counterintuitive.

-Julian Thomas on the archaeology of place and landscape

-La Motta and Schiffer on behavioural archaeology, covering the life-cycle of artefacts , procurement, creation, reuse, abandonment. Man has always meddled with plants, agriculturalists meddle consistently in the pre-harvest stage.

However much of the rest is difficult to read, borrowing from sociology and falling into sociologist’s traps of undefined jargon and relativism, the view that researchers are so biased by their culture and prejudices, that no judgements can or should be made.

I couldn’t complete the chapter on the sociological concept of agency, which is undefined. You are expected to know! The chapter on the archaeology of identity was more readable,recognising the significance of ageing, rank and ethnicity, but slipping into feminism and political correctness.There is a chapter on post-colonialism. Surely that is a position not a theory. There is an unfortunate American bias. Why is there only a separate chapter on American material culture?

I bought the book hoping for an explanation of archaeological theory and how it has changed, specifically between processual and post-processual approaches. No such summary is included, instead it is left to Renfrew, a known processualist to comment critically on post-processualism.

It doesn’t help that the editor, Ian Hodder, is a supposed leader of the post-processual approach, so most of the contributors adhere to his post-processual orthodoxy, apparently unconcerned with the big questions of how society and economy and culture developed and persisted. The absolutely critical interaction between man and nature is barely mentioned. Instead to quote Richard Bradley, “symbolism and ideology [are treated] at such an abstract level that it hardly bears on the experience of people in the past.”

This review is of the 2001 anthology. It was replaced in 2012 by a new edition, but with Hodder continuing as editor, and excluding the chapter from Steven Mithen, I can’t imagine buying it.

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