McIntosh, Jane. The Practical Archaeologist. 2d edition.

NY: Facts on File, 1999.

When I was an adolescent, back in the late ‘50s, I had two obsessions: The far future and the far past. I guess I just wasn’t interested in living in the present (the mark of the nerd), but I read a great deal about space flight and astronomy (and a lot of science fiction) and another great deal about ancient history and archaeology. In fact, my ambition at that age was to be the Official Archaeologist on the first Mars expedition.

I didn’t make it, obviously, but I did spend the summer before college working as a volunteer in the Missouri Basin Project, helping to survey suspected Indian hunting campsites in the upper Midwest. It wasn’t very exciting work in an objective sense but I was fascinated by it. And in graduate school, I worked with a university group poking around the remains of several Civil War-era army posts in New Mexico. I’ve been an avid armchair archaeologist ever since.

McIntosh’s book is widely recommended as an introductory survey to the field, and with good reason. The author, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, is widely experienced in the field and also knows how to explain her profession to civilians. She divides things into five sections, on just what archaeology is about, a broad look at the archaeological “landscape,” the techniques of excavation, how findings are interpreted and related to everything else, and what we should make of all this in understanding the past. Early on, there are numerous short discussions, only a couple of pages each on subjects as wide-ranging as Howard Carter and Tutankhamen’s tomb, the Leakey family at Olduvai Gorge, the Piltdown fraud, the Mary Rose, and whether King Arthur really lived at South Cadbury. Then she gets into settlement patterns, aerial photography, how one selects a test site, approaches to excavation (and the current argument over whether excavations should even be undertaken in the first place), the tools of the trade (from the trowel on up), record-keeping, field conservation, and why so much time is spent grubbing around slowly in the dirt. Processing and interpretation takes us into the principles of typology and stratigraphy, radiocarbon and fission-track dating, laboratory preservation, the unique problems of industrial archaeology, and the legal difficulties inherent in dealing with human remains of the historical era. Finally, she discusses more abstract topics like economic prehistory, the cultural significance of certain finds, the place of religion in prehistory, migration pressures, and “archaeology in the computer age” — some of which is already out of date.

The whole book is heavily illustrated and includes numerous sidebars on key figures in the development of the field. The style is engaging without being overly technical, which isn’t easy to do. And the result is an absorbing overview of a fascinating subject that should lead you to a good deal of subsequent reading. I hope there will be a 3rd edition before too long.

Published in: on 11 November 2013 at 8:39 am  Leave a Comment  
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