Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: Bahn, Paul 2012 Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd Edition

Bahn, Paul 
2012 Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd Edition, Series: Very Short Introductions, Oxford University Press. 118 pages, list of Further Reading, Index. $12.95.

Review by Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

May 2018

Paul Bahn is a widely published archaeologist, a contributing editor to the Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology magazine. And co-author of a popular archaeology textbook Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, with Colin Renfrew.

Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction is 118 pages.This consists of a Preface, Introduction, ten short chapters, and a list of recommended readings. There are 22 illustrations, fourteen of which are cartoons added for humor.

In his “Introduction” Bahn works through distinguishing what archaeology is actually from the popular conceptions brought to the public through the media. Here he highlights a problem within the academic field of archaeology.
“The basic problem that they face is that very little evidence survives of most of the things that ever happened in the past, and of this evidence only the tiniest fraction is ever recovered by archaeologists, and probably only a minute portion of what is recovered is correctly interpreted or identified. ... [This results in some researchers] drawing lines through gaps in the evidence to produce sequences of phases or types; others by simply ignoring how terrible and unrepresentative the data are,and using them regardless to produce stories about the past” (p. 4)
This is the central problem with reliance upon archaeology for the interpretation of the past. I have characterized this problem previously as the problem of sample size and overwhelming data. That is, the issue is twofold: only a tiny portion of the past is actually represented by the samples we have recovered; at the same time the amount of data from these samples is so overwhelming that it is impossible that one person could know enough to make an accurate and comprehensive report about what has been recovered. Bahn addresses the second issue of overwhelming data in his first chapter.

Bahn highlights both the camaraderie and the “territoriality, bitchiness, backstabbing, and vicious infighting [which] for some reason goes way beyond what is normally encountered in other disciplines.” (p. 6) From this he describes archaeology in religious terms as “the very broadest of churches with something for everyone.” “Archaeology is a perpetual search, never really a finding; it is an eternal journey, with no true arrival. Everything is tentative, nothing is final.” (p. 7)

In chapter 1 “The origins and development of archaeology” Bahn traces the combination of digging and antiquarian interest back to Nabonidus (6th c BC) who excavated the much older temple of Naram-Sin. From here he briefly highlights Roman, Greek, and medieval antiquarian efforts. This chapter moves to focus on some of the significant changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bahn notes two trends: First: “excavation has become far slower and more painstaking.” (p. 12) The result of this is a great increase in the amount of data recovered from the small sample size and the corresponding need to spend time and resources dealing with this data. Second: “thanks to the development of new techniques and scientific analyses - we can now learn far more from each object.” (p. 13) Thus, while being able to learn more about each object increases the amount of data with which the archaeologists need to wrestle, the data do not increase the sample size to create a more accurate bigger or historical picture.
“In other words, as archaeology develops, it is doing much more with far less. It is also, alas, producing far too much in every sense. There are ever-growing numbers of archaeologists all over the world, competing for positions, and all trying to produce information or new data.” (p. 13)
Conservation of the recovered artifacts is a problem. And the field of archaeology itself suffers from a divide in definition between the North American practice of defining the field as a subdiscipline of Anthropology where in the Old World archaeology is treated “as a field in its own right.” (p. 15)

The next two chapters (chapter 2 “Making a date”, and chapter 3 “Technology”) focus on the tools and methods used in the archaeological task. Bahn highlights the distinction between relative dating and absolute dating, their various techniques and some of their significant limitations. For example, in dealing with Carbon 14 Bahn writes:
“The basic assumption behind the Radiocarbon method— that the concentration of C14 in the atmosphere has always been constant— eventually proved to be false, and we now know that it has varied through time, largely due to changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.” (p. 21)
And a bit later:
“[A]rchaeologists do not really need to know much about them [radiological dating methods]— … they have a touching and often misplaced faith in the ability of the boffins, the ‘hard scientists’, to take the sample of material provided and produce a suitable set of dates. One’s confidence in the laboratories is not helped by the fact that, when submitting a sample for radiocarbon dating, one is usually asked to say, in advance, what kind of figure is expected!” (p. 23)
It is particularly these cautionary comments that make this little volume of value. Bahn includes these kinds of warnings on almost every topic he introduces within the field of archaeology. Bahn is not a skeptical uninformed outsider. He has long professional experience in archaeology. In the third chapter he defines experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology (attempts to reproduce the methods the ancients might have used to create the artifacts). And along with pointing out benefits of these methods he also highlights and the dangers and limits inherent in this kind of interpretation.

In the next three chapters Bahn addresses techniques that are mainly used to address the questions of (chapter 4) “How did people live?”, (chapter 5) “How did people think?” and the ways they may have structured their (chapter 6) “Settlement and society”. As an example of Bahn’s caution, when he introduces archaeoastronomy and cognitive archaeology he uses the example of the Megalithic structures like New Grange, Ireland.
“Many of these are thought to have astronomical alignments, though it is not always possible to be certain, since there are so many things in the heavens that the chances are high that a circle of regularly or irregularly placed stones will be aligned on something significant quite by chance.” (p. 52)
Here Bahn also deals with the problem of the “religious explanation” -- the tendency of archaeologists to explain things by claiming that an object was “religious” is one of the most common non-explanations given through the history of modern archaeology.

The rest of the volume focuses on the difficulties in interpretation between competing schools of thought, both historically and currently, in archaeology. There are some methods and techniques discussed in these chapters, but mostly Bahn focuses on where theoretical views and frameworks were developed, the philosophical origins of these interpretive frameworks, what has been proposed through their perspectives, and how these interpretations have been challenged.

Bahn’s short book could be considered a “‘haute vulgarisation’ or well-informed popularization, i.e. accessible and readable syntheses that will appeal to the layperson or beginner without loss of content or accuracy.”(p.97, italics original) No doubt this is what he intended. Evaluating a work like this can become rather complex. Throughout the pages the reader is confronted with the smug hipper-and-wittier-than-thou just as often as legitimate criticism. It is also hard to form a balanced criticism on a work that is on the one hand trying to introduce readers to an academic field while on the other hand telling the reader that most of the field is “deadly dull,” “consists of dry tomes, filled with jargon and hot air, and aimed at other scholars.” (p.97)

Bahn provides valuable general criticisms of various aspects of archaeology while introducing these aspects. This is, indeed, a very valuable feature of this work. But it is puzzling to me that the author seems to assume that his readership is clever enough to distinguish between snark and actual critical evaluation while at the same time asserting that his readership is too shallow to be bothered with reading things that might bore them.

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