A Consumer’s Guide to Archaeological Science


Rating: ★★★★☆

Mary E Malainey. 2012. A Consumer’s guide to Archaeological Science. Springer.  ISBN 978 1 4419 5703 0

The increasing complexity of environmental science requires an equally increased sophistication in the use of techniques and an understanding of the limitations. I think it would be fair to say that there are few archaeologists trained in environmental archaeology (and, analogously, the same would apply to most sciences/scientists). Each has their speciality but there is a need to know at least how to interpret results and see if they are compatible with other evidence (the recent Richard III discovery is a case in point).  The ideas here resonate – I was one of the early band of environmental archaeologists when the field science was virtually unknown. Today, it is a massive branch of  archaeology which has expanded far from its humble roots.  For those who see less of an ecology text here, the lesson needs to be taken that we don’t as a rule, provide good science understanding to professionals in allied fields. It’s with this in mind that the book can be unpacked.

This is a large tome of almost 600 pages. It covers considerable ground but divides it into four main sections. The first, titled ‘basic science’ deals with the very basis of applied science – atoms, radiation/radioactivity, organic compounds and a few chemistry concepts like pH. It’s an interesting start to the book. The section is quite small as befits an introduction but it covers considerable ground. More importantly, it covers both basic and advanced concepts within a small space suggesting that the reader needs to have at least a working knowledge of science to start with (whether such understanding negates the need for such an introduction is another matter). Section two looks at applications, starting with a very brief but useful chapter examining such key lab ideas as limitations, sensitivity etc. and  highlighting  some of the basic issues that need to be considered. Given that dating is central to archaeology it is not surprising to see the first four chapters devoted to a range of techniques ranging from carbon-dating to archaeomagnetism. Depending on the importance or prevalence of the technique, chapters tend to work in similar ways with an overview of the science (both theory and practice) giving way to uses and then limitations and considerations in using the technique. From dating, applications turn towards organic remains with a series of key tests including lipid residue, blood analysis and DNA. Part three takes a completely different stance by looking not at the techniques but at the items upon which the tests might be conducted. So, for example, the first chapter on pottery and ceramics illustrates the range of techniques available from a range of bulk analysis tests to x-rays and petrographic studies. Further chapters examine a very wide range of materials stone tools, organic remains, rocks, minerals, soil and even stucco. Part four takes yet another turn by describing the instruments and techniques used in testing. It starts with a brief consideration of sampling and continues to describe both physical and chemical techniques, mostly variations in spectroscopy. A good glossary and large reference section complete the text.

It’s fair to say that texts aiming for sufficiently complete explanations for the lay person making sure the key ideas are covered are fraught with danger. A number of factors have to be carefully balanced. Obviously the range has to be comprehensive, mentioning all the main examples. The text needs to provide not only the technique but worked examples highlighting both advantages and limitations of the technique. It should also (and this is the hardest of all to get right) provide an introduction which is clear but where the various items are mentioned at the same level of technical understanding. Taking these three points as the basis, there is much to like in this text. A very wide range of techniques is covered although they are biased towards physical/chemical analysis with less on the biological side. It excels on the idea of putting into context. The four sections work very well. The introduction is useful and sets the scene. Parts on applications and materials trace the same item from different perspectives – purely the technique, or a material subject to a range of techniques. Although it might be seen as just a remix of ideas, in this book it works extremely well largely because of the wide range of cases to illustrate the points under discussion. The final section on instrumentation allows the archaeologist to appreciate limitations. It’s the final parameter that has proven to be the most difficult to balance  which part one illustrates best. Some explanations are highly detailed and could rightly be seen as too difficult for a beginner scientist. Other parts are far simpler suggesting a bias in examples chosen. However, this is a minor issue because it could as well be education level of the reader! Overall, this is a really good text. It’s strongest feature is the range of perspectives used to describe the same idea. It is the sort of book this reviewer wishes were available years ago when scientific techniques were far less well understood. This text would have saved a lot of explanation!

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