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Book Review – Understanding the Archaeological Record, Gavin Lucas

April 8, 2016

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012.


Nice cover, but I keep seeing that piece of pot as a slice of cake or pie.

I know! What is going on? An actual book review, of an actual archaeological book that has been printed (relatively) recently. What makes this even more surprising is that a) school holidays b) stupid head cold c) builder on the roof – noisy and obviously leading to this ear worm d) an inability to read anything more challenging than Eva Ibbotson and David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian and author) and thinking I’m being quite brainy for reading David Mitchell, actually. I’d blame this one on b) but it’s been going on since Christmas so I think it’s me rather than any virus. There was probably an e) but I’ve forgotten it, e) might be my inability to remember anything for longer than 60 seconds. However, you will be relieved to learn that I am still me so this is only a partial – but very long-winded – review, I’ve got to Chapter 4 so that’s as far as this review goes. I’m aware that this is a bit pathetic but I direct you to the beginning of this paragraph.

In Understanding the Archaeological Record Lucas is building on his previous book Critical Approaches to Fieldwork (2001) – and for all I know The Archaeology of Time (2005), I’ve not read it so can’t proffer an opinion. As with Critical Approaches this is not a fieldwork manual, instead it’s a review of current and historical practice in order to discusss how we have arrived at contemporary understandings of what constitutes the ‘archaeological record’ and how we might differently connect with material culture and record formation in order to translate an archaeological site into an archive. It’s a densely written book and I’ve found it hard going, see a) – e) above and the creeping suspicion that I am a bit thick, but it’s worth persevering with because Lucas is a very clever man with lots of experience of fieldwork, he’s read lots of other clever people’s work, he knows his archaeological history and he’s good at thinking big thoughts*.

While Lucas complains that the gap between theory and practice has widened to the point where a chosen theory will be applied to a case study, yet there appears to be no actual connection between the two, or the theory is so vague that it can be applied to any situation, he is far from being anti-theory, rather he is concerned that archaeological theories change rapidly while the methodology of archaeological practice has remained static. His intention is to reconnect the two, to take a look at the ontological relationship between archaeological practice and interpretation and reunite archive and material culture – and I’d agree that this is a problematic that needs to be solved. Additionally, I’m going to be sympathetic and enthusiastic about any writer who states ‘archaeological knowledge is not just discovered but made; that it is not simply about internal issues of evidence and testing but equally about external issues such as social and political conditions under which knowledge is created’ (Lucas 2012: 228). A self-evident fact perhaps, but it comes after demonstrating how little this idea was understood throughout the history of archaeology and how this has affected our what archaeology is and what it does.

For all the denseness of writing, Lucas articulates points which I’d foggily been aware of, but never brought to the forefront of my mind/writing and actually examined – so one of his key points is that we use the term ‘archaeological record’ to mean a variety of disparate things; artefacts and material culture, residues and formation theory, sources and fieldwork (Lucas 2012: 9-17). It’s one of those simple remarks that flick a switch in your head and makes sense of something that’s been annoying you and helps you see things differently. Of course I knew we used ‘record’ to mean all those things, but with Lucas’ discussion of the degrees to which these meanings have historically been applied to material culture and archive formation it all makes far more sense and makes it easier to seperate out the different meanings and then put them back together in a more situated and aware style. I hope.

Another lightbulb moment was when he talks about the total record, the idea of the incomplete record is the subject of Chapter 2 and how striving for the total record has affected archaeological practice. Why, he asks, did Pitt Rivers insist that everything from an excavation should be kept while Petrie was in favour of a selective approach? This has been seen as a fundamental difference between these two ‘fathers’ of archaeology, a difference emphasised and given moral significance by Wheeler’s hagiographisising (I Know that’s not a word, but it should be) and appropriating of Pitt Rivers. British prehistorians have tended, largely thanks to Wheeler, to side with Pitt Rivers, Lucas suggests that – leaving aside how far Pitt Rivers truly kept everything from his excavations (see Lucas 2001) – the difference in approach was partly due to the number of artefacts each had to deal with. Pitt Rivers’ was dealing with hundreds of items, Petrie had thousands. Again, it’s a tiny thing but when it’s spelt out all manner of other pieces slot into place and as well as mixing metaphors I may, at this point, have giggled and done a little air punch while saying ‘Yes! Of course!’ – hey, don’t judge me, see a) – e) above and add in f) lack of adult company unless you count the builder on the roof.

So, hauling myself back on track here – as I’ve sort of described above Chapter 1 outlines the scope of the book. Chapters 2 – 4 deal with ‘the received view of the archaeological record – that is, how it is currently depicted and its historical background’ (Lucas 2012: 4). These are the chapters I’ve actually read. Lucas kicks off with the idea of the Total Record  and how the incompleteness of archaeological data has been dealt with – before the 1950s, he argues, the idea was that if enough material was gathered a total record would result. Mid-twentieth century the emphasis changed to issues of preservation and survival, he terms this a shift from archaeological heuristics to source criticism (Lucas 2012: 51). Sampling theory is introduced and discussed, before he turns to the paradox of excavation as destruction and the archive as stand-in for the now vanished site and how in turn the emphasis on total record shifted to the archive. Chapter 3 ‘Formation Theory’ – although this discusses the various understandings of stratigraphy and how these have affected the interpretation of the archaeological record he also brings in the archaeological assemblage and the concept of palimpsest which supplies’the bridge between deposit and assemblage formation; it lies at the intersection of these two aspects of formation theory, and it is this concept which we really need to work on in relation to the archaeological record’ (Lucas 2012: 123). Chapter 4 ‘Materialized Culture’, again this is rooted in history: ‘The concept of material culture is a nineteenth-century invention, one bound up with the broad development of anthropology and archaeology but also implicated in the emergence of mass production and mass consumption in nineteenth-century society’ (Lucas 2012: 124). From the 19th century until well into the 20th century material culture was seen ‘as the expression or externalization of mind’ (Lucas 2012: 133). Lucas discusses this in connection with the ‘Anglophone’ tradition Pitt Rivers, Crawford, Childe, Hawkes and his Ladder of Inference, Taylor, Smith, MacWhite and the ‘francophone tradition’ Leroi- Gourhan and Lemonnier, before looking at the behavouralists – Schiffer and Binford, then the 1990s and materiality, phenomenology, actor-network theory, performance, Buchli’s terms of immanence and transcendence and new understandings of materiality.

By providing such a detailed examination Lucas’ book can be used as a history of the ideas about archaeological archives. These chapters could stand alone as an examination and critique of historical and contemporary practice. For this alone the book is a valuable addition to the histories we already have. By focussing on the theoretical Lucas would seem to be in the Trigger camp, but because Lucas has so much practical experience his work encompasses methodology and examines it in conjunction with the theoretical. It truly deals with both aspects and for someone interested in the history of fieldwork practices this makes it an interesting and useful read. The density of the prose may make his arguments initially difficult to grasp, but they repay careful attention and  I am certainly going to be re-reading this several times and using it in my work in future.

Chapters 5 and 6 are where Lucas’ presents his ‘reassessment of the concept of the archaeological record and attempts to respond to the fragmentation of the concept presented in the first part – to ontologically suture what I see as critical ruptures between different domains of the archaeological record . . . the archaeological record as something which is given (e.g. remains if the past) and something which is constituted by archaeologists (e.g. the archive)’ (Lucas 2012: 5). But, you’re going to have to wait for the next thrilling instalment to discover what this entails. Maybe. It depends on a) – f), next week I may just post photos of the builder, the 4 year old as a superhero fairy, cake, other books I read instead. It could go either way. It might be simpler if you just go away and read it for yourself and come back and tell me what Lucas says.

In the meantime, have a great weekend


* As this review is rapidly showing I am rubbish at all of these things and am fast becoming completely inarticulate, ‘good at thinking big thoughts’, oh good grief Julia!


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