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Archaeology. The Conceptual Challenge, by Timothy Insoll
Duckworth & Co. 2007. 144 pages, 1 photograph. ISBN 978-0-7156-3457-8 (£11.99)

This short book asks a series of timely questions about the nature of archaeological enquiry; the place of humans in the natural world; the nature of culture and the language used in archaeological writing. At the core of the book is a call for a reconsideration of the implicit assumptions and concepts we engage as archaeologists and the ways in which our experience of the modern(-ist) world affects our reading of the archaeological materials we encounter. Does mass access to quick and easy international travel, for example, have implications for how we understand concepts of ‘the local’ and does a shrinking world mean that we place less stress on place, distance and the concept of the journey? Can the products of a society which is dependent on the written word really understand what it is to be pre-literate? Does the rise of an ‘on demand’ culture which is less dependent on face-to-face interaction have implications for understandings of tradition, history and socialisation?

Chapter 2 of the book explores how globalisation has affected archaeological interpretation and Insoll attacks recent, ego-centred work (such as phenomenological studies), calling for a reassessment of how we think about social groups and the concept of community. The nature of materiality is also discussed, as is the changing nature of diversity and what this means. These themes are expanded in Chapter 3, which deals in detail with phenomenology. Insoll suggests that, although the biological equipment for interpreting sensual data may be the same in the present as they were in the past, the context in which the data gathered from this equipment is interpreted is very different. Rather than assuming similarities in emotional and sensory frameworks between the past and present, we should, instead, try and prove that this was the case. Quite how this could be done is not, unfortunately, addressed.

Chapter 4 discusses the fragmentation of archaeology and the problems with increasing specialisation, which has led to a ‘shutting the doors’ to broader analyses, especially those which might cross disciplinary or chronological boundaries. This, Insoll argues, is a product of the way archaeology is taught: resulting in students either having a very shallow understanding of a broad range of subjects or a limited knowledge of detailed aspects of the discipline. Whilst critiquing fragmentation, Insoll recognises that there is a need for specialisation, but that there should be a reciprocal relationship between the specialist and the generalist. Insoll also identifies a problem with classificatory schemes, in which material is forced to fit into typologies and schema, with little consideration of other ways of ordering the world. This has wider implications: systems of classification can be diverse and act on levels such as metaphor and metonym. There may be no correspondence between the ways in which archaeologists classify data and how this was classified by the people using that material in the past. This is an interesting discussion, but it is unfortunate that there is no mention of Tilley’s (1999) detailed consideration of Metaphor and Material Culture, which dealt with many of the issues raised here.

Insoll concludes the volume by echoing Knapp’s (1996, 150) statement that ‘archaeology cannot simply borrow theory or metaphor from postmodernism or any other intellectual movement or discipline: it must continue to develop its own’ and goes on to attack postmodernism in archaeology in some detail. Central to this attack is the existence, despite claims to the contrary, of archaeological facts. Insoll (p.115) argues that, although the ways in which archaeological materials can be read may vary and that interpretation is, to an extent, open-ended, the materiality of archaeological data is based in fact, not interpretation: a ‘pot is still a pot’. Insoll suggests that an understanding of ‘critical realism’ may provide one way of approaching archaeological material which may take this into account. Whilst accepting that human society can be characterised as language-like and that knowledge is socially constructed, ‘critical realism’ calls for empirical frameworks, whilst at the same time avoiding prediction and the formulation of general laws. Insoll is not, however, calling for a new theoretical paradigm: ‘critical realism’ equates with ‘common sense’: a mid-point which allows for debate and interrogation of the evidence, whilst at the same time being grounded in the data. It also allows a broadening of the theoretical arena: whilst social construction is a factor in the ways in which human beings perceive and order the world, it is not the sole factor: climate, environment and nature also play their parts and ‘critical realism’ allows for the incorporation of these aspects into interpretation.

The main themes of this book are the questioning of assumptions and taken-for-granteds, as well the influence of the present on our interpretations of the past. Insoll recognises the need for an awareness of the self in relation to the past and a questioning stance with regard to supposed certainties. He also calls for more emphasis on uncertainty and ambiguity in interpretation and an interdisciplinary approach. The book is clear, well written, thought provoking and easily digestible. It is a useful addition to the literature on both archaeological theory and the state of archaeology in the 21st century.

David Mullin
University of Reading

Knapp, A.B. 1996. Archaeology without Gravity: Postmodernism and the Past. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 3, 127-58.
Tilley, C. 1999. Metaphor and Material Culture. London: Blackwell.

Review Submitted: February 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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