Back to Book Reviews

Archaeological Artefacts as Material Culture, by Linda M. Hurcombe
Routledge. 2007. xvi + 286 pages + 64 unpaginated pages of plates and figures, 64 figures (many in colour). pb ISBN 978-0-415-32092-4. (21.99)

This remarkable book promises a great deal, and delivers much. It claims to provide a ‘more postmodernist critique of artefact studies’ than Henry Hodges’ Artefacts of 1964—no great claim, perhaps, given that it is almost impossible to imagine a less postmodernist book than Hodges’. What Linda Hurcombe actually offers is a fascinating, eclectic and lavishly illustrated discussion of archaeologists’ interactions with things.

There is a curious tension running through many sections, between the urge to define—to pin down, to label, to attain essence; and the will to deconstruct—or rather to engage in what Linda Hurcombe herself refers to as the practice of critical self-reflection, for there is little of deconstruction here in the Derridian sense. In part, this tension accounts for the peculiar quality this volume has of being two books—one a sort of technical manual, a ‘how to’ of artefact studies; the other a much more personal set of reflections on the ways in which people create, use and relate to things.

The book begins with its statements of dogma—we live in a material world; artefacts are all around us (and—it later appears—include us); material culture consists of these objects, and communicates meaningful information; the phenomenon (but not the detail) of material culture is universal, and atemporal. This stuff is at the heart of archaeological endeavour. Nothing much with which to take issue.

The first half tells us what we need to know about the actual processes of ‘doing’ material culture studies: for instance, the first section covers topics as varied as why we create reductionist categorisations, typologies and classifications; the perils of the hermeneutic spiral; and the varying epistemological claims that different recovery strategies can support. Finds processing and the division of material amongst specialists? Check. Differences between archive and publication? Check. Criteria for selection of illustrated material? Check. By page 21 one’s head is spinning.

Chapter Three is ‘Learning from contexts’, and provides an introduction to varying notions of the archaeological record (but no mention of John Barrett’s suggestion that what archaeologists have to work with is not a record in any real sense, but rather pieces of evidence); to taphonomic processes, the chaîne opératoire, artefact biographies, structured deposition. It’s all here, and referenced in sufficient detail to allow the interested reader to pursue particular topics further.

‘Making sense of artefacts’ covers some of this ground again, somewhat to the reader’s relief. Typology re-appears (the section on analyst’s versus maker’s typologies is especially good), and we are introduced to analogy, particularly ethnographic, but also experimental. Hurcombe notes and dismisses the criticism that—rather than allowing for the expansion of the possibilities of being human in the past—a reliance on ethnographic analogy merely provides a pattern-book of documented variations. Other aspects of these subjects are treated in more detail. A particularly pleasing section of Chapter Four is the section on scientific analyses, especially the tabulated breakdown of techniques presented over thirteen pages in Tables 4.1 to 4.5. Confused over the differences between ICP-AES and ICP-MS? Unsure about X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and proton-induced X-ray emission? Again, Hurcombe presents a vast amount of information in a very concise manner. And if one’s interest is in how the study of archaeological objects has changed (or not) with the supposed theoretical paradigm shifts, Chapter Five tells you.

Amongst this barrage of information are a very generous series of illustrations. Some—the 64 pages of predominantly colour plates which are quite literally the book’s centrepiece, for instance—are wonderful in their own right, and continue the tradition of illustration and photography within archaeological volumes as art, rather than as mere didactic tools, which can be traced from Piggott and Daniel’s Picture Book of Ancient British Art (Piggott & Daniel 1951) through to Mike Shanks’ Experiencing the Past (2002), many of Mark Edmonds’ landscape archaeologies (Edmonds 1999; Edmonds & Seaborne 2001) and (one would dare to hope) Framework Archaeology’s monograph series (eg, 2006). Few illustrations of wood grain macroscopic characteristics (figure 7.12), basketry techniques (figure 7.18) or sherd breaks as information on firing temperatures and atmospheres (figure 9.7) can be as aesthetically pleasing as Hurcombe’s. But yet again, one cannot help but be struck by the dichotomy that separates these from—for instance—figure 2.4 ‘All ages enjoy handling objects at the Princesshay open day’, a very grey photograph in which some people are looking at some pot sherds on a table. Or the entirely baffling (to this reviewer’s eyes) series of figures (2.1 to 2.3, for instance) which purport to illustrate such things as the stages in the treatment of archaeological finds, or ‘spirals of object/people interactions’, but which look more like instructions for how to build a still.

The second half of the book is its meat and its matter. In this series of chapters Hurcombe discusses material, at first in general terms of what materiality might be, and then in a series of chapters each which treats a different material type or group. There is little point in attempting to summarise the contents of these chapters, other than to note again the variety of Hurcombe’s interest, her skill as a synthesiser, and her tendency to overwhelm with the sheer quantity of stuff she offers up.

It is undoubtedly an effect of the scale of its scope that made this book a difficult one for the author to bring to any sort of conclusion. The three-page Chapter Eleven ‘Artefacts as material culture: past, present, and future’ is little more than a brief restatement of the main themes of the preceeding chapters. One can only applaud Hurcombe’s defence of the arts in the face of scientistic primacy, and hope that she is correct in her prediction of a move from ‘how was it made’ and ‘where from’ questions to ‘why was it made’ and ‘how was it used’ enquiries, and the consequent ascent up the ladder of inference which that implies.

Some of the book’s weaknesses are simultaneously its strengths. Its diversity makes it impossible to imagine the person who would not find something of worth in it, whilst at the same time it is hard to envisage the audience who would benefit from reading it from cover to cover. Apart from—and this perhaps may be the clue to both its diversity and its origins—the undergraduate student. The book fairly reeks of having begun life as a lecture course, or perhaps as a series of lecture courses. This of course is true of many an excellent work, especially in the climate in which current academia operates, and is by no means a stamp of condemnation. This book does not need condemning, for—while it makes no great intellectual advances (rather than forcing back the walls of the discipline, it strips away the faded old paper and hangs an attractive new pattern; paint brightened up)—it covers a vast quantity of ground in an accessible and seldom uninteresting way. The major criticism that can be offered of it is the absence of any particular unifying thread—the structure is rather bewildering, and the theoretical underpinnings only glimpsed. As a fellow student of material culture, however, one can only doff one’s cap to the breadth of Hurcombe’s achievement, whilst hoping perhaps for subsequent works turning slightly less ground with a little more depth.

Matt Leivers
Wessex Archaeology

References

Edmonds, M., 1999. Ancestral geographies: landscape, monuments and memory. London: Routledge

Edmonds, M. & Seaborne, T., 2001. Prehistory in the Peak. Stroud: Tempus

Framework Archaeology, 2006. Landscape Evolution in the Middle Thames Valley: Heathrow Terminal 5 Excavations: Volume 1, Perry Oaks. Salisbury and Oxford: Framework Archaeology

Piggott, S. & Daniel, G.E., 1951. A Picture Book of Ancient British Art. Cambridge: University Press

Shanks, M., 1992. Experiencing the Past. London: Routledge

Review submitted: September 2008

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



Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page