Environmental Archaeology Principles and Practice by Dena Feran Dincauze
Cambridge University Press. 2000. 587 pages; 65 figures; 23 tables. ISBN 0-521-31077-6.

         This book, published in 2000, is a significant volume at nearly 600 pages. I was a little surprised to find exactly what was and what was not included within these pages. Perhaps I have a particular understanding of Environmental Archaeology which is biased by the nature of the UK archaeological record or practice within the British academic and commercial archaeological establishment. When first dipping into the book, I decided to see what Prof. Dincauze had to say about a number of issues which I think of as mainstream to environmental archaeology.

         The book is organised into 8 main sections (named parts), each consisting of a small number of chapters, namely an Introduction, followed by Chronology, Climate, Geomorphology, Sediments and soil, Vegetation and Fauna, with a final section entitled Integration. At the end of each part is a case study, and each chapter ends with a summary, a "coda" (basically a few lines of summary) or a discussion. This feels like a promising structure, and I expected to be able to negotiate the various sections and sub-sections with ease. I went first to the section on coleoptera or beetles, to find an explanation of the MCR or mutual climatic range method, so powerfully used in reconstructing the climatic and environmental conditions prevailing during the deposition of sediment bodies. In Part VII, "Fauna" there are two paragraphs discussing coleoptera, with a line diagram illustrating the main parts of a beetle, but no mention of the MCR method. The following chapter, entitled "Faunal Paleoecology", and containing a section on "Reconstructing faunal environments" does not discuss beetles further, as far as I could see. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place, I thought, and turned to Part III, "Climate". I scoured chapter 8 "Climate Reconstruction" for some mention of beetles, and their use in reconstructing paleoclimate, but found none. Perhaps I didn't look hard enough, but actually I found it rather difficult to negotiate this book. Firstly, the organisation into parts, then chapters, which are subdivided into un-numbered subsections makes it a little difficult to get a handle on where you are in the text. Another thing that struck me, was that I was looking out for figures relating to the topic currently being sought. There are remarkably few figures, 65 in total, so just more than one for each 10 pages of text. I then turned my attention to pollen, as perhaps coleoptera are just a little specialised. After all, most environmental archaeologists would not be expected to do coleopteran analysis, and on-site sediments are not necessarily good at preserving their remains. Here I found a number of pollen diagrams, explained, and close by a table proving the English equivalents of the Latin names of the genera. I found this section informative and helpful.

         My next search for soil and sediment micromorphology revealed a single two-line sentence in chapter 11, though with three references provided. A further passing mention is made in chapter 12 "Archaeological matrices", while half a page is devoted to a figure showing the "great soil orders". I raised my eyebrows at the mention of "fold mountains" in Figure 9.5, reproduced from a 1974 reference. I thought this long-outdated term had disappeared even from school books now. I wonder why it is important for the student of environmental archaeology to be given examples of "four kinds of orogenic structures" (Fig. 9.5), or "selected stream pattern diagrams" (Fig. 9.1) at the expense of a description and/or illustration of how the detailed mode of deposition and constituents of sediments can be understood using micromorphology.

         After reading several sections and engaging in further searches, I feel that this book is not for me. I need diagrams to illustrate and illuminate the text. I need pictures (photographs, graphs, diagrams) to keep me enthusiastic and engaged. Surely the case studies justify illustration? I am struck by the number of references dating from the 1970's an 80's. I find the style of the text and the overall presentation very dry, rather theoretical, and I think I would have difficulty in understanding how the environmental archaeologist actually undertakes environmental archaeology from this account. I did like the printing of key concepts in bold, though these are rather few and far between in some sections. Perhaps the book was designed to cater for a particular niche market in the North American college system, but I am sure it would not be found very useful by UK undergraduate students in archaeology or cognate subject areas.

Ed Rhodes
Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art,
University of Oxford

Review Submitted: November 2002

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

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page