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Chapter Summary

  • Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice seeks to examine the various methods and ideas employed by archaeologists. The book stresses that the history of archaeology has been the story of an expanding quest, in which the finds made in the field can often be less important for progress than the new questions asked and the new insights gained. The success of an archaeological enterprise thus depends crucially on our learning to ask the right questions, and finding the most productive means of answering them.
  • It is for this reason that the chapters in this book have been organized around a series of key questions. Inevitably, the chapters each focus on different themes. But in reality the life of the archaeologist is not quite like that. For when you go out into the field with your research design, with the bundle of questions you would like to answer, you may in fact find something quite different from what you expected, yet obviously very important. The archaeologist excavating a multi-period site may be interested primarily in a single, perhaps early, phase of occupation. But that does not give him or her the right to bulldoze away the overlying levels without keeping any record. Excavation is destruction and (as we shall discuss in the next two chapters) this brings to the archaeologist a series of responsibilities, some of them not always welcome, which cannot be avoided. The practice of archaeology, in the hard light of reality, is often very much more complicated—and therefore more challenging—than one might imagine.
  • This is particularly so at the organizational level. To undertake a field project takes money, although we will not examine the funding or organization of such projects here. Increasingly, as we review in Chapter 15, archaeological sites are protected by law, and a permit will be needed in order to undertake fieldwork and to excavate. Then there is the task of recruiting an efficient excavation team. What about transport, lodging, and food? After the excavation, who is to write what part of the excavation report? Are the photographs adequate, have the finds been suitably illustrated by drawings, who will finance publication? These are the practical problems of the field archaeologist.
  • This book is primarily about how we know what we know, and how we find out—in philosophical terms, about the epistemology of archaeology. To complete the picture, it is important to see something of archaeology in action: a few real field projects where the questions and methods have come together and produced, with the aid of the relevant specialisms, some genuine advance in our knowledge.
  • The questions we ask are themselves dependent on what, and how much, we already know. Sometimes the archaeologist starts work in archaeologically virgin territory—where little or no previous research has been undertaken—as for instance when the Southeast Asian specialist Charles Higham began his fieldwork in Thailand (see our fourth case study, Khok Phanom Di: the Origins of Rice Farming in Southeast Asia).
  • In the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico, on the other hand—our first case study—when Kent Flannery and his colleagues began work more than four decades ago, little was understood of the evolution in Mesoamerica of what we would call complex society, although the great achievements of the Olmec and the Maya were already well known. The work of the Flannery team has involved continual formulation of new models. It represents an excellent example of the truism that new facts (data) lead to new questions (and new theories), and these in turn to the discovery of new facts.
  • The second study, devoted to Florida’s Calusa Project, investigates the apparent paradox of a sedentary, complex, and powerful society that was almost entirely based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. Until the 1980s, nearly everything known about the Calusa came from Spanish ethnohistorical accounts, but archaeology is transforming and expanding our knowledge of many aspects of this prehistoric culture.
  • Our third case study follows the research project of Val Attenbrow and her associates in Upper Mangrove Creek, southeastern Australia. Here archaeologists have attempted to study the traces left by small groups of highly mobile hunter-gatherers, and to establish their technological responses to environmental changes over time.
  • The transformation in our knowledge of prehistoric Australia and Southeast Asia over the course of the last 50 years has been one of the most exciting developments to have taken place in modern archaeology. The Upper Mangrove Creek and Khok Phanom Di projects, with their close integration of both environmental and archaeological studies, have played an important part in that transformation.
  • Our fifth case study focuses on the work of the York Archaeological Trust in the northern English city of York. This is a project of a very different kind: working under all the constraints of archaeology in a modern urban setting, the York unit has set out to present its findings to the public in a novel and effective way, and JORVIK, their visitor center, has for the past 25 years led the way in this aspect of public archaeology.