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New Developments in Archaeological Science: A Joint Symposium of the Royal Society and the British Academy, February 1991.

This symposium volume is wonderfully free of all the short-comings that typify the genre. As they have done on several occasions since 1969, the Royal Society and the British Academy have invited a small and very well chosen group of acknowledged leaders in the discipline of archaeometry to present and discuss new developments in their special fields. (I regret that the discussions have not been transcribed and printed, for they must have been fully as interesting and instructive as the formal presentations. In addition, if one may judge from the printed accounts of the 19th century-transactions of the International Congresses of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology, these discussions bring to life the characters and idiosyncracies of the participants. It does seem a pity that all that will be lost to future historians of archaeology and archaeometry.)

So instead of the usual farrago of too many papers of a wide range of merit, we have here a a coherent collection of 13 in-depth accounts. (Two additional contributions, by Craddock on early mining and metallurgy and by Hare on light isotope analysis, appear only as abstracts, the contents having been published elsewhere.) The nature of these accounts also differs from that found in ordinary symposium publications: instead of narrowly circumscribed research papers, these are broadly conceived summaries of recent work by the authors as well as by other scholars that define, in each case, the state of the art -- where we are now and where we may be going.

The division into sessions is in itself a sort of weather-vane of future winds. The first group of three papers illustrates the growing trend towards what may be called holistic archaeology: the study of prehistoric environments. Baillie assesses the uses of dendrochronology for understanding past environmental change; Berglund gives an impressive example of reconstructing the prehistoric landscape of southern Sweden that will certainly become a model in other areas; and Courty demonstrates the potential of soil micromorphology. The session on artefact studies is almost equally sweeping in scope: Gale & Stos-Gale report on the current state of the British Academy Project on lead isotope studies in the Aegean, and Tite on the impact of electron microscopy on ceramic studies. Orton & Tyers' account of the successes and problems of mathematically assessing the number of ceramic objects from an assemblage of fragments has broad implications on the uses of statistical procedures in archaeology. The only sitespecific case is the work by Williams-Thorpe & Thorpe leading them to the conclusion that the Stonehenge bluestone was brought to the Salisbury plain by glacial, rather than by human, transport. The two papers in the session on site survey techniques assess the state of the art of remote sensing (Shennan & Donoghue) and of geophysical prospection (Aspinall), both with a strong emphasis on the important role of data processing for future progress. The division of organic archaeometry into separate sections on food remains and human remains is somewhat arbitrary: in the former, a broad review by Jones on food webs and ecosystems includes consideration of human skeletal and faecal evidence, and in the latter, one by Hedges & Sykes on biomolecular archaeology includes plants and small rodents. One must continue to hope for a more rational classification within this rapidly expanding field. There is a comprehensive and valuable account of methods and problems in the analysis of food remains by Evershed and his group at Liverpool and an assessment of light stable isotope analysis for dietary reconstruction by van der Merwe.

Readers may want to turn to Renfrew's concluding 'meeting summary' first, but are advised to resist the temptation. Pleasure delayed is pleasure doubled. And, predictably, this is no mere summary. In its three parts, Renfrew first takes a brief glance at the history of archaeometry, then bravely predicts future developments, including several of those suggested by the papers, and closes with some cautionary tales of past errors in archaeological science. His point is not the obvious and churlish one that archaeometry is fallible, but the subtle and generous one that conformity to Popper's criterion of falsifiability and a demonstrated history of self-correction are the marks of a mature science.

This is an enormously valuable collection of important papers. It does not diminish the merits of Pollard's editorship to note, with a twang of envy, that moulding such superior material into a superior product must have been more a pleasure than a chore.

CURT W. BECK Vassar College, Poughkeepsie (NY)
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Author:Beck, Curt W.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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