Online Review: Book

Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader

Rachael Sparks

110.2

Edited by Suzanne Richard. Pp. xviii + 486, figs. 122. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Ind. 2003. $45. ISBN 1-57506-083-3 (cloth).

The number of textbooks available for the study of the ancient Near East has expanded in recent years, with individual volumes focusing on the archaeology of Israel, Jordan, and Syria—although we still await anything comparable covering Lebanon. These works break up the region into a series of smaller, more digestible areas, defined more by the limitations of modern political boundaries than by ancient geographic or cultural realities. No textbook has attempted to cover the entire region, and although there have been some encyclopedias published in recent years that have successfully done so, these tend to be cumbersome and expensive (e.g., Sasson’s excellent Civilizations of the Ancient Near East [New York 2000]). This volume, a single, affordable book that has been touted to bring the archaeology of this diverse landscape into perspective and provide a balanced overview, was greatly anticipated (cf. its recent selection by Choice magazine as one of its “Outstanding Academic Titles” for 2004).

The resulting publication was, therefore, disappointing, if only because it did not deliver on the promise of its title. Originally planned as a comprehensive encyclopedia of Levantine archaeology, circumstances led the editor to reduce the scope of the work, resulting in a much more thematic volume that focuses largely on the southern Levant—not the wider Near East that the title lays claim to. It is intended to serve as a basic reference work for a wide audience (ranging from the general public to theologians, historians, and, of course, archaeologists). Getting the balance of information right for such a diverse readership is an ambitious undertaking, and as Richard herself admits, the result has been uneven and not as complete or comprehensive as originally intended. Yet, in compiling her material, Richard had drawn on an impressive list of world-class contributors, reading something like a who’s who of research in the field, and assuring the long-term value of the work as a whole.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is described as “theory, method, and context” and contains 34 articles on a variety of topics. Some of these aim at giving backgrounds to the methods and history of excavation and research in specialized fields such as archaeozoology, paleoethnobotany, ethnoarchaeology, linguistics, textual analysis, use of GIS and computers, conservation, and survey techniques. Others deal with overviews of aspects of ancient cultures, ranging from architecture, burial customs, road systems and maritime transport, to various types of technology (metalworking, pottery production, agriculture), with a handful of more object-based discussions (weapons, jewelry, mosaics, coins, and scarabs). Part 1, therefore, provides a theoretical and cultural backdrop, against which the 28 articles in the second part, “Cultural Phases and Associated Topics,” can be considered. Here we are offered a chronological overview of the region, beginning with the Paleolithic and ending with the Hellenistic, interspersed with a range of period-specific topics, such as the Nahal Mishmar hoard, Canaanite religion, Amarna texts, Samaritans, and Classical texts. Coverage is, therefore, extensive and a mine of valuable data, with each article accompanied by a useful list of references. These disparate articles are given a uniform style through the use of descriptive subheadings and running figure numbers.

Some papers in particular stand out as worthy of mention. Beitzel’s geographical survey of the region makes the relationships between geography and the development of cultural and political landscapes seem beautifully simple. Wapnish and Hesse provide a masterful study on the role of archaeozoology by showing how the aims of this discipline mesh with the needs of archaeologists and by providing a welcome, if brief, survey of how animal use has changed in the region over time. Another useful paper is that by Wright on Preclassical architecture, which relates architectural forms to their social context. Studies such as these offer insights on long-term developments in societies and their material culture that are often lacking in more period-specific volumes.

Occasionally the ordering of material seems to lack logic, a problem that may originate from the encyclopedic design of the whole. Why does the discussion on Preclassical architecture, for example, appear in part 1, while that on synagogues and churches is kept back until part 2? Sections on the Negev, trade, religion, and cult seem similarly misplaced under specific periods, when their content is much more wide-ranging. Sometimes this arrangement seems to hinder rather than help comprehension, as with Dever’s chronological overview, which would be better suited as an introduction to the cultural and chronological divisions employed in part 2 than where it appears, buried in the middle of part 1. Overall, the resulting product feels unbalanced, with some periods receiving much greater coverage than others. There is no chronological overview past the Hellenistic period, for example, and yet several papers focus on material from the Roman period and beyond. This omission is a pity, as its extended continuity could otherwise be seen as one of the Reader’s strengths, giving it the edge over similar volumes covering a more limited time span.

For a book that is designed to appeal to students and the general public, there is also an unfortunate lack of user-friendly research aids built into its basic design. There is no index, for example, and no list of figures and maps. Choice of illustrations appears to have been left to individual authors, resulting in variable quality and some strange omissions. One might be forgiven for expecting a series of maps covering all the areas and periods discussed in the volume, but this is not the case with the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Middle Bronze Age, and Hellenistic periods all strangely overlooked. When maps do appear, they are scattered throughout the volume and are consequently difficult to locate. Another helpful addition would have been a glossary of specialist terminology to bridge the gap between the professional and amateur audiences to whom the book seems to be marketed. Some of the terms used, such as “palaeosol,” “speleothems,” or “lexemes,” belong to particular fields, and even words that seem commonplace to the archaeologist, such as “the Levant,” “balk,” and “Harris Matrix,” warrant explanation for students of other disciplines, such as theology or history.

With the burden of scholarship in the field of Near Eastern archaeology constantly growing, and specialized branches of research and analysis moving toward mainstream awareness, there is a real need for resources to help guide students and researchers through the discipline. Whether this book is the best tool for the job is another question. Most of the material that the reader would want is represented in this volume, but its presentation would have benefited from greater editorial control, while the seemingly random arrangement of some articles does leave it to the individual to find his or her own way through all this information, without a preconstructed route of the type a more conventional textbook would provide. In this, the volume has the feel of a series of Web pages rather than a novel; while democratic, there is the danger that the less experienced researcher or student will become disoriented. This critique must be balanced, however, by the high quality of the scholarship involved and the Reader’s comparatively low price, which does give it an advantage over similar works published in recent years and would make it a worthy addition to any library.

Rachael Sparks
Institute of Archaeology
31–34 Gordon Square
University College London
London, WC1H 0PY
United Kingdom
r.sparks@ucl.ac.uk

Book Review of Near Eastern Archaeology: A Reader, edited by Suzanne Richard

Reviewed by Rachael Sparks

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 110, Number 2 (April 2006)

Published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/429

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1102.Sparks

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