Online Review: Book

Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections [and] The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology

Marshall J. Becker


Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections, by Suzanne Keene. Pp. x + 198, figs. 38. Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford 2005. $34.95. ISBN 0-7506-6472-X (paper).

The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology, by Joanna R. Sofaer (Topics in Contemporary Archaeology). Pp. xvi + 188, figs. 11, tables 4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006. $27.99. ISBN 0-521-52146-7 (paper).

Archaeological research includes three important processes that generally receive unequal degrees of attention: recovery, curation, and analysis. The public as well as many practitioners of archaeology commonly focus on the recovery phase, or the excavation of a site. The analysis phase, including the publication of the data and their interpretation, receives less attention from nonarchaeologists. Curation, or the careful conservation of excavation records and of materials recovered from the field, is increasingly understood to be of equal importance if ultimately we are to make sense of the archaeological record. Keene’s Fragments of the World addresses the issues relating to caring for and utilizing the rapidly growing collections that are accumulating in museums around the world. This fundamental concern becomes more important every day, since museums continue to add to their collections and new museums appear to be opening at a rate faster than they are listed in The Europa World of Learning (56th ed. [London 2006]). Keene has previously generated a number of works involving the diverse aspects of conservation that are conducted within major museums, but this volume addresses issues relating to the nature and variety of the institutions themselves. She also comments on the uses made of museum collections, the purpose or value of maintaining large stored collections used primarily by research specialists, matters relating to digitization as a means of making collections more available to the public, and how technology enhances the “enjoyment” (121) of collections. These issues fill seven of the 11 chapters. Within these chapters, as well as “Collections, Memory, and Identity” (84), “Values” (158), and those dealing with other topics, readers will find considerable repetition, digressions, and even four poems. I found the writing in need of a good editor to eliminate the confusion characterizing many aspects of Keene’s presentation.

The repetitions in Fragments are particularly problematical. Not only are redundancies annoying, but some found here offer conflicting data. The website “Artifacts Canada” [sic] and the website for the Canadian Heritage Information Network (52) are indicated as a digitized source for Canadian museum material, functioning in parallel with national systems for artifact inventories in Australia and the United Kingdom. The Canadian information is repeated on page 153 and in the notes on pages 63 and 157. The last listing for this site uses the spelling “artefacts” (157), which is the Web address that works. Since I have recently published several articles on wampum (First Nations, or Native American, shell beads of a standardized size and shape), I tested this resource by searching for data on the many examples held in Canadian museum collections. The only item listed is a bibliographic reference to an obscure publication, suggesting that the interface between this site and the well-digitized Canadian museum system is weak. These problems call into question the accuracy or utility of other aspects of this work.

In The Body as Material Culture, Sofaer examines human skeletal remains as an important subset of the archaeological record and discusses the multiple ways in which this category of artifacts may be studied in order to help us reconstruct the culture from which they came. Sofaer, who is well known for her publications relating to the archaeology of gender and of children in antiquity, offers us six relatively brief but wordy, repetitious, and unevenly edited chapters. This text appears to be a review of theory as it relates to human osteoarchaeology, as suggested by the subtitle, but the execution is wanting. Problems are evident in her preface, within which we find sentences such as, “The materiality of specific bodies emerges from material qualities which permit or constrain their development. The materiality of the body forms a common axis between the body and objects, placing the body within the sphere of archaeological investigation” (xv). The repeated use of “body,” “archaeological body” (85), and “osteological body” (60), where “skeleton” or “human skeleton” might be better used, is so pervasive as to become tiresome after reading only a few pages. Since finds of soft tissue are mentioned only briefly (45) and not otherwise directly addressed in this text, the conceptual issues with which Sofaer appears to be concerned might be better resolved by noting that she would discuss only bones.

In the preface, Sofaer indicates that she will begin her “analysis in Chapter 1 by exploring the disciplinary divide between osteoarchaeology and material-culture-based archaeology” (xiv). I agree with Sofaer that there are significant and problematical differences between people who study human remains from burials at sites (she never mentions random finds of human bone) and archaeologists who have little understanding of the contribution that an analysis of all recovered skeletal remains can make to our interpretation of the past. In four-fields American anthropology, where the biological and cultural approaches are linked with linguistics and archaeology, the dichotomy between physical (or biological) anthropology and archaeology is much less strong than in Britain. In the rest of Europe, the disciplinary segregation is often a far greater problem. Sofaer does not explicitly state that her perspective is British, although there is some mention of a French approach to this category of archaeological materials. Europeans in general may be thankful that studies of graves, and skeletal remains in particular, are largely unconstrained by the kinds of political issues that now fester in North America. Sofaer’s convoluted text, however, adds to the problems generated by the lack of academic cooperation in solving the goal of decoding culture from the archaeological record. The quotes from her text offered here are far from the most problematical. Chapter 5 (“Sex and Gender”) provides clarity and order in the writing, reflecting Sofaer’s previous publications in this area. Her narration in chapter 6 (“Age”) returns us to confusion and obscurantism.

I am not alone in my concern with texts written in what I call “British.” The use of this variety of English seems to reflect an approach to the editorial process that is sadly deficient in attention to simple rules of grammar and syntax and lacking a concern with creating a text comprehensible to the reader. Rewriting and editorial oversight do not appear to be a regular part of the process, even at the two world-class presses that have issued the volumes reviewed here. A British colleague, Bentley (“Academic Copying, Archaeology and the English Language,” Antiquity 80 [2006] 196–201), recently made a similar observation regarding writing within the United Kingdom. Had Sofaer worked with a good editor to strip rhetoric, jargon, and repetition from this work, the result could have been a very interesting article.

Marshall J. Becker
Department of Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104

Book Review of Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections, by Suzanne Keene, and The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology, by Joanna R. Sofaer

Reviewed by Marshall J. Becker

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Becker

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