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Abundance: The Archaeology of Plenitude

Abundance: The Archaeology of Plenitude

Edited by Monica L. Smith. Pp. x + 261. University Press of Colorado, Boulder 2017. $68. ISBN 978-1-60732-593-2 (cloth).

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Building on Smith’s previous work, this volume takes a welcome and refreshingly different approach to the human manipulation of and response to naturally occurring and human-made forms of abundance. Defined as an assemblage either quantitatively large or diverse in composition, the term “abundance” was a conscious choice by the editor as it was thought to be a more neutral term than “surplus” or “sufficiency” (10–12). Following Smith’s introductory chapter, the remaining 10 contributions cover material dating from the Neolithic period to the 20th century. The geographical range covered in this volume is equally large, with chapters on material from North America, South America, Europe, and China. While the chapters are not grouped thematically, the volume can roughly be divided into chapters on natural forms of abundance (i.e., plants and animals) and on man-made objects (i.e., ceramics).

In the opening chapter, Smith argues that for early foraging communities “abundance was not the exception but rather the norm of human expectations” (6) and that ever since then humans have gravitated toward and cultivated abundance. Consequently, the aim of the volume is to move away from traditional notions of scarcity, particularly with respect to economics, and instead examine the way abundance has shaped and influenced cultural, political, and social interactions within different human groups.

One of the most important contributions this volume makes to abundance studies and to archaeology more generally is the range of material types examined. No two chapters overlap in material type, and physical, environmental, and conceptual remains, such as knowledge, are all given sufficient space. Moreover, it is uplifting to see a volume in which many of the authors seamlessly integrate traditional forms of archaeological remains, such as ceramics, with data from newer archaeological fields such as archaeobotany or isotopic analysis. In chapter 4, Varien, Potter and Naranjo make use of ethnographic data, dendrochronological evidence, and the ceramic and architectural remains from three Pueblo sites in the central Mesa Verde region to explore the way food-sharing feasts were used to create visible experiences of abundance even in times of scarcity. Ceramics are the focus of chapters 9 and 11, while obsidian and bison bones are examined in chapters 2 and 7, respectively. Even these chapters, focusing on artifact types that are frequently recovered in large quantities, ask important and different questions of the evidence. In chapter 11, Pierson looks at the size of Chinese porcelain assemblages ordered by the imperial court and recovered from Dutch shipwrecks rather than assessing individual items as pieces of art. She also discusses the visibility of sherd heaps at the Ming imperial porcelain factory, touching on the important and often unexplored notion of waste as a form of visible abundance (238–39). Klarich, Levine, and Schultze similarly view the “cavalier” and wasteful manner in which people at the sites of Taraco and Pukara in the Lake Titicaca basin processed imported obsidian as a status marker for the political and economic power of these two regional centers (153).

Chapters 6 and 10 tackle less archaeologically visible forms of abundance. In chapter 6, Ardren looks at the way the abundant natural resources of the savanna near the Maya site of Chunchucmil, and in particular plant fibers, shaped the physical, political, and social layout of the town. Ardren found the town to be less hierarchically structured than other Classic Maya centers due to its heavy dependence on savanna products rather than traditional agricultural resources, which could be more tightly controlled. Shifting continents and time periods in Chapter 10, Richard looks at “wealth-through-people” in precontact, Atlantic-era, and 18th- to 20th-century Senegal (203). He argues that elite power was displayed first through the use of excessive human labor to build massive funerary monuments and then through the accumulation and redistribution of imported goods acquired through the sale of slaves.

Where the volume truly makes important strides, however, is the inclusion of chapters that attempt to understand ancient emic rather than modern etic views of abundance. These chapters highlight the variability in human perceptions and responses to abundance, and as Smith points out, remind archaeologists that our artifact-oriented views of abundance do not necessarily align with those of the past (5–6). Chapter 5 provides a warning that simply because an item was present in a large quantity does not mean that it was viewed by the inhabitants of that site as a form of abundance. Examining household assemblages from the village of Cerén in El Salvador (abandoned due to a volcanic eruption ca. 630 C.E.), Sheets found that each household produced a particular good—such as groundstone tools, polychrome gourds, or agave fiber—in excess. Instead of representing a form of abundance (or surplus), this overproduced object was manufactured and stored in the house only to be exchanged later for goods and services provided by the other households in the village. The excellent chapter by Moore and Schmidt (ch. 3), which makes use of archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological, and human skeletal data, explores the way the resource-rich lower Ohio Valley made knowledge rather than objects a socially valuable form of abundance for archaic hunter-gatherers. They argue that readily available sources of food, shelter, and tools enabled these individuals to cultivate a dwelling perspective wherein humans are simply one component of the environment rather than removed from it or in control of it. Similarly, Twiss and Bogaard (ch. 8) investigate the way people in Neolithic Çatalhöyük (Turkey), an agriculturally based, delayed-return society, dealt with the logistical and social challenges associated with the sudden production of large quantities of food. Here abundance is seen as a social stressor rather than a “good thing” (165). They argue that people used food concealment strategies for cereals, the major component of the diet, but tended to use food dispersal strategies such as communal feasting to quickly deal with the large quantities of meat provided by the slaughter of cattle and aurochs.

While each chapter adds value to the volume, the inclusion of such an enormous range of sites, regions, material types, and forms of abundance was perhaps slightly too ambitious for a book of this size. The need to provide vast quantities of chronological, geographical, and artifactual background information for the reader left limited space for discussion in several of the chapters. Walsh’s chapter 9, for example, begins with a prolonged history of the study of Greek painted pottery followed by an even longer section on the distribution of the ceramics in question, leaving only two pages at the end for interpretation of the data. Moreover, many authors also included lengthy discussions of their theoretical frameworks, further reducing the amount of space for in-depth analysis. Ironically, in several chapters, a number of regional maps or site plans were required to familiarize readers with the area or site in question. The volume is certainly not for a student new to archaeology, as a good working knowledge of preservation, taphonomy, and current archaeological practices and techniques is required. While the volume certainly achieves its aims, due to the geographically and chronologically diverse nature of the chapters the inclusion of a brief concluding chapter would have helped clarify and tie together the volume’s broader research aims. Consequently, the value of the volume lies in its whole rather than its parts. Only after the reader has absorbed all the chapters do the vast differences in the way abundance was perceived, created, handled, and manipulated by people across time and space become apparent. It is also apparent that there is much more information that can be gleaned from looking at abundance rather than scarcity. This volume is a clear next step up a staircase we have only just started to climb.

Erica Rowan
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway
University of London

Book Review of Abundance: The Archaeology of Plenitude, edited by Monica L. Smith

Reviewed by Erica Rowan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.rowan

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