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Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives
January 2007 (111.1)
Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives
Edited by Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck (Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology). Pp. xiii + 363, figs 19, tables 5, maps 5. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, Mass. 2005. $34.95. ISBN 0-631-23001-7 (paper).
The volume by Pollock and Bernbeck, like other volumes in the series Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology, is primarily aimed at senior undergraduates, the objective being to “engage with issues of contemporary interest, interweaving social, political, and ethical themes” (xii). In their introduction, the editors stress themes of “archaeology as colonialism” and the “embeddedness” of archaeology (i.e., its connections with the contemporary world): a good start, as this ought to be a basic platform for any student of archaeology in the 21st century. Pollock and Bernbeck then move on to a brief overview of climate and geography, equally critical for the student. The editors stress the importance of a multiplicity of views and do not seek to straight-jacket their contributors; we are to expect differing opinions and theoretical bases.
It was the second introductory chapter, “Culture-historical Background,” that I found a little odd. Although generally up-to-date, the studies, once they arrived at the historical periods, shifted to narrative—this seemed particularly sad. Their comment in a later section, “[c]ould it be that the fast pace of historical change and the complex web of evidence is too burdensome for highly abstract anthropological models and paradigms?” (123), suggests that they believe it too difficult to pull the archaeological record from the more empirical historical record, but I found this too convenient. There are basic theoretical paradigms that, while built upon historical evidence, can nonetheless be discussed for what they are.
The book is divided into three main sections: parts 1 (“Producing and Disseminating Knowledge”) and 3 (”Constructing Arguments, Understanding Perceptions”) apparently divide up the process of archaeological academia and underline subjectivity within the discipline, while part 2 (“Evolutionary Firsts”) is more enigmatic but aims to introduce major themes within archaeological discourse.
In the introduction to part 1, the editors highlight the need for the reader to understand the lack of objectivity in the data themselves and, by extension, in the process of synthetic writing itself. They emphasize the effect of the viewpoint of the present and the silencing of certain aspects that might be relevant to interpreting the past. They draw particular attention to the appropriation of the past for other purposes, specifically colonialism, in the practice of archaeology in the region. The papers I found to be of particular value were by Steel and Pollock. I wondered whether more might be made of issues of sexism, but Steel’s paper on the asymmetry involved in the engagement of foreign projects with local communities (of all types) should be recommended reading for any student embarking on their first fieldwork experience in the Middle East (or anywhere else for that matter). Any director of a foreign project within the region will know how difficult these aspects are, and all should be aware of the need for students to consider their own responses and place within a field project. If Steel’s paper has not already found its way onto undergraduate reading lists, then there is something wrong with the discipline. In a sense, Pollock’s paper on archaeology at the newsstand neatly bookends part 1. One could be more didactic here and exhort specialists to greater responsibility for the information fed to journalists. Bernbeck’s paper is an important inclusion but is less accessible without direct knowledge of the texts. Plus there is an implication here that once writers understand the issues of perspective, this will somehow free up their thinking—I’m not sure that this logically follows.
The introductory chapter to part 2 discusses the themes of demographic change, historical change (i.e., political and social circumstances), communication, complexity, and integration. I found this collection of papers to be more eclectic. The best of this group are the contributions by Shea and Liverani (a fine paper that will become much cited), which were enjoyable reads indeed. Students reading the papers by Forest and Finkelstein would do well to also read the other key texts that they discuss and consider the ways in which these scholars appear to be repositioning the center view.
The final section, part 3, seems to be framed to look at gaps and linkages across scholarship, over time as well as within the archaeological record itself. Verhoeven’s paper on analogy will be a useful one for students, although I was not sure that he dealt sufficiently with the pitfalls of judging when structural similarities are really relevant and how we might determine what are significant connections between source and object. Zimansky’s well-written piece highlights differences between archaeologically excavated primary texts from the Middle East and the poorly provenanced secondary sources of Rome and China. Ross’ paper on developing a methodology for public art relies heavily on Irene Winter’s work. There is an implication here that there has been no methodology in the past—methodology always exists, but sometimes it is not explicit. A more reflexive paper that would have discussed the theoretical permutations that previous work has progressed through might have been more useful for the student.
As with all volumes of its type, the book has strong and weak papers, but the end result is a great contribution to the available teaching materials. It will become a standard text on reading lists designed for thinking and critical students.
Council for British Research in the Levant
P.O. Box 519
Book Review of Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives, edited by Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck
Reviewed by Jaimie Lovell
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 1 (January 2007)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/477