Gavin Lucas. Writing the Past: Knowledge and Literary Production in Archaeology. 188 pp., 1 b/w illus., 8 tables, bibl., index. London: Routledge, 2018. $39.95 (paper), $150 (hardback), eBook ($35.96)
In a magisterial and impressively learned way, Gavin Lucas details in his new book how archaeologists in the English-speaking world have been struggling for generations to turn what they are digging up into reliable knowledge about the past. The disagreements at the core of these struggles have often been intense. Moreover, these clashes over method and theory are far from over. As Lucas observes, “In the wake of debates in archaeology during the 1980s and 1990s one can no longer entertain any naivety about archaeological knowledge as an untroubled road to the truth about what happened in the past” (3).
Oddly, however, as he goes on to remark, open academic debate on the hows and whys of turning archaeological data into credible historical knowledge has recently all but ceased. Attention nowadays is often focused instead on methodological issues, such as how best to do fieldwork; how to use GIS, lidar mapping, and aerial drones in the most productive and cost-effective ways; how to pin down the geological sources of the elemental constituents of ancient potsherds, obsidian flakes, and so forth. There is no doubt that this century’s new laboratory and field technologies are giving archaeology today at least the formal appearance of being highly scientific. Yet here is the issue at the heart of this new book: Can archaeologists afford to favor new methods over thoughtful theory? Lucas doesn’t think so, and neither do I.
Writing the Past has five chapters, each with its own objective. The first, “The Production of Archaeological Knowledge,” is a detailed commentary on the current epistemological state of archaeology. Lucas quickly establishes that this is a book for professionals. This is decidedly not an elementary how to or introduction to archaeology today. The author also establishes his impressive scholarly credentials. He has read far, wide, and deep in the archaeological literature. On the basis of this solid academic platform, he easily convinces the reader that there is a lot of work still to be done when it comes to pinning down and promoting archaeological theory.
Chapter 2, “Models of Archaeological Reasoning in Anglo-American Archaeology,” is a tour de force commentary on the intellectual history of Anglo-American archaeology. This is the longest chapter and is not one for the uninitiated. In many ways, it is a fast and furious guide to who’s who in the world of archaeological scholarship, past and present. We are given so much to ponder here that for this reason alone this would be an excellent choice as the centerpiece in a graduate course on archaeological method and theory. It is probably too intense, however, for general undergraduate use.
It soon becomes clear in this second chapter that what the author calls “knowledge” and “literary production” are more or less what others would label as inference, explanation, and historical interpretation. In short, for Lucas (and evidently for many other archaeologists, too), synonyms for knowledge would be words such as extrapolation, interpretation, explanation, or reconstruction. Consequently, archaeological theory can similarly be glossed as “the theory of interpretation” (24), and archaeology’s main goal is to find “which of two or more explanations best accounts for the data” recovered archaeologically (54).
In this regard, while Professor Lucas repeatedly alludes to how archaeology as a discipline intersects with geology, the philosophy of science, evolutionary theory, and the like, he does not question that there is something particular, although not necessarily altogether special, about what may be labeled as “archaeological knowledge” (37). Lucas is not the only archaeologist for whom this thought evidently makes sense. Speaking personally, I have long felt this is archaeology’s greatest weakness. I will have more to say about this disciplinary limitation at the close of this review.
In Chapter 3, “Text Types and Archaeology,” Lucas shifts away from the historical and theoretical issues he has been discussing and begins his exegesis of the differing—and at times quite disparate—ways in which archaeologists have been communicating their discoveries, analyses, and conclusions to their peers and the general public. The various strategies used may not be as different as apples and oranges, but he understandably at times seems to have difficulty (to mix metaphors) herding such disparate literary cats.
The final two chapters of this book have a similar purpose. Chapter 4, “Textual Composition and Knowledge Production,” explicitly addresses the issue just noted: how various types of scholarly writing differ as types of “knowledge production” (98). In this, as in the previous chapter, Lucas recognizes four styles of textual expression: description, narration, exposition, and argument. He takes each of these four types in turn and tries “to rethink them in terms of their epistemic commitments” (101). His working claim is that “different texts have different epistemologies” (132 and Table 4.1). Chapter 5, rather cryptically titled “Mobile Knowledge,” is about how in practice if not always in theory, facts, concepts, and theories are “conceptual vehicles” that can “move freely between texts” (157, 158).
I think Lucas is right that archaeology should be more than merely the mindless application of techniques, machines, and fieldwork strategies. But as good as this book is, it also unintentionally documents how readily archaeologists are apparently willing to live and work in a disciplinary bubble of their own production. Lucas is by no means alone in thinking there is something that can be produced called archaeological knowledge. But wait: What is knowledge? Is it actually possible to carve out a body of knowledge that is specifically archaeological?
A review is not a soapbox. So let me end with a few challenges to readers of this book. How many of the references at the end are interdisciplinary? When writing about methods and theory, why doesn’t the author discuss mathematical modeling and models? Why is so much of his attention given to philosophy and post-modernist writers? How well does he answer the question my late mother would never let me forget: So what? Why should we care about what archaeologists do? What can we make out of all this hard-won archaeological knowledge?
 For instance, I am thinking of the network modeling now being done by archaeologists, notably in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific Islands. See Carl Knappett’s edited volume, Network Analysis in Archaeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
John Edward Terrell: contributions / email@example.com / Field Museum of Natural History
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