Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice, 3rd ed.
By Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2015), 352 pp., $68.75 (softcover)
Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir
The volume under review, now in its third edition, is an abridged version of the best-selling textbook by the same authors, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, now in its sixth edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012). The larger volume, which is currently more than 650 pages long, has been used for several decades as one of the best introductory textbooks to archaeology. I myself go back to it from time to time to read up on various issues that are not part of my everyday fare. That said, the size of the original volume is quite daunting, in particular for introductory and undergraduate courses, so the abridged volume, which is reviewed here, with about 350 pages of text, serves as a more accessible option.
While not covering the various topics as broadly as its “bigger brother,” overall, the authors, both among the most important and well-known archaeologists in the world, do a masterful job at explaining key issues clearly and covering, more or less, the full range of topics and perspectives of modern-day archaeology—from ceramics and architecture to ancient DNA, phytoliths and diatoms.
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In addition to a very readable text—with many “boxes” discussing specific issues—the volume is profusely illustrated with high-quality images, both photographs and line drawings, which make the text very accessible to the interested layperson and beginning student. If I had to recommend the best introductory textbook in general archaeology for undergraduate students who read English, this would be it.
For readers of BAR, and for students and scholars dealing with the ancient Near East in general and the archaeology of Israel specifically, this volume is a bit of a disappointment. Throughout the volume, the Near East in general, and even more so the area of the current State of Israel (and neighboring countries), is barely mentioned. When this area is mentioned, it is almost entirely relating to prehistoric finds. Despite the rich archaeology of this region and the extensive archaeological activities conducted in the region to this day, the authors saw fit to virtually skip over it. The reason is not clear. Perhaps one can imagine that this might be related either to negative political views about Israel or perhaps due to an image of “Biblical archaeology” as being old-fashioned and ideologically motivated. Needless to say, the first would be unfortunate as this would be mixing politics with science, and the other baseless, in light of the state of archaeology in this region today.
But despite all this, as a general introduction, I still highly recommend the volume, but if one wants aspects relating the ancient Near East and Biblical cultures—one will have to supplement it with additional reading.
Aren M. Maeir is Director of the Ackerman Family Bar-Ilan University Expedition to Gath, Director of the Minerva Center for the Relations between Israel and Aram in Biblical Times and coeditor of the Israel Exploration Journal.