- Framing Archaeology in the Near East: The Application of Social Theory to Fieldwork eds. by Ianir Milevski and Thomas E. Levy
What is happening to archaeology as a field of study? The dramatic debates of the 1980s and early 1990s between processual and post-processual archaeologists have mostly disappeared. Processual archaeology had suggested a larger purpose for the field—understanding the evolution of civilizations—and the post-processual critique cast doubt on most of the fundamental assumptions that made such an enterprise seem possible. As a response to the collapse of these larger debates, most archaeologists are working in more fragmented communities based on smaller research questions or simply grouped around region, period, or method. There have been expressions of nostalgia for the old "grand narratives" (e.g., Sherratt 1995), reassertion of processual research questions (e.g., Kintigh et al. 2014), and introductions of new candidates for overarching frameworks like long-term change (e.g., Robb and Pauketat 2013). [End Page 145]
I myself would argue that "heritage" is one of the larger frameworks that provides a justification for archaeology today (more on that below). But mostly archaeologists are pursuing smaller and more local goals.
In part, these debates had been so explosive because they touched on the fundamental justification for the existence of archaeology as a field in the United States. American processual archaeology asserted that archaeology was a social science, not a humanities field like history or like cultural anthropology had already become by the 1970s. Critique of its scientific approaches, including use of theory, hypothesis testing, and model-building, came close to questioning the legitimacy of archaeology as a field and the reasons it should be funded (the grounds for debate were somewhat different in the United Kingdom).
In American universities, processual archaeology was almost always taught in departments of anthropology, and "anthropological archaeology" is perhaps now the self-identification preferred by archaeologists who work in the processual tradition. It is thus interesting that in 2016 Equinox Publishing launched a new series edited by Thomas Levy entitled "New Directions in Anthropological Archaeology," which aims to present "new theory driven approaches to anthropological archaeology around the world … from processual to post-processual approaches." The volumes in the series are not numbered, but four have arrived in my university library—apart from the volume under review, they include a book on urbanism in the Southern Levant by Susan Cohen; one on village interaction in Medieval Senegal by Cameron Gokee, and an edited volume on maritime interaction in Europe (Vikings and others) edited by Lene Melheim et al.
I was excited to learn of this series—as a PhD student at one of the centers of anthropological archaeology at the height of the post-processual critiques, I do often feel some nostalgia for the clarity of those debates and the larger sense of purpose they imparted to our work. As an archaeologist who has worked in the Middle East and North Africa for the past twenty-five years, I was also interested to be offered the present volume for review. As it happens, I found very little in the book that advances an anthropological perspective for archaeology—but was persuaded to write the review in order to suggest ways the authors and their chapters might develop their work in the future.
The volume editors suggest in their preface (ix) that social theory has only very recently been used in archaeology in the Middle East. This is a widely repeated claim, but I suggest that in fact the Middle East has been the focus of theoretically oriented work at least since the 1920s, was an integral part of processual archaeology, and continues to be a field in which theoretical approaches are routinely taken and indeed developed. V. Gordon Childe's early syntheses of the rise of civilization in the Old World were certainly grounded in a Marxist theoretical frame. In Mesopotamia, the archaeological surveys and analyses of Robert McC. Adams, Henry...