The editors state in their introduction that ‘we have encouraged the contributors [to this book] to develop their own points of view … to show the plurality of archaeology … [and to give] … some sense of the excitement, possibility and controversy of archaeological practices and results’. They have succeeded superbly, and though this Oxford ‘handbook’ has the bulk, size and weight of an encyclopaedia, it is refreshingly free of the encyclopaedia’s dry approach to the topic, consisting instead of 35 lively essays on the origins and development of the discipline of archaeology, the practice of archaeology, human origins, migration and survival strategies, and the development of culturally complex societies.
That this is a book with attitude is demonstrated by the fact that you will have to look hard for anything on Roman archaeology or Roman Britain, or the ancient Greeks or Egyptians for that matter. On the other hand you will find comprehensive coverage of the big themes of world archaeology, including such marginal regions (marginal in the sense of remote or only just habitable, rather than unimportant) as the circumpolar zone and the islands of the Pacific. Archaeology, in this handbook, ends where writing and history begin, and historical archaeology is only mentioned in passing in the chapters on the development of the discipline.
In some ways the book is thus a manifesto and a corrective: it redresses the imbalance between the massive amounts that are written and published about the Classical and Medieval archaeology of Europe with a book that shows us how exciting and interesting are the really big global themes of prehistory, such as the origins of our species, the development of language and communication, the mastery of materials and tools, migration, trade and farming, diet, morality, belief and art. It is a book to read in order to broaden your mind and encounter the latest thinking on these topics, and it is a tribute to all the contributors and the editors that some very complex themes are treated in such clear and readable prose.