“Beating the bounds”

The general topic of this blog is agricultural archaeology. But what exactly is agricultural archaeology? What should I be writing about? What sorts of finds, models or interpretations are relevant to this subject? It seems a straightforward question. However, the more I’ve ruminated, the more I’ve come to anticipate a rather complex answer.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been excitedly awaiting the arrival of Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, by Colin Renfrew & Paul Bahn – now in its sixth edition (Thames & Hudson 2012). I’m happy to say that it was safely delivered this afternoon. First published in 1991, this encyclopaedic work has long been a highly-praised staple of undergraduate reading lists. Now I must admit that, as an undergraduate, I did not read it. I did consult it, however. In my very first undergraduate assignment, I drew upon its discussion of archaeological theories and went on to compare the historiographical styles of Herodotus and Thucydides with processualism and post-processualism (though I can’t quite remember the reasoning behind that).

But I digress. That was 2005, of course, and now in 2012 I’m more concerned with early medieval agriculture than with the Persian War. So what does Archaeology have to say about agriculture?

The answer: quite a lot, despite the absence of a dedicated chapter on the subject. Rather, we find agriculture cropping up (excuse the pun) throughout the volume’s 600-odd pages – not only in a wide-ranging chapter on diet and subsistence (p.265-306), but also in discussions concerning (mal)nutrition among hunter-gatherers and farmers (p.454-6), explanatory models in archaeology (p.470), and a case study about rice in Southeast Asia (p.517-523). There are other relevant issues liberally sprinkled throughout the text: for example, the relationship between farming and soil erosion appears in a section on geoarchaeology (p.235). We also find mention of modern agriculture, and its potentially damaging effect on archaeological remains (p.549).

In short, as we might have expected, agriculture seems to pervade archaeological studies. So should I be writing about… well, everything?

I hope not. The Oxford English Dictionary comes to my rescue, restorng some simplicity by defining agriculture as the “science and art” of producing and managing crops and livestock.* In principle, this is indeed a simple concept; multi-faceted and chronologically/geographically diverse (as my skim through Archaeology quickly demonstrated), but simple nonetheless. And the simplicity comes, I would suggest, from the fact that agricultural archaeology is (or should be) an “intrinsically holistic” subject. What is that phrase supposed to mean? I’ll think about that in a future post…



Renfew, C. & Bahn, P. (2012). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, 6th ed. (Thames & Hudson Ltd., London).

* “agriculture, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/4181?redirectedFrom=agriculture (accessed June 29, 2012).


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