Adrian Praetzellis, Death By Theory: A Tale of Mystery and Archaeological Theory
reviewed by Mary-Catherine E. Garden, pp.258-260
Adrian Praetzellis, Death By Theory: A Tale of Mystery and Archaeological Theory. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2000, 175 pp. including index, pbk, ISBN 0 7425 0359 3)
In the land of texts dealing with archaeological theory there can hardly be said to be a dearth ofshelves of bookshops and university libraries in order to find books focussing on nearly every aspect of archaeological theory. What is more difficult and, therefore, more surprising, is to find texts that make a concerted effort to be readable and accessible to beginning students of archaeology. One recent attempt came in 1999 when Matthew Johnson, a lecturer at the University of Durham, England, contributed
Archaeological Theory. An Introduction. Here, Johnson employed a 'deliberately informal tone' (1999:ix) and used, as a device, an imaginary student 'Roger Beefy' who popped up every so often to question the author. Notably Roger is the foil that allows Johnson to defend the role of and the need for theory in archaeological practice. Now in its second reprint, Johnson's book is widely used by undergraduates (among others) who have turned to this book as an entrance into the often-impenetrable world of theory.
Despite his informality and accessibility, at the end of the day there is little doubt that Johnson's book is first and foremost a textbook in every sense.
On the other hand, Death by Theory. A Tale of Mystery and Archaeological Theory by Adrian
Praetzellis (2000) is more difficult to characterize. Its subtitle gives an immediate clue that what will be found inside is not the usual fare one expects of a book about theory but then again, surely a book called Death by Theory would appeal to most people whether hardened theorist or beginning student. After all, who can fail to be captured by a book whose cover displays a trowel-wielding, bootclad
archaeologist crushed, like the Wizard of Oz's evil Wicked Witch of the West, under a pile of weighty tomes?
Adrian Praetzellis comes to the table with the right credentials. A long time professor at Sonoma State University (California) he is also the co-creator of the popular and much discussed 'Archaeologists as Storytellers' sessions which were first presented at the 1997 and 1998 Society for Historical Archaeology meetings. While Praetzellis doesn't really tell us what he hopes to achieve by this book, an explanation may come in this sentence found near the end of the book: 'Remember, it's more important to start out in archaeology by getting an understanding of its logic than by memorizing who invaded whom and which culture's pots have the squiggly line around the top' (p. 161). Clearly for Praetzellis it is important to give students new to the discipline a practical working knowledge of the field without overwhelming them. Death by Theory is his answer to the problem.
Death by Theory is an introduction to archaeological theory that is woven into the fictional tale of archaeologist Hannah Green and her nephew, new-graduated anthropology student, Sean Green. Unlike Johnson's book where the fictional character only 'visits' and is seen too rarely to captivate, in Death by
Theory, the make-believe archaeologists are fully developed and central to the book. Not only are they the protagonists in the mystery, they are also the main vehicles for conveying thearchaeological theory. The book opens at the annual SAA (Society for American Archaeology) conference where a chance encounter with acolleague of Hannah's leads this intrepid archaeologist to an island site in the Pacific Northwest.
There, Hannah, her nephew, the colleague (a tenured but less than talented professor) and a crew of university students find themselves at a most unusual archaeological site. Apparently Neolithic stone circles, sightings of mysterious strangers and a groupknown as 'The Children of Odin' all combine together for an entertaining although, at times, somewhat obvious tale of intrigue. Throughout the book,
Praetzellis deftly moves between the fiction and fact, cleverly blending into plot clear and interesting discussions of what can be sometimes difficult archaeological theory. Incorporated into the archaeological adventures are deceptively simple discussions of the history and theory of archaeology. The author does all this without creating obvious breaks that are inconsistent with the story line. Part of the time the theory comes to us from Hannah Green in discussions with her nephew and others and this is where one finds the best treatment of the subject. Other times, it is the students who launch into lengthy treatises on subjects such as post-modern theory or debate the need for gender archaeology.
Within the story there is a heavy focus on the CRM (Cultural Resource Management) 'industry' in the United States and indeed the theoretical focus is that of the United States. This is not to imply that British and European schools are ignored, merely that one never has any doubt of the book's American pedigree.
Of course this raises the question whether the book is suited to an international audience and it is a valid point. Several of the examples ofsites that are used, the language and even the popular culture are directed to a North American audience. At times this is mildly distractingand there can be the feeling that
one is not quite in on all of the jokes. Likewise, the humour is often very broad and occasionally comes close to being hackneyed. But is this even relevant? I suggest that, instead of engaging in a pedantic fit of
literary criticism, it is much more important to look at this book as a device for teaching.
In this role it is eminently successful.
It would be easy to pick the book apart and, indeed, to dismiss it. After all it is neither wholly mystery story nor full-fledged textbook. Even the illustrations - which Praetzellis slyly admits (in the person of his sometimes alter ego Hannah Green) - are 'a peculiar convergence of cartooning and Monty Python-like
montage' (p. 11). When you combine all of this with a structure that is admittedly (again from Hannah) borrowed from a series of popular paperback mysteries (p. 10) it may lead some torank Death by Theory as a lightweight contender - something that is amusing but perhaps not quite fully 'academic'. That, however, is the very thing that one should not do – readers should not be fooled by the chatty and amusing nature of this book; it is indeed a serious text. A particular strength of the book is found in the 'Talking Points' at the end of the story. Praetzellis defines these as 'places to begin on the journey of teasing out meaning' (p. 161). Here important points that were slipped into the story are revisited and
expanded upon as questions meant to stimulate serious (and no doubt lively) discussion.
So is Death by Theory a valid text? Does Adrian Praetzellis intend it to be? One could argue that the fact is subsumed by the fiction. Certainly there is a lot of fictional windowdressing used; however it is this very
quality that makes the book so enjoyable and so difficult to put down. At its worst the book provides a glance into the major theoretical concepts and schools. It also manages to coherently tie together the practice and the theory of archaeology - something that is not always easily accomplished. If this is all it
does,then the book has served a purpose and has earned a rightful place amongst the more traditional and serious textbooks. But the book goes beyond that. For some – especially beginning students of archaeology - the world of theory can be complicated, confusing and just plain unfriendly. Shortcomings or
not, it is hard to put down Death by Theory. It readseasily and quickly and the theory, like goodtasting cough medicine, is swallowed and any unpleasantness over before one realizes it.
Even more important, with Death by Theory Adrian Praetzellis proves that it is possible to present archaeological theory in a popular format and not lose any of the intellectual soundness. It has long been argued that as archaeologists we need to communicate in a clearer and more accessible manner.
Matthew Johnson's reader notwithstanding, the movement towards presenting archaeological theory in a more accessible manner has been sporadic at best. This may be because theory is an inherently difficult medium with which to work. It also may be because of an underlying suspicion in the discipline that along with popularization can come a loss of academic credibility. Either way, Praetzellis provides a clever, balanced and inventive response. In the process, the author demonstrates that it is possible to present some of the harder core aspects of archaeology to a general audience.
Will Death by Theory ever replace the more traditionally structured texts? I suspect not and given its dual role as mystery book and theoretical reader this may not be its most appropriate use. With its ease of explanation and helpful illustrations, it certainly has a place on any student's shelf as the sort of book that one dips into for a quick reference. More than that, its strength and charm lies in its presentation backed up by a solid treatment of archaeological theory and, in that way, it is the ideal introductory text.
JOHNSON, M., 1999. Archaeological Theory. An
Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Mary-Catherine E. Garden
Department of Archaeology,
University of Cambridge, UK
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