Friday 27 April 2012

Touchstone Thursday: Edward Harris's Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy

I swore to myself that I wouldn't let another Thursday go by without a touchstone. This is me living up to my own expectations!

2ed 1989 Academic Press
For [I think] the first time since I began this Thursday ritual, thanks to E. Harris I can talk about it and you can all have access to an electronic copy for your libraries. Bonus! I discovered that he's providing it as a free download at for nothing more than a few bits identifying you and some information as to why you're interested in it. 
     Before I get too far, I have a confession. I've never put Harris's concepts into practice. With but one exception, every project I've participated in employed arbitrary horizontal levels (AKA 'spits'). That is the practice against which Harris placed his Principles of archaeological stratigraphy. Unfortunately, to employ the principles of archaeological stratigraphy, you have to have a stratified site. Harris's great contribution was his insight that, to interpret a stratified site--especially any that are more complicated than a layer cake--you need to pay attention to the relationships of all the various layers with respect to all the other layers. This is often a tall order.
     I can completely understand why my friends doing California archaeology are precluded from relying on Harris's concepts for interpreting most of their finds, since most of the countryside at nearly all elevations has been totally and is continually reworked by burrowing rodents. I can also understand my colleagues who excavate in caves and rockshelters, especially those whose deposits are almost entirely autochthonous (i.e. deriving from the cave itself), since for the most part these deposits are a uniform color and therefore it is frustrating if not futile to attempt to dig in natural levels. 
     I find it fascinating that this book is and has been for some time out of print. Can we presume that the practices that Harris touted have become part of the archaeological zeitgeist to such an extent that it's second nature and the book's no longer needed? I doubt it.      
     It's no surprise to me that the biggest users of the Harris matrix (the official name for Harris's brainchild stratigraphic notation and analytical device) are historical archaeologists. They deal much of the time with horizontal, or at worst barely sub-horizontal features and levels--walls, prepared floors, and so on. These are also the kind of sites that don't require sedimentological or geomorphological interpretation--especially in urban settings the likelihood of natural deposition is low.
     I think my fascination with Harris's Principles is that the philosophical terrain he travels is a lot like a foreign country to me. It's like Harris's is the medieval notion of the organized and ladder-like Great Chain of Being and what most of us are used to dealing with is like the messy and complicated natural world of Darwin. It's depressing to think that any site I'm likely to see in what's left of my career is gonna be Darwin-like! It would be refreshing to experience the rigor of following a level across a wide-area excavation. I'm sure it would be rigorous, but rewarding. 
     If you give this book a close reading you'll find much that's insightful and foundational. And just because you might end up digging 10-cm deep site-testing squares 'til you choke, at least you'll be armed should you ever be so lucky to need the knowledge this book contains!
     I think I'll turn in now.     


  1. Harris's work on stratigraphy represents one of the few original advances in archaeology. Far more important than David Clarke's discovery of geography's locational analysis or the various post-processural cribbings from Derrida, Bourdieu or Focault. This is work that goes to the heart of archaeology -how we look at the ground and extract information from it. Stratigraphy is everywhere not only in excavations but in field work and in buildings. It is a disgrace that archaeologists are not better trained in the principles of Stratigraphy and that sites are treated as if they are "unstratified" .

  2. Rob, I think your dismissal of the value of Harris' methods for 'unstratified' sites is a bit shortsighted. It is not so much 'natural levels' (as you say) that are of interest, but 'cultural deposits'. The sequence of deposits can still be recorded and tracked, even when the natural sediment is relatively homogenous. It is not necessarily easy, but it is worthwhile.

  3. Rob: thanks for your post and also to the two commentators, IainS and Ord. I would like to see some of those California sites that suggest there are billions of bugs and whatnot CHANGING the stratification. If you can dig them all archaeological sites are stratified. Anyway, the book went out of print as it was too expensive, so I bought out Academic Press and decided to put it online for free, with help of friends at the University of Vienna. It is astounding that archaeologists are still digging entire sites in arbitrary levels, as that destroys surfaces before on can record them and they are the key to compiling stratigraphic sequences.
    We need more Subversive Archaeologists to change that unethical mindset, but of course there is almost nothing in the Ethics Standards of archaeological societies that address our responsibilities in this matter. While some may mandate that we treat indigenous persons in such and such a fashion, by arbitrary excavation, we are quietly destroyed their heritage in the ground.
    Edward Harris

  4. @Edward and IainS and Ord
    I'm in complete agreement that (almost) every archaeological site is stratified, and that preferring to economize by precluding excavation in natural levels is tantamount to treasure hunting, I must demur with respect to many, many of the projects in California that I've worked on. Since none of you three are familiar with the circumstances, I think my next 'blurt' will be a consideration of your three comments--not meant to be controversial, but to see if I can elicit some constructive advice.


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