Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Dictionary of Artifacts. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. 346. ISBN 9781405118873. $124.95.
Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, Middle East Technical University, Ankara

This book entitled Dictionary of Artifacts comprises a two-page "Preface" in which the author sets out the ambitious aims of providing "informative definitions in accessible language about the vocabulary describing artifacts." She then states that entries relate to a wide range of related issues from analysis, examination and identification to production and technology, and includes examples of artifacts and types. Thus a main failure of this work lies perhaps in the choice of a misleading title for what is in fact an eclectic dictionary of archaeological terms amongst which artifacts feature very prominently. The book is aimed at "students, archaeology professors, archaeologists, museum staff, archaeology volunteers, and general readers." There follows 346 pages of dictionary entries. Some 110 line illustrations (slightly more if each individual drawing is counted) and occasional small photographs are scattered throughout, sometimes confined to the wide margin on the outer edge of each page, occasionally indented into the relevant portion of text, or more often spread across a section of a page. These pictures are generally informative although line illustrations are not provided with scales.

It was exciting to learn that Barbara Ann Kipfer, a professional lexicographer with a special interest in archaeology, had produced a Dictionary of Artifacts because I thought it would be extremely useful for a course entitled "Artifact Analysis" that I teach in the Graduate Program in Settlement Archaeology at the Middle East Technical University at Ankara, where the great majority of our students speak Turkish as their first language but English is the language of instruction. I have however been greatly disappointed and found it difficult, in spite of the inordinately long time taken to write this review, to come up with much to write that is positive.

One underlying problem is that the majority of what archaeologists, for whom this book has been principally compiled, call artifacts, objects, or simply finds, are, in actual fact, only those parts of complex artifacts that have survived burial in archaeological contexts. Survival is a result of both the accidents of preservation and the different organic and inorganic materials from which they are made. The author is clearly aware of the shortcomings for, in the Preface, she writes, "More than 2000 entries [the publisher's blurb on the flap says close to 3000] cover all aspects of artifacts: specific artifact types, prominent examples of artifacts, technological terms, culture periods, words associated with the making of and description of artifacts (including material and methods), principles and techniques of examination and identification, and terms regarding the care and preservation of specimens." Architectural terms and materials are, we are told, excluded. Further, although not specifically stated, both the chronological and the geographical scope are as broad as possible, embracing as they do all continents, and all periods from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Historic with geological periods also getting entries. Some unique objects have been selected, such as the Phaistos disc, the description of which does not mention that its authenticity has been questioned, and the Bayeux Tapestry, which is awarded one of the longest entries. Additionally, a few archaeological tools, e.g. "auger", and terms for archaeological practices, e.g. "find number", are included for good measure.

That Kipfer's own interests and areas of archaeological expertise are chipped stone artifacts and their production, from the Palaeolithic to North American Indian, is indicated by the disproportionate number of entries and illustrations afforded them. One has the impression that this book began as specialised work restricted to these fields. This good idea was expanded to include much more, but with very uneven coverage which ranges from the general to the specific. To take but one example from the Ancient Near East, the entry for "Halaf" quite correctly describes it as the type site for the Halaf Culture that spanned much of the 5th millennium. The latter part of the entry, however, is muddled and fails to make clear that in the Iron Age Tell Halaf, called Guzana in Akkadian, was the capital of a local kingdom. However, Halaf culture, the Halaf Period and Tell Halaf/Guzana are not artifacts in the sense of excavated objects. To make matters worse, there are no entries at all for the equally important terms Uruk or Ubaid. Likewise we have Middle Assyrian but not Hittite whilst the Middle Bronze Age is apparently restricted to the Levant. Difficulties of the same order apply to other parts of the Old and New Worlds.

A very few entries are cross-referenced by terms and alternative spellings enclosed in square brackets, but not all such bracketed terms can be found. To give but two examples, the entry for Adze terminates with [adz and adze blade] neither of which are found, while biface has [bifacial, coup-de-poing, hand ax], but no entry for coup-de-poing. Successive entries are biface bevel, biface bevel flaking, biface serration flaking, biface thinning flake, bifacial, bifacial blank, bifacial core, bifacial flaking, bifacial foliate, bifacial retouch, bifacial thinning flake (and expanded version of the definition of biface thinning flake), and bifacially worked. Turning now to a class of artifact, we have arrow, arrow straightener and arrowhead with illustration; but also Adena-Rossville point for which the entire entry reads "contracting stemmed point with a narrower section at the base than the main part of the arrowhead point." with Adena as the previous entry that references merely Adena point. Later comes Avonlea point ("early bow and arrow projectile point dated AD 100-500, from North Dakota"), barb, barbed and tanged arrowhead, bow, bow and arrow, Breton arrowhead, chisel-ended arrowhead, corner notch (with illustration), crossbow, Dalton (with illustration of a Dalton point), flake (sometimes used for arrowheads), Hardaway point (with illustration), knapping (for amongst other things the manufacture of arrowheads), leaf arrowhead (with illustration), meadowood point, and nock. Together with six line drawings that show different types of notches on arrowheads there are successive entries for notch, notch width, notching, and notching flake; the entry for corner-notched and side-notched come in alphabetic order while bottom-notched, labelled in an illustration on page 216, is not provided with a separate entry. Here it would surely have been more sensible to have made a single entry for notched. Next are petit-tranchet arrowhead and, with mention of arrowheads, pressure flaking, projectile point, quarry blank, serrated point, stemmed point, and stunner (with illustration). Woodland is accompanied by four illustrations of different types of Woodland point. Not here listed are all entries for particular types of projectile point, the majority of which were not arrowheads, nor for the many terms relating to methods and techniques of stone working where the term arrowhead was not specifically mentioned. The broad point is that these entries do not provide the helpful guide that a student or professional would require in order to be able to classify and describe arrowheads. Nor does it offer a useful overview of the materials from which arrowheads were generally made, or of methods of production. Additionally, no discussion of the uses or effectiveness of arrows in hunting and warfare is attempted. The same shortcomings apply to all classes of artifact within this volume, from tools and weapons to ceramics.

It might very well be that such an overview is not possible in the form of a dictionary such as this, but in that case it must be asked what purpose is served by the volume under review, and, at 125 US dollars, for whom is this book intended? It is published in hardback by Blackwell, an internationally renowned academic publisher. One can hardly imagine that students are expected to buy it. What we have then is a commercial product aimed at libraries. But why, it might be asked, should anyone today go to a library to consult a volume such as this when definitions of any of the terms can be instantly retrieved online? Sadly, I have to conclude that this Dictionary of Artifacts is itself an artifact of little utility.

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