CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2009
CRM Journal

Book Reviews

The Archaeological Survey Manual

By Gregory G. White and Thomas F. King. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2007; 184 pp., illustrations; paper $29.95.

This relatively short book (144 pages of text) is about the “nuts and bolts” of archeological survey. The authors define archeological survey as “a field application consisting of the constellation of methods leading to the detection, identification, and documentation” of the archeological record (p. 1). This book is a combination of Tom King’s 1978 publication, The Archaeological Survey: Methods and Uses, and an archeological survey handbook developed by Gregory White for classes and field schools he taught at California State University, Chico, in northeast California.

The authors suggest that the readers of this book should be: (1) primarily avocational archeologists and students; (2) professional archeologists who conduct or are responsible for archeological surveys; and (3) non-archeologists who are responsible for managing land that contains archeological sites or who finance, plan, or undertake land development and might end up paying for an archeological survey. It is clear how each of these audiences will find different parts of this book interesting and useful, but not all three audiences will find all parts equally so.

The book is organized into 14 chapters, which over a third of these, Chapters 4 through 8, describe maps, reading maps, and orientation in the field. These chapters, along with Chapter 2, “Gearing up for Archaeological Survey,” will be of most use for students and perhaps avocational archeologists who are not experienced with archeological survey. These audiences also will find the many examples of forms for recording survey information or examples of notes from surveys interesting and useful.

Chapters 9 through 14 are the most generally useful part of the book. Here, there is information that all the audiences mentioned by the authors will appreciate. In their introduction, the authors note on page 11 that “the challenge in planning a survey is to decide what one really needs to identify and the amount of detail one needs to record about what one identifies, then to design the most efficient, effective means of identifying it.” The later chapters of the book focus on this challenge. The most important general points that readers should take away from these chapters include:

• Archeological survey methods and techniques need to be adapted to the environmental characteristics of the area being surveyed and to the characteristics of the archeological sites expected in the area;

• Substantial amounts of planning and pre-fieldwork research are appropriate to understand as much as possible about the local environment and expected sites;

• Careful, systematic, and detailed recording of survey techniques and coverage are essential; and,

• If sites are discovered, careful and detailed documentation of their characteristics and locations are an important part of any archeological survey.

Of course no book of this modest length can cover all the aspects of archeological survey. The part of the archeological record that will be most susceptible to discovery and documentation using the methods, techniques, and “lessons learned” described in this book is the archeological remains that are more-or-less readily visible on the surface of the ground. There is only brief discussion on pages 112-118 about how to discover subsurface sites by inspection of natural stratigraphic exposures, the use of shovel test pits, or carefully controlled backhoe trenches. The archeological survey of the hypothetical Griffin Valley includes the use of shovel test pits in one section, but these are characterized as “slow, expensive, frustrating, and often marginally effective.”

This conclusion about shovel testing is taken directly from King’s 1978 text on the archeological survey. Unfortunately it does not reflect the substantial research and professional discussion about shovel testing as a site discovery technique that occurred and was published in the 1980s. The impression is that this technique, while mentioned, is best avoided. On the other hand, in much of the country where sites are buried below the surface, shovel test pits are a necessary archeological discovery technique. It would have been useful for all the potential audiences of this book to know a little more about how shovel test pits and other subsurface discovery techniques have been used successfully, along with the implied expense and difficulties they can pose.

The bulk of Chapter 2 is taken straight from King’s 1978 publication without significant update, so it remains a short history that more or less ends with the status of archeological survey in the late 1970s.

The description of predictive modeling and formal sampling in archeological survey also is quite abbreviated and not well-referenced regarding statistical sampling. This section is largely taken directly from King’s 1978 survey publication. The focus is on avoiding bias in drawing a sample, which is indeed an important consideration, but there is no discussion of steps needed to ensure that one can obtain estimates with known standard errors of site frequencies or site type frequencies from the sample. There is a focus on sample percentage, when actually the number of sample units is more relevant for reducing standard error in statistical sampling.

Despite a few oversights, this book has a great deal of practical advice about archeological surveying that has many applications. However, readers also need to recognize that the authors are not selling a particular kind of archeological survey. Rather, they are trying to note important considerations that need to be taken into account in the design and execution of this kind of archeological investigation. In a short section on standards for archeological survey at the end of Chapter 2, they write “a fundamental point of this book is that there is no standard way to do archaeological survey. Different approaches are appropriate for different circumstances and to achieve different purposes” (p. 11).

Francis P. McManamon
National Park Service