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 www.harrismatrix.com 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.