This is a superb book, but it really isn't quite what I had expected from the title. I had expected a more cut and dried account of early state development in a variety of world venues as extracted from recent archaeological studies. Certainly the more recent technological developments in the procedural side of archaeological endeavors has produced abundant new results, as the new research on Mellart`s old site at Catal Hoyuk indicates.The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Catalhoyuk
Instead the author Norman Yoffee, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and Anthropology at the U of Michigan, gives a very thorough account of what has transpired with respect to the theory and practice of archaeology particularly in the field of interpretation of research results. His focus, as the title indicates, is on city, state and civilization development, and he presents considerable amounts of new information on a variety of cultures.
To begin with, in his chapter entitled, The Evolution of a Factoid, he covers neo-evolutionism and processualism in archaeology and discusses what these theories attempted to do and why they failed. He notes that archaeology has been, at least in the US, a sub-department of anthropology in most university settings. According to Professor Yoffee, this history created a perceived need to justify archaeology as a "legitimate" subject of study, particularly scientific study, by adopting some of the theories and research modes of the parent department. While this was productive of a healthy and vigorous field of enquiry, especially in the first half of the 20th century, over the years since that time, new questions which are not well answered by the old theories have arisen which challenge how the past is interpreted and demand a new framework to explain them.
To illustrate both the issues that highlighted the need for restructure and his own suggestions for a new theory, the author looks at various interpretations of social/political development as viewed from earlier perspectives and why they do not work. He notes especially a general failure in definitions, particularly in that of pre-state societies formerly termed "chiefdoms." He also clarifies rudimentary definitions of "state" and "civilization," particularly the difference between them and what each says about a particular society.
In proposing his own theories of state development and archaeological interpretation of data, ie. social evolutionary theory, he uses information drawn from the Mesopotamian region (of which he has personal knowledge), Egypt, the US Southwestern and Mississippian cultures, the Maya, and early China. This makes for a colorful and enjoyable illustration of the author's theme. His use of Santa Fe Institute's multidisciplinary research on complex systems and self organizing criticality, etc. was particularly interesting, as I had read a recent book Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos which included archaeology in the SW in this way. His citation of Per Bak and his "sandpiles" how nature works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (Copernicus)certainly suggests that the author is very well read and enjoys a cross-disciplinary perspective. (From the latter, since other specialties can be daunting to tackle, one can presume he is also both curious and courageous.)
My favorite chapter is "New Rules of the Game." In the section "The Game of Archaeological Neologisms," the author notes that it has become fashionable to create new "types" of archaeological enquiry. As he writes: "The basic rule of the game was to proceed down the alphabet adjectivizing the common noun 'archaeology.'" He cites a number of examples, including "analytical archaeology," "behavioral archaeology," "cognitive archaeology," "demographic archaeology," "economic archaeology," etc. and notes that, "Having found a suitable modifier to 'archaeology,' the idea was to write a book on the neologism, hold a conference on it, or at the very least contribute an article to a jounal with the neologism as its title (pp. 181-182)." Since I have discovered this trend myself in my reading, I found his assessment very amusing and aware. My favorite of this type of book is Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods.
Those who are looking for a procedural book will be disappointed, since the author specifically states that this is not possible in so short a volume nor is it his intension. One book that covers this topic from the perspective of the geology of riverine sites, which are the focus of some of the author's illustrations, is Alluvial Geoarchaeology: Floodplain Archaeology and Environmental Change (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology), which, though fairly technical, covers considerable information regarding fluvial sites, their interpretation and their problems. Some of the type sites in this book are the same as those used by Professor Yoffee. In general, texts on procedures in archaeology are difficult to recommend, because the discipline has gotten very specialized; as the author himself notes, it requires more than one book to cover the subject.
For the non-professional interested in the topic of how cities, states and civilizations developed, this might be more than you bargained for. While the author does an excellent job of discussing the developmental trajectory from "bandishness"--to use his term--to state, his main objective is to clarify theory. Certainly if you have not studied anything of the areas that he discusses, the book will make an acceptable starting point, since he describes his type models adequately but not dauntingly so. Furthermore, the presentation on theory will give the beginner a better feel for what can and cannot be said about a past society from its material remains, something not always clearly noted in more general discussions on ancient society.
For those who, like myself, have taken archeology and anthropology some time ago and want an update, this is a superb book, since it covers a lot of ground. It makes one realize how much even the Past has "changed." I will make a point of saying, however, that the author has an incredible vocabulary, both professional and personal, and there are places where a good dictionary will be helpful--and this from a person who is considered to have a good vocabulary herself!
For the student, the book certainly provides a good overview of the changes in archaeological theory over the past century. The type societies are well described and the bibliography is extensive and thorough. Because of the nature of the topic, however, many of the citations are drawn from 20th century books and journals (including one from my history master's advisor, Tom B. Jones). With some exceptions, the range of topics in the bibliography focus, as would be expected, on the author's main theme, so they may or may not be a good starting point for a course research paper; whether they are or not will be determined by the subject of your paper.