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This is what popular scientific writing can be: careful, lucid, non-condescending, and blessedly free of the journalistic gimmicks which mar so many American translations of science for the layman (e.g., Philo Pottinger was eating a pastrami sandwich in Fort Lauderdale when he began his lifelong love affair with the neutrino). Wilson, Chief Science Correspondent for the BBC and author of Body and Antibody (1971), writes an unpretentious prose geared for maximum information and minimum fuss. Forget your smattering of ""facts"" about the torch of civilization being passed from enlightened Mesopotamia to barbarian Europe; the present consensus is (a) this wasn't the way it happened; (b) the whole notion of civilization being diffused from one culture to another contains a lot of hidden, goal-oriented assumptions about ""progress"" which interfere with the dispassionate study of the past. Nearly half of the book is taken up with dating techniques, principally Willard Libby's carbon 14 method, presented with a quiet matter-of-factness. Wilson explains the construction of ""calendars"" from tree rings, the way in which carbon 14 enters and leaves organic matter, and how the two processes have been combined to form the most accurate, widely applicable method in the history of archaeology. There are also brief accounts of dating methods based on other isotopes, magnetic particles in clay, and the activities of various nuclear particles; the entire section on dating is a triumph of effortlessly clear, logical presentation. The rest of the book is more fragmented though consistently fascinating. Wilson discusses the interaction of archaeology with other sciences (plant genetics, chemistry, computer science), and suggests some of the problems arising from this fusion of disciplines. Even people who aren't wild about archaeology stand a good chance of finding something interesting on every page.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1975
Publisher: Knopf