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My hat is off to Gina Barnes for undertaking a phenomenally difficult task. The archaeology of China, Korea and Japan from 11,000 BC to 600 AD covers a stupendous time range and an equally stupendous geographic and cultural range.
This book is a very useful summary of the archaeological highlights in three very different areas together with a number of useful (though brief) discussions of some of the important theoretical and political issues involved. Her treatments of the overall trajectories of cultural development in East Asia are interesting and thought-provoking and for students who want to gain a "feel" for East Asian archaeology and the "deep past" of China, Korea, and Japan, this book is a very good start.
Perhaps the most valuable contribution that Barnes makes (apart from the book's obvious appeal as a summary volume) is her attempt to get East Asianists to think beyond national boundaries when looking at the archaeological evidence. While Japan and Korea are not my areas of expertise, it seems to me that her discussion of the Pen/Insular region especially during the period from 300 BC - 600 AD (roughly corresponding to the Yayoi and Kofun periods in Japan and the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages in Korea) is the best example of the strengths of an integrated "cultural sphere" approach.
Another useful contribution (paradoxically perhaps) of the book is her demonstration that simplistic notions of "Asian" homogeneity cannot be supported by the archaeological evidence. In fact, as the contents of the book itself makes fairly clear, there is very little unity even within any of the specific national regions until (perhaps) the very end of the period covered by the book. What Barnes illustrates nicely is that there were important geographical and cultural sub-regions which played key roles in the development of "civilization" in each of the areas covered by the modern nations of China, Japan and Korea. In some situations, these sub-regions were clearly in contact with other places far distant from them, often in very important ways. However, the local contexts of each of these sub-regions was just as important as any links with distant cultures or people.
Despite these obvious strengths, there are also a number of reasons why I would hesitate to recommend this book for more specialized courses in East Asian archaeology and why I think people who use this book to teach courses on "East Asian" anything need to be a little wary.
Firstly, as Barnes makes very clear herself, this is a summary volume in the absolute sense. Crucial topics in East Asian archaeology (especially the origins of agriculture and the sections on the Jomon culture of Japan and the Shang dynasty in China) are handled very very cursorily and even the (fairly comprehensive) suggested reading section does not really compensate for this.
Secondly, and again this is a function of this book's primary purpose as a "layperson's introduction" to East Asian archaeology, important differences between regional traditions and important debates among archaeologists (especially Asian archaeologists and their western counterparts) are only hinted at.
What I have found over a fairly consistent period of teaching with this book is that Barnes often alludes to important debates in a sentence or two but then provides no other information on the subject. The reader who already has a background in the period in question can identify the issue she mentions but students with little prior experience are completely mystified.
The real problem here is that there is very little material available in English for people who are interested in archaeology in any part of Asia. Consequently, general summaries like this volume bear a very heavy burden for both the popular and scholarly audiences. My own preference would be to see separate Thames and Hudson volumes on the archaeology of each country up to 600 AD. I know that this is partially a problem with publishers' perceptions of what may and may not sell. But with current levels of interest in Asia showing no signs of diminishing, the time may well be ripe for a detailed and up-to-date revision of the archaeology in each of these countries. After all, the Maya (who occupy an area of real estate about the size of the island of Kyushu) have two volumes and the Aztecs (who lived in an area about the size of greater Seoul) have a whole volume to themselves as well.
For people who want more detailed discussions of East Asian archaeology in print: Keiji Imamura's "Prehistoric Japan" is quite good though the English is more than a little garbled in places. Bob Murowchick's edited volume "China: Ancient Culture, Modern Land" has some very useful chapters in it (and nice color pictures). For Korea, Sarah Nelson's "The Archaeology of Korea" is probably your best bet, though as part of the Cambridge World Archaeology Series it is pricey and overly dense for the non-specialist.