A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

What is archaeology? The word may bring to mind images of golden pharaohs and lost civilizations, or Neanderthal skulls and Ice Age cave art. Archaeology is all of these, but also far more: the only science to encompass the entire span of human history—more than three million years!

This Little History tells the riveting stories of some of the great archaeologists and their amazing discoveries around the globe: ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan ruins, the first colonial settlements at Jamestown, mysterious Stonehenge, the incredibly preserved Pompeii, and many, many more. In forty brief, exciting chapters, the book recounts archaeology’s development from its eighteenth-century origins to its twenty-first-century technological advances, including remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery techniques that have revolutionized the field. Shining light on the most intriguing events in the history of the field, this absolutely up-to-date book illuminates archaeology’s controversies, discoveries, heroes and scoundrels, global sites, and newest methods for curious readers of every age.

Part of the Little Histories series, A Little of History of Archaeology is a good overview of the discipline.  As befitting of the subject, Fagan slowly uncovers the beginnings of the pursuit from King Charles of Naples, at Herculaneum, up until the present day.  The enthusiastic introduction sets the book up nicely, throwing in some choice, lesser known facts to hook the reader and begin a globe-trotting journey through time.

We start the journey proper in Egypt, and travel all the way through to the present day, seeing the gradual honing of the archaeological craft, from haphazard digs chasing treasures – real or imagined – to the more careful, professional approach which has led us to a deep and ever-changing understanding of the past.

Throughout we meet some fascinating characters; adventurers, vicars, museum curators, army officers, and the like who all contribute in some way to the learning of an art and the teasing of knowledge, quite literally out of the ground, through their failures successes and frustrations.  The writing style is very light and everything is set out in a simple manner giving the reader an engrossing narrative that can be dipped in and out of at anytime without undue confusion.

Apart from the well documented and popular tourist destinations, there were a lot of lesser known stories and names of people and places, who contributed to the evolving picture of the growing of the field of Archaeology.  Everyone has surely heard of the Egyptians and Minoans but the Shoshone Indians and the city of Great Zimbabwe are less well-known and add some interesting stories.

The further forward we go through the book and in time, the further back archaeology begins to look backwards.  With constantly better technology, those millions of years of pre-history are shown chronicling our slow growth and path towards humans of today can more accurately be traced.  To see the tree of humans sprouting and branching out and to have all this at our fingertips is absolutely staggering,

The tantalising mystery of what else still remains to be uncovered (especially in China and perhaps, Mexico, to name but two countries), will excite every reader’s imagination. That uncovering the past is as much about the study of ruins and the local people’s oral histories, as it is about artefacts is really underlined here.

The short chapters make this a punchy, informative and up-to date read.   The book manages to be both dramatic and scholarly at the same time, balancing both neatly as it also touches on other ‘ologies’ such as, philology, dendrochronology, and geology, which all combine to help us understand the past in more depth. A Little History of Archaeology is really well told and I enjoyed its readability, whilst eagerly racing through its pages.

What archaeology post would be complete without Mr Phil Harding?  Sunday tea time just isn’t the same without Time Team.

Thanks to Yale University Press for sending me ARC.

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21 Replies to “A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan”

  1. Dear Ste J, I already know that you are something of an autodidact, building carefully on all you learned in school to achieve even greater degrees of learning. If you don’t stop being so all well-rounded, I’m soon going to suspect you of being a Renaissance Man as well! Seriously, you seem to read a great deal very fast, much faster than I do, and to delve into all sorts of interesting corners for things. The blogosphere just wouldn’t be the same without you! How’s Chrissy, by the way? Does she feel like throwing pots at you sometimes when you are sequestered with a book? Or the menagerie? Are you sure they’re getting their quotas of pats and attention? Or do you all read copiously? Just joking, of course, I’m sure you’ve managed a blissful routine. Your very joyousness at finding a new book and your eagerness to share it shows it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a combination of the two works very well for me, I crave more of all learning. All this reading and blogging has a lot to do with my relative lack of both last year. I have more interesting books coming up as well. I really want to spread my net as wide as possible. My current drafts tally has been hovering around the 191 mark for the last month or two, whenever I clear it down, it’s filled back up again with ‘ideas on the back burner’. I’m not used to it but I like it.

      Crissy is doing great and impressing at her work, as usual. I am managing to read around our time, which keeps things separate and my focus fully and not get shouted at. The dogs get lots of love too, it’s too hot for them so they sleep a lot during the day but I make sure to keep scratching those stomachs. There will be a lot more varying books coming up, it’s finding the time to read them all that is the problem, I have a pile of physical books to review that is quite tall but I live in fear of catching up and running out of reviews to post so I really can’t win either way.

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    1. I always loved the slightly wacky way in which they did the programme, never has a the remains of a post hole been so interesting or vital to history, as when sleepily viewed over a good tea.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. and they did not treat the audience like idiots – so many programmes these days constantly reprise their subject-matter, as if they think the viewer cannot remember more than about 10mins of info.

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        1. Yes, that’s the problem with today’s shows they dumb the programmes down so much that nobody wants to watch them. If Documentary makers don’t have enough material for their programmes then add in other relevant history, if we want to watch such shows we are obviously willing to learn and all we ask in return is not to be patronised.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. It does bring up the subject and the efforts to stop the loss as well. It is a shame so much got stolen from the countries of its creation but speculating on how such artefacts would fare in the hands of ISIS, for example, makes me grateful that at least some of it is protected.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like a really good book. I dabbled in archaeology in my youth and always liked the duller things to do – looking for post holes or excavating fallen roof tiles and their millions of nails. It’s come on a long way of course since then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It all seems a bit exciting these days with lasers and satellites, not to mention the documentaries with dramatic music. I quite preferred the sedateness of it all.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. He does have his own small part on the book. Small page wise that is, it does chronicle his heights as a narrative chronicler and also their subsequent corrections with radiocarbon dating.

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