After a glowing recommendation from Michael Wood in the most recent edition of Current Archaeology, I was already a third of the way through Brian Fagan’s new book before arriving at Blackwell’s this evening. However, during the course of his talk Prof Fagan not only brought his written word to life but illuminated it with his archaeological knowledge and experience. Further his personal wit, charm and enthusiasm radiated throughout the small but international audience – each member of which he introduced himself to before his formal book introduction began. By the time he took his seat and focused on the matter in hand, it felt more like a friend chatting over brandy after a good dinner than a lecture or sales pitch.
To open Prof Fagan explained the remit under which these 'little histories' are written for Yale University Press, London: no dedication; no preface; no acknowledgements; no illustrations beyond the woodcut chapter headers; 40 chapters of 2000 words each (give or take a 100 words) and an abridged vocabulary aimed at young adults. He had therefore decided to approach each chapter as a short essay but then came the difficult decisions – what to include and what to leave out. He found the earlier chapters (dealing with the development of archaeology from the 17th to the early half of the twentieth century) easier as archaeological activity was limited. Yet, from the mid-20th century onwards the decision about what to include/exclude became much harder as by then not only was archaeology an acknowledged profession and academic subject, but scientific developments had broadened the subject greatly – the majority of archaeological work is now done in the lab and not the field. However, Prof Fagan reminded us that throughout its history archaeology has ultimately not been about treasure or material objects but about understanding people and in the end this is the central theme of this Little History of Archaeology.
In the early chapters of the book Prof Fagan discusses the roots of archaeology from Aubrey’s accidental discovery of Avebury to the unearthing of the remains of Neanderthals in Germany in 1863. It was made apparent how much archaeological thought was influenced by the bible which was considered factually correct to the point that it had been calculated that God started to make the world on 23rd February 4500 BC. Much early archaeology therefore either sailed close to the heretical wind or hung its discoveries from an unrealistic time frame. Only when Darwin’s theory of the Origin of the Species became accepted could archaeology expand beyond ideology.
This led to work on pre-Christian cultures around the world beginning, notably in the middle-east with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and with the publication of 20 volumes of observations by the scholars on this expedition leading to the founding of Egyptology. Prof Fagan’s book also discusses the discovery of other ancient civilizations i.e. the Assyrians and the Mayans. There are several common threads throughout this early process of archaeological discovery – the work is predominately self-funded and amateur; centred at best on a crude pursuit of artefacts and at worst on a treasure hunt; finds are rarely recorded in context and little work is done to understand the sites and cultures they belong to. For example, early archaeologists could not comprehend the written languages they uncovered i.e. hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs and cuneiform, and these were only deciphered at a much later date - Mayan was only deciphered in the 1990s.
Indeed these ongoing developments, circling around topics and the reconsideration of finds are also one of Prof Fagan’s main literary themes (although I am finding some of the cross-referencing in the book itself intrusive). The book then goes on to explain how, through the work of such famous/infamous archaeologists as Schliemann, Flinders Petrie and Pitt Rivers in the latter part of the 19th and into the early 20th century and the advent of the worldwide publicity of such finds as Tutankhamun, archaeology became widely acknowledged, academically acceptable and far more professional in its practices. Indeed after WWI archaeology was no longer only the purview of the rich, the intellectually curious and the obsessed but accessible to a much wider selection of the population and academic chairs in the subject were established.
Prof Fagan went on to explain that more recent archaeological discoveries have been underpinned by scientific research with the use of geophysics, dendrochronology, radiocarbon dating and strontium analysis to name but a few, which can lead to such remarkable revelations such as the fact the Amesbury Archer, whose grave was discovered in 2002, was born in 2300 BC and raised in central Europe. Prof Fagan then referenced the most popular scientific methods being used in archaeology today – LIDAR and satellite mapping – and the incredible revelations this has led to the likes of Angkor Wat. However, Prof Fagan also acknowledged the challenges of first making discoveries, as archaeology is essentially a destructive practice, and then preserving them. Funding is, of course, crucial but there is also an inherently destructive process involved in raising money through tourism and Prof Fagan acknowledged this was a dichotomy which is yet to be resolved. However, he remains committed to disseminating archaeology to as wide an audience as possible and firmly believes that it offers an important way to understand how and why we got here and where we are going next. If tonight’s talk is anything to go by he has a valid point but don’t take my word for it read the book – it’s been a ripping yarn so far.