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Book Review -Fagan and Durrani A Brief History of Archaeology: classical times to the twenty-first century – 2nd edition

November 18, 2016


The volume under consideration is an updated version of Brian Fagan’s earlier work of the same title, detailing the genesis and development of the science of archaeology. As the title suggests, Fagan, this time with the collaboration of Nadia Durrani, provides a brief, yet intended to be comprehensive, investigation of archaeological epistemology from the earliest acts of what might be considered ‘archaeology’, to those of the present day. They start with a description of Babylonian excavations in the sixth century BC, albeit recognizing that these excavations are far from what might now be considered archaeology. They also discuss the writings of early Greek and Roman scholars.

The bulk of the book, however concerns the events which took place in the period after AD1600 and the Enlightenment. In particular, the authors consider the influence of religion in the investigation of the past.  Is this a good thing – probably, for many individuals who shaped our understanding of the past were clergymen. However, there is more to the subject, and to deepen our understanding of the matter, we must look to those who weren’t as well.  Many post-Enlightenment scholars were simply attempting to get an understanding of the world and its (pre)history as they saw it. Fagan and Durrani divide their text into chronologically organised sections, with noted practitioners, and their exploits, forming the nucleus of each chapter. Thus, for example, they look at the actions of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae, and Flinders Petrie in Egypt. In other case studies, the contributions of individuals to method and theory are considered, as is the case with Jacob Jens Worsaae and the Three Age System, for example. Notably (and thanks to Julia for pointing this out) the work of Peter Rowley-Conwy in not considered here. This is followed by a study of recent important discoveries and, finally, a look at the post-war debates surrounding archaeological theory and an assessment of where the discipline goes next. At the end of each chapter is a brief page or so summarizing said chapter: these are extremely helpful for aiding the reader who is unsure if they want to read the whole chapter.

And yet, in many ways there are problems within this text – mainly due to the writing style, bad phrasing, defects and inaccuracies. Many of these problems would have been eradicated by more rigorous editing. Too often, A Brief History lapses into what can be best described as journalese – the recreation of Louis Leakey leaping out of his bed despite suffering from a severe bout of influenza (p.186) is particularly jarring. Sometimes, the authors seem to think they are writing a TV script rather than an academic text. As an example of this bad language, for example, on page 2 antiquarians are rather blandly defined as simply “someone who studies the past”. Does this not then include all of us? In their discussion of Boucher de Perthes, we are told that (p.25) “in short, he was a bore….the scientists of the day labelled him a crank” and later, when discussing his eventual scientific acceptance, we are told that “had de Perthes not been such a bore, recognition might have come earlier.” This is hardly the height of critical thinking. Consider, then, their assessment of archaeologists in the present day who specialise in scientific analyses of one sort or another (p212); these specialists can be “little more than sophisticated technicians”. This could no doubt be seen as, at best, somewhat of a slight.

There are frequent errors. The Amesbury Archer is referred to throughout as the Avebury Archer; there is no agreement in the text as to whether the gold ornaments are earrings or hair tresses. These are the problems inherent in attempting to write such an all-encompassing book. The expert on Stonehenge cannot be expected to be the expert on Herculaneum, for example.

Throughout the volume, the text is repetitive. Referencing is minimal; sometimes quotations are referenced, otherwise not, and plain text generally not at all. There are short, general bibliographies at the end of each chapter and of the volume, but these are mainly dated and certainly not sufficient for an academic piece of work. A glossary of referenced (mainly) sites is provided – this adds little to what is provided in the text; the index could be best described as minimalistic.

The narrative is vivid, easy to read and contains a great deal of information. Perhaps, to this reader, the best sections are the later chapters on the development of archaeological theory. Post-war developments, here, are certainly well explained, albeit with certain inconsistencies. Arguably, however, the book sticks to the familiar old ‘great men’ (and women) of archaeology concept; it would be nice to move away from this paradigm. Although it is designed as a text book – some might argue a key one – it is more than a text book, perhaps it covers too much. I am undecided as to whether I would recommend it to students – it is somewhere between a school age and University undergraduate text book, but for the general reader, it is certainly to be recommended.

Jonathan Trigg

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