Brian M. Fagan and Nadia Durrani. A Brief History of Archaeology: Classical Times to the Twenty-First Century. 2nd edition. 271pp., 70 color images, glossary, bibl., index. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. $195 (hardback), $72.95 (paperback)
This updated version of Fagan’s 2004 first edition covers the development of archaeology as a discipline from the first recorded attempts to excavate as a means of finding out about the past, up to emergent and future trends that will shape the discipline during the coming decades.
Organized in fourteen chapters, the majority of the book (Chapters 1-10) deals with the period prior to the Second World War. Beginning with excavation at Ur by the Babylonian King Nabonidus (sixth century BC), the authors quickly move forward to the sixteenth century and the beginnings of the antiquarian movement in Europe (Chapter 1). Chapter 2 examines the intellectual climate in which archaeology proper emerged as a discipline—particularly the recognition of deep earth history, a dynamic past, and the emergence of typological and evolutionary thinking by the mid-nineteenth century. Chapter 3 focuses largely on Egyptology (including the decipherment of hieroglyphs), Assyriology, and the development of popular interest in the human past, while Chapter 4 examines the beginnings of archaeological systematics (the Three Age System) and applications of unilineal evolutionary theory. Chapters 5 and 6 examine early developments in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, including the discovery of the Minoan palaces and Troy, abandoned Maya cities, and early excavations in the American Southwest.
Thereafter, the book largely deals with Anthropological Archaeology as it emerged in Europe and North America, leaving subsequent developments in Classical Archaeology largely untouched. Chapter 7 reviews the development of Culture History, while Chapter 8 provides a brief review of early discoveries outside of North America and Europe. Chapters 8 and 9 review significant discoveries and methodological advances of the first half of the twentieth century, while Chapter 10 explores the development of ecological approaches to the past.
These ten chapters explore archaeology very much through the lens of particular men (C.J. Thomsen, Jens Jacob Worsaae, Austen Henry Layard, John Lubbock, Oscar Montelius, Heinrich Schliemann, Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, Flinders Petrie, Leonard Woolley, V. Gordon Childe, Alfred Kidder, Grahame Clark, and others), detailing their excavations, personalities, and major theoretical contributions. That said, these chapters provide a detailed and integrated review of the formative era of the discipline, particularly situating discoveries and advancements in their broader respective intellectual climates (enlightenment views of human progress, evolutionary thinking, and culture history).
The next three chapters of the book are devoted to exploring the post-WWII era. Chapter 11 begins with Walter Taylor’s critique of pre-war archaeology, A Study of Archaeology (1948), then explores the radiocarbon revolution and its consequences. Chapter 12 deals with multi-lineal evolution, the New/Processual archaeology, positivism, and systems approaches. Chapter 13 explores the post-processual backlash to the scientism of the 1960s and 70s, as well as the development of gendered archaeology and Marxist and cognitive approaches to the past. The three chapters dealing with post-WWII archaeology generally read more as a history of ideas (and critiques thereof) than of individual practitioners, although the processual period is largely written as the story of Lewis Binford, and for the first time in the book, female archaeologists (Dorothy Garrod, Kathleen Kenyon, Joan Gero, Margaret Conkey) make an appearance.
The number of archaeological practitioners and the amount of scholarly output they have generated has increased dramatically during the post-war era. Difficult choices must therefore be made as to what to include or omit—meaning that these three chapters sometimes read like an afterthought compared to the much richer presentation of the early history of the discipline. Some omissions are particularly glaring; for instance, Darwinian archaeology, a major theoretical strand of archaeology in recent decades, does not appear. Chapters 11-13 also lack the tight integration of theory, method, and data found in earlier chapters. While archaeological case studies presented in earlier chapters illustrate the development of ideas and methods—the linked development of dendrochronology and taxonomy in the US Southwest (Chapter 10) as an example—in later chapters, case studies are often included only because they occurred roughly within the timeframe discussed. Chapter 13 for instance leads in with a discussion of Ötzi, the famous Bronze Age mummy recovered in the Tyrolean Alps, but provides little rationale as to why that find and post-processual archaeology are covered in a single chapter. Other more informative case studies are available, for instance Ian Hoddor’s excavations at Çatalhöyük, which combined a variety of interpretive and hermeneutic approaches to understanding excavation results while also drawing heavily on methodological advancements of recent decades.
The volume concludes (Chapter 14) with emerging trends and future directions. Some of these trends are obvious and already vindicated—DNA analysis is probably the most high-profile area of prehistoric research at present, and significant new early hominid finds are uncovered every year. Foreseeing the future of archaeological theory is more challenging, and one can excuse the authors for ignoring many currently popular theoretical directions like the new materialism, the ontological turn, or symmetrical archaeology. Some of these may take hold as significant and lasting ways of looking at the past, while others will undoubtedly be passing fads of little lasting import. It is on the other hand surprising that Fagan and Durrani make no mention of the inclusion of indigenous archaeologists and voices in the discipline; they also barely address the already devastating impacts on the archaeological record caused by anthropogenic climate change. Both are likely to significantly change archaeological practice in coming years and are already the topic of a substantial and growing literature.
Given this lack of engagement with most of the major trends of the last two decades, a more accurate sub-title for the book might be “Classical Times Through the Twentieth Century.” It is particularly surprising that the authors have added almost nothing new to the second edition relative to the first—image quality has been improved, and a handful of new methods (LiDAR, for instance) appear among future directions, but no major findings or advancements generated in the discipline between 2004 and the present appear in the new edition. Some errors that were present in the first edition remain in the second—for instance, the “Amesbury” Archer is referred to as the “Avesbury” Archer in both. Those who already own the first edition of the book will gain little from purchasing this new edition. That said, Fagan and Durrani have produced an excellent overview of the early history of the discipline, which has rarely been covered in such depth. The book is less insightful in regards to the post-radiocarbon era of archaeology—readers interested in understanding the last seven decades of archaeological practice may wish to augment their reading with other sources, for instance Bruce Trigger’s A History of Archaeological Thought or Matthew Johnson’s Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. Despite its flaws, A Brief History of Archaeology remains a valuable book of use in undergraduate or early graduate level courses and is accessible enough even for the interested casual reader.