A Little History of Archaeology
Brian Fagan
Yale University Press
277pp, black & white illustrations by
Joe McLaren
Hardback, £14.99

In 1935 a 26-year-old Viennese scholar of art history was asked to write a short history of the world for younger readers. Ernst Gombrich was hard-up and so accepted the challenge. In a mere six weeks he completed his book. It is now available in 25 languages, though it did not appear in English until 2005, revised and published as A Little History of the World.

Yale University Press realised that they were onto a winner: straightforward, well-written introductions to important subjects in an attractive format, a bold cover and an evocative, engraved cartouche heading each of the 40 brief chapters. If 'younger readers' have an increasingly short attention span (which I doubt; my three young grandchildren are capable of obsessing endlessly about the Titanic, dinosaurs and Harry Potter) then delivering the subject in a digestible short story format is a great idea. Thus far Yale University Press has delivered 'Little Histories' of Philosophy, Science, Literature, Religion and Economics, all by authors who, like Gombrich, know how to deliver big subjects, tread lightly and write like human beings for other human beings – not to impress their fellow academics.

So, for the latest contribution, A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan is the ideal author. An Anglo-American emeritus professor at the University of California, he is perhaps the most prolific writer of archaeological books in the world. Fagan's books are always up-to-date syntheses for a general audience, which of course includes many archaeologists. He has enormous breadth of knowledge. The world is his site. And this shows in the scope of his A Little History of Archaeology.

Inevitably he begins with the heroic days of 'backward-looking curiosity' from the Rosetta Stone dug up by Napoleon's soldiers while constructing defences in the Nile Delta in 1799 to circus strongman and tomb-raider Giovanni Belzoni who shifted the huge statue of Rameses II from the banks of the River Nile. It joined the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, thanks to British imperial superiority after the defeat of Napoleon. Nevertheless, it was the Frenchman Jean- François Champollion who, using brains rather than brawn, unlocked the code to Egyptian hieroglyphs and illuminated a lost civilisation.

Archaeologists need a lot of determination, persistence and good powers of observation. They also need luck. Austen Henry Layard had it in spades. He discovered two palaces in one day at Nimrud. Their spectacular carved friezes now occupy my favourite gallery in the British Museum, where Assyrian bowmen mounted in chariots can be seen swept along by powerful horses. Lions and human victims are dust beneath their chariot wheels. These Assyrians wore the most terrifying beards in the whole of human history.

Of course 'new' civilisations also appeared in the New World, as Fagan explains: the Maya were rescued from historical oblivion and sophisticated societies, such as the Mississippi Mound Builders and the Pueblo people, exposed the racist attitudes of Europeans to the native peoples of the Americas as ignorant nonsense.

In the mid-19th century archaeologists broke the time barrier, discovering the stone tools of early humans alongside the remains of extinct animals. Then the humans and their cave art appeared.

Via the wonders of Crete, Babylon, Zimbabwe, Mohenjo-daro and Teotihuacan Fagan takes his reader through archaeology's advances – the scientific study of chronology, the systematic surveys of landscapes, the anthropological observation of peoples such as the Shoshone – survivors in a harsh environment. Thanks to much more precise chronologies, an appreciation of the capabilities of pre-industrial communities, and changing environments, archaeologists now provide a clearer understanding of how humans have coped with the world – for better or worse.

This little book shows us that we are an energetic, creative and imaginative species – but we also need to be constantly on guard for the unintended consequences of our actions. A Little History of Archaeology, which takes us a long way, is ideal for time- travellers of all ages.
David Miles

 

<back