Review by Clover Little : A Little History of Archaeology

Review by Clover Little (IAFS alumni)

Fagan, B. M. 2019. A Little History of Archaeology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

A Little History of Archaeology is a charming and informative read that accomplishes all it sets out to achieve. It is a great introductory resource for newcomers to archaeology and a delightfully succinct refresher for those familiar with the field. Author Brian Fagan is an experienced generalist in anthropology and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has written about prehistory, precolonial African archaeology, and historical climate change amongst many other topics. In this book, one of dozens he has published, he provides an overview of archaeology’s development into its modern form while highlighting history’s most significant discoveries and summarizing the methodological improvements that have been made over time. Fagan is well-suited to the task as he has developed the experience to discern which events in the history of archaeology are best underlined to provide a concise overview of its development.

With forty short chapters, A Little History of Archaeology is largely episodic in nature. Each chapter draws a picture of a discovery or other development that moved archaeology forward to where it is today, from the chaotic artifact hunts of early Egyptology (pp.8-20) to the Leakeys’ search for human origins (pp.190-6) to the considered and mediated approach to Çatalhöyük (pp.242-8) and with many more events in between. This manner of writing serves its subject matter well: not only does it accurately reflect the temporal irregularity of early archaeological discoveries, but it also makes it easy for a reader to pick up and put down the book while still maintaining interest and absorbing information. Fagan ends with excitement for the future, explaining how the advent of remote sensing technologies has begun to revolutionize the study of sites such as Angkor Wat (pp.255-60). Each chapter is well-written, with clever, insightful, and often humorous exposition that accompanies a wealth of well-communicated information. It is worth noting that this book does not attempt to delve beyond its scope into the detailed methodology of excavation, nor is it a suitable resource for those who seek an in-depth and exhaustive exploration of any of the subjects of its chapters. This is hardly a flaw, as Fagan has not set out to write a textbook, but it is worth keeping in mind for potential buyers.

Fagan has a talent for making his subject matter shine and bringing to life sites of archaeological significance and the figures that have excavated them. To the layman, A Little History of Archaeology is a perfect compromise between education and entertainment, and anyone with an education in archaeology will still find plenty to enjoy in this charming little book.