Kelly D. Wiltshire reviews 'A Little History of Archaeology' by Brian Fagan

Kelly D. Wiltshire reviews 'A Little History of Archaeology' by Brian Fagan

A Little History of Archaeology

by Brian Fagan

Yale University Press (Footprint), $37.99 hb, 288 pp, 9780300243215

As the old saying goes, one should never judge a book by its cover; however, the instantly recognisable iconography on the cover of A Little History of Archaeology does provide an insight into this book’s content. In presenting this history of archaeology – which forms part of a larger series that includes histories of philosophy, literature, and science – author and archaeologist Brian Fagan early makes the distinction that ‘today’s archaeology is far more than hazardous journeys and specular discoveries. It may have begun as treasure hunting … But treasure hunting isn’t proper archaeology.’ In making this statement, Fagan establishes a precedent that he uses to repeatedly remind his readers that archaeology is the search for information and not monetary gain associated with looting. This is the main strength of the book; it is used to challenge the misconceptions that have plagued the discipline of archaeology since its infancy.

Divided into forty short, chronological chapters, it commences with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 near Pompeii, setting the scene for the investigations of this site that would lay the foundations for the discipline of archaeology. In doing so, the first half of the book is dedicated to the people and places central to archaeology’s establishment as a discipline, including Napoleon’s exploits in Egypt, the discovery and eventual translation of the Rosetta Stone that was pivotal to the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the Three-Age System, which provided a basic chronology for European artefacts. Fagan makes the point that the numerous artefacts he describes can be viewed at the British Museum, which highlights this institution’s role in the development of archaeology and allows the reader to feel as though they are walking through the various rooms where these objects are on display.

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Published in August 2019, no. 413

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