No stone left unturned

November 29, 2002

Archaeologist and passionate yachtsman Brian Fagan has circumnavigated his discipline, producing some 25 books.

The world's most prolific living writer of archaeology books, including seven textbooks, two of them now in their tenth editions, came into archaeology accidentally. When Brian Fagan entered Cambridge University in 1956 after doing his national service in the Royal Navy, he was handed a list of subjects and picked archaeology and anthropology "by chance". Luckily for Fagan, his tutors turned out to be excellent and inspiring. They included Sir Grahame Clark, the doyen of British prehistory but also one of the leading archaeologists of the century who, says Fagan, "had sufficient vision to see that archaeology was a global enterprise and trained a whole generation of young archaeologists, including me, to go out and work in remote parts of the world".

Fagan's reputation rests chiefly on his work as a communicator of archaeology to a wide audience through lectures, books and broadcasting. He has produced 25 or so books covering a huge range of subjects and spanning virtually the entire globe. They include a history of Egyptology ( The Rape of the Nile ), an account of how modern scientific techniques reveal the stories behind ancient sites (Time Detectives), a synoptic environmental history ( Floods, Famines and Emperors : El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations ), The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (as general editor) and two best-selling textbooks, In the Beginning and People of the Earth .

Nicholas Saunders, an archaeologist and anthropologist based at University College London, says: "Fagan's success is well deserved as he writes with fluency and a (usually) unerring eye for what students need. His ability to identify (and then write) a strong and insightful narrative in modern archaeology's multidisciplinary complexities is a major talent, both in the textbooks and in his single-topic books, which are often and in many ways expanded textbooks."

An archaeological populariser of an earlier generation, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, was the first to encourage Fagan to try his hand at writing for students and the general reader. It was 1966, and Fagan had just finished several years of fieldwork in Africa, in what was then Northern Rhodesia. There were no open positions for Africanists in the UK and, as a result, he says: "I was contemplating leaving archaeology as I saw no future in African archaeology. But during a long lunch at his beloved Athenaeum Club, Wheeler urged me to try writing for the public. Then, when I came to Santa Barbara in 1967 to teach archaeology and anthropology at the University of California [where he would spend the rest of his academic career], I was allocated the large introductory course with 300 students and found no suitable textbooks. So I started writing textbooks, which were successful, and then branched out into general writing with the encouragement of an editor at Scribners in New York."

In the Beginning is aimed at courses in the method and theory of archaeology. It is used both at the introductory and the more advanced level in courses that focus on method. People of the Earth is a world prehistory text, aimed at courses on this subject. It is often used in conjunction with a brief method and theory text. "So the one is methods, the other results," explains Fagan. Their impact has been more on the American market than the European one, and their main competitors are American texts - though Fagan is happy to admit his admiration for the leading British textbook, Archaeology : Theories, Methods and Practice , by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn.

As soon as you look at Fagan's textbooks, you can hardly avoid being struck by two features, leaving aside their readability: the presumed ignorance of the readership, and the author's passion for ethics in archaeology.

Regarding the first of these, Fagan says: "Many US students come to archaeology with the impression that we are Indiana Joneses or mummy hunters or even that we dig up dinosaurs. But it is a harmless perception, which soon changes when they encounter the real archaeology. Most of the students have a narrow view of the world, and are basically ignorant of ancient civilisations, except for the Egyptians and the Maya, who are prominent on radio and TV, and appear in every school curriculum. My impression is that European students have a wider vision of the ancient world, far beyond the Romans and the Saxons."

As for ethics, he is an unyielding opponent of private collectors - who have, of course, wreaked havoc in the Maya area - and concludes In the Beginning with an appeal to readers never to collect artefacts or to buy and sell them for personal gain. "For a while I was a columnist for Archaeology Magazine . In several columns I took a very strong position against collectors and looting. Since then, I have written some short articles on the subject. But my main effort is to inculcate important archaeological ethics and values in widely read textbooks, which reach a broad audience. All teaching about archaeology must start from a strong ethical stance."

Fagan has his critics, as do all successful popularisers. Archaeology is riven with specialisms, and many archaeological specialists reserve special suspicion for those who claim to encompass the whole subject. Moreover, Fagan has done no fieldwork of his own since finishing in Africa in 1970, although for many years afterwards he joined others' excavations and has visited numerous sites and excavations. He says: "My extensive fieldwork experience early in my career has given me credibility to do what I do, which is a rare speciality in any field, let alone archaeology."

Inevitably, there is also a bit of envy of his success, as Saunders frankly admits: "If I could write at his speed and with his insight, maybe I too would have a yacht!"

Which brings us to Fagan's second obsession, and the other reason he moved to California - his love of sailing. Not only has he sailed in many parts of the world, he has even produced several publications on sailing, such as his Cruising Guide to Central and Southern California , now in its fourth iteration, having first appeared in 1979. "I started sailing aged eight with a fisherman in Dorset," he says. "About 20 years ago, I did a great deal of sailing in Europe, including an Atlantic crossing in my own 41ft cutter, which was fascinating, and much less crowded than today. During the 1980s, I began to dabble in yachting journalism, which allowed me to sail other people's boats and to charter in widely scattered parts of the world from New Zealand and the south Pacific to the Caribbean, the American Northwest, and Sweden, to say nothing of the English Channel." Recently he reviewed Ellen MacArthur's account of her round-the-world solo epic for The THES and confessed to being awestruck. " Taking on the World will appeal to a far wider readership than the small audience of sailing enthusiasts. If you have a dream and are determined to realise it, this book will inspire you beyond measure." It is not difficult to imagine young would-be archaeologists reacting in the same way to the best of Fagan's remarkable textbooks.

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