Dr. Brian Fagan (2002)

2002_FaganBrian M. Fagan is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Born in Britain, he attended Cambridge University, where he concentrated on the study of Iron Age Archaeology and Anthropology. While there, he earned his B.A. (1959), M.A. (1962), and Ph.D. (1964) degrees. Following his undergraduate training, he moved to East and Central Africa, where he studied the African Iron Age. While in Africa, Dr. Fagan held the positions of Keeper of Prehistory at the Livingstone Museum in Zambia, and Director of the Bantu Studies Project at the British Institute of Nairobi. In 1966, he accepted a visiting faculty position at the University of Illinois. The following year, he moved to Santa Barbara to assume his current position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of California. Dr. Fagan is the author of over 30 books covering a wide range of archaeological topics. He is a member of the editorial board of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. A former Guggenheim Fellow, Dr. Fagan received the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Archaeologists in 1996, and a Presidential Recognition Award from the Society for American Archaeology in the same year. He was the first recipient of the Society’s Public Education Award in the following year.

Dr. Fagan was the Awards Banquet Keynote Speaker at the 2002 SCA Annual Meeting in San Diego. This interview was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman and C. Kristina Roper.

Photo by Lesley Newhart.


SCA: Can you tell us where you were born, and a little about your early childhood?

BF: I was born in England and spent most of my childhood in southwestern England, where I acquired a lifelong love of sailing and the ocean. My father was a publisher, so I was around books from an early age.

I went to boarding schools, an English tradition, from age 8, and attended Rugby School (a private school) before doing two year’s service in the Royal Navy (tank landing ships). After service in the Mediterranean, I went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where I studied archaeology and anthropology. I was admitted to Cambridge on condition I did not study Greek and Latin, as I was very bad at them!

SCA: Who are the people that most influenced you?

BF: People who influenced me: the fisherman who taught me how to sail, an extraordinary Rugby School teacher who knew Homer’s works by heart and gave me a lifelong love for them, my father, a wonderfully gentle man, and several archaeologists: Grahame Clark, Eric Higgs, and Desmond Clark, the Africanist.

SCA: Do you have any hobbies or special interests that you’d like to tell us about?

BF: Cruising under sail, boats of all kind, kayaking, bicycling, cooking, and cats.

SCA: What do you like to do when you want to get away from archaeology?

BF: I love to spend time with the family (my wife, thank goodness, regards archaeology as a harmless pursuit), or to go to sea.

SCA: Have you read a book or seen a movie recently that you really enjoyed, and what was it?

BF: I almost never watch TV or go to the movies, but a book I loved was Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Rabin. A lovely meld of the sea, history, ethnography, and life.

SCA: If you hadn’t become an archaeologist, what might you have done?

BF: I have no idea!

SCA: When did you first know that you wanted to become an archaeologist?

BF: I became an archaeologist because of my first Cambridge teacher, Miles Burkitt. He was an elderly gentleman with a Stone Age background and worked with Henri Breuil in the French Palaeolithic caves before World War I. He was not much of an archaeologist, but he was a consummate story teller and knew how to keep young students’ interests. He hooked me.

SCA: Can you tell us a little about your training, where you went to school, and what you remember about that time in your life?

BF: I was Cambridge University trained, B.A. 1959, M.A. 1962, Ph.D. 1964, at a time when the Cambridge Department was riding high. There I came under the influence of Grahame Clark, the ecological archaeologist who encouraged students to work abroad and in little known parts of the world. I also went in the field with, and learned from, Eric Higgs, a sheep farmer turned archaeologist who was an expert on animal bones and ecology. He forced us to think, something few undergraduates get a chance to do.

My Ph.D. was an external one, as Cambridge had no graduate classes. I completed it on African Iron Age villages in Zambia under the supervision of examiners in Africa, Cambridge, and California.

My early career was wonderfully free of restrictions. Student numbers were tiny at Cambridge. Even as an undergraduate you knew your teachers really well. I spent six years in Zambia, two of them under Desmond Clark, who believed in getting you into the field and letting you find your way. This was a wonderful way to learn and I spent a lot of time surveying and digging, as well as getting a background in museums and monuments administration.

By today’s standards, I was incredibly lucky to enter the field when it was expanding rapidly…but it is still true that the best opportunities are far off the beaten track.

SCA: In your opinion, what are some of the most significant archaeological projects underway today, and why are they important?

BF: Significant archaeological projects are unfolding all over the place, many of them little known because they are CRM. I think the wetland surveys currently under way in Britain are of enormous importance. So are the Chinese excavations at Emperor Qinshuihangdi’s tomb complex. Charles Higham’s work on the origins of the Khmer state in Cambodia and Thailand is truly remarkable and little known outside the narrow coterie of people interested in that area. The recent Moche burial research by Chris Donnan is adding much to our knowledge of that civilization, while, without question, the biggest advance in Maya studies in recent years has been the decipherment of Maya glyphs. As far as California and the west are concerned, I suspect that the greatest advances are going to come from multidisciplinary approaches to hunter-gatherer responses to short-term climate change. Some of the recent climatological work around the world has great implications for all of us–a good example of it close to home is the Kennetts’ work on deep sea cores in the Santa Barbara Channel.

SCA: What are some of your most memorable projects or experiences as an archaeologist?

BF: Working on Iron Age villages in Central Africa, where no one had worked before and being able to reconstruct not only a culture history, but the subsistence. Carrying out a rescue dig in the Middle Zambezi Valley in 105 degrees, humid heat miles from anywhere. Working with British archaeologists at Flag Fen, a Bronze Age field system in eastern England for seven weeks. Most memorable visits: Macchu Picchu, Easter Island, Angkor Wat (the scale overwhelms you) and Petra (the entrance is to die for). I have had so many wonderful experiences that it would be invidious to single out one. Visiting Mesa Verde the day after the first snow was a wonderful moment. Perhaps best of all are the people I have met, everyone from the Leakeys and Mortimer Wheeler to Albert Spaulding, McKern of the Midwest Taxonomic System, and so many people working today.

SCA: If you could conduct your dream project, what would it be?

BF: A dream: to dig a wet Upper Palaeolithic site in Southwestern France, so I could combine fantastic archaeology with wonderful cuisine…

Dream on, Tonto…

SCA: If you could start over again, would you do anything differently?

BF: I have been so lucky: I do not think that I would change a thing.

SCA: What would you recommend to those who are just beginning their careers as archaeologists?

BF: First, evaluate very carefully if you really want to do archaeology. There are not enough jobs, and certainly few top ones. Do you have the fire in your belly and the PASSION, which makes for a lifelong love of the subject? If not, don’t touch it.

Second, if you want to go into CRM, get as much proper technical training in college as you can. This may be difficult, but it is changing.

Third, if you intend to be an academic, try and work somewhere which is not overpopulated. There are chronic unemployment problems for Mayanists and Andeanists, for a start.

SCA: In your opinion, what are the greatest successes and failures of archaeology to date?

BF: Successes. To have made a successful start on writing a true prehistory of humankind, and to have developed the science to do it. To have made archaeology a discipline people take seriously.

Failures. Obviously, not to have done more to prevent destruction of the record, partly because our priorities have long been skewed. Obviously, too, in North America, to have failed until recently to create meaningful dialogue with Native Americans.

Most important of all, we have fallen too bly under the influence of the publish or perish culture with its overspecialization, and have not trained people who are literate in archaeology as a profession as opposed to an academic pastime. We also lack people who have an expertise as generalists, who look at the bigger picture.

And, a lot of the time, we have been arrogant about our knowledge and science, and not shared it with others.

SCA: How might we best involve the public in archaeology?

BF: The public. By sharing our enthusiasm and science with the broadest possible audience from grade school onwards. Currently, we need to pay careful attention to communication skills as part of graduate training. We also need to realize that communicating with the public means reaching the right audience. All too much of it is aimed at the wider constituency of archaeologists and those people interested in the subject. How do we reach the widest audiences? So far we have not really tackled this one. Finally, those working overseas have to realize that they have a responsibility both to share their results with the local people AND to help in training future generations of LOCAL professionals. Publication in American Antiquity is NOT sufficient.

SCA: What can archaeology offer Native Americans and other native peoples?

BF: A respectful, multifaceted view of the past, which respects different perspectives and world views, where science is seen as a partner rather than adversary. This is like motherhood and apple pie, but it is as simple as that, and involves a lot of hardnosed, respectful communication between all parties involved. Fortunately, some archaeologists are working hard on this, with promising results.

We also need to incorporate this entire issue into professional training.

SCA: What are the biggest challenges facing the teaching of archaeology today, and what are some of the innovative ways that it can be taught?

BF: Challenges to teaching:

Undergraduates. Breaking down the anonymity of huge introductory classes. Making use of the incredible Web to improve teaching standards, make learning interactive. Above all, teaching archaeology with passion and enthusiasm, and with a broad perspective. It is not sufficient to just cover Los Angeles County, or even California. There’s a world out there!

Also, remember that most undergraduates will never become archaeologists. You are in the business of teaching people about archaeology, also about curiosity, analytical thinking, and giving them tools for life, including a positive view of archaeology. My former students include a general, real estate developers, government officials, a well known pastry cook, a world champion wind surfer, several bankers, and far too many lawyers. At least two of my former victims are in jail…

Graduates. Be realistic about career opportunities, provide a broadbased training and a sound background, as well as specialized courses in CRM. Cut back on purely academic graduate programs that prepare people for already overcrowded specialties: this is a waste of resources. (This remark will no doubt have me thrown out of several archaeological societies, but it is the truth.) We have a difficult problem ahead–balancing the needs of a profession called archaeology with the pursuit of academic knowledge, although, of course, the two are not necessarily incompatible, far from it. One thing is certain–the culture of publish or perish is totally inappropriate for archaeology, and does not necessarily ensure good scholarship.

SCA: Where do you see archaeology going in the future?

BF: In the future, North American archaeology, and archaeology everywhere will become increasingly involved with CRM, to the point it will be the dominant activity. I think that in academic terms, there will be more and more laboratory research, as collections are curated and reanalyzed–as is already happening in many places. Non-intrusive archaeology will become ever more important–here CRM is leading the way.

Academic developments:

  • Much more multidisciplinary research, where archaeology is part of a team approach to a problem. This is already happening. It will be the kiss of death if archaeology continues to maintain fences between itself and other sciences and the humanities.
  • A renewed emphasis on research in less known areas of the world, which is where the opportunities will lie.
  • Conservation strategies will be a required part of all academic research projects.
  • Major new underwater discoveries, some sensational wet site finds, new royal graves from China and major advances in southeastern Asian archaeology. In North America, an increasing emphasis on settlement patterns on a large scale, as the data becomes available. I don’t think the issues of the first Americans will advance much in our lifetimes…
  • A new marriage between archaeologists and tourism, one of the great neglected areas of archaeology, but one of vital importance.
  • A shrinking of academic archaeology as resources for higher education continue to shrink. (I hope I am wrong about this…)

SCA: Do you believe that the past will continue to have relevancy in the future?

BF: Absolutely it will, if nothing else so that we can look at human history on a global canvas and achieve a greater understanding of ourselves. If there is one lesson from today’s archaeology, it is that we forget we are studying PEOPLE, not sites and artifacts. And people, in all their diversity and quirkiness, are what drove history and human societies. All too often we forget this as we look no further than the latest trench or CRM project. And all too often, too, we have forgotten what it is like to ENJOY the past!