Brian Fagan (b. 1936) is arguably one of the world’s most influential archaeologists, in that he has reached thousands of archaeology students through his college level archaeology textbooks and millions of nonarchaeologists through dozens of popular archaeology books and articles. The son of a publisher, Brian Murray Fagan was born in Birmingham, England. After 2 years in the Royal Navy (1954-1956), he was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied Stone Age archaeology and earned a bachelor of arts with honors in 1959, a master of arts in 1962, and the PhD in 1963.
Fagan’s professional career began in Africa as Keeper of Prehistory at Zambia’s, then Rhodesia’s, Livingstone Museum. While there, Fagan excavated the Acheulian components at Kalambo Falls and reorganized the museum’s archaeological collections; the former was the basis of his 1963 PhD dissertation. Fagan held this position until 1965, when he left to become the director of the Bantu Studies Project for the British Institute in Eastern Africa. Shortly thereafter, after tiring of field-work, Fagan accepted a visiting scholar position at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. In his 2004 retrospective, he described his experience at the University of Illinois as “severe intellectual shock,” as he came face-to-face with what would come to be known as the “New Archaeology” and with the realization that he had missed nearly a decade of archaeological literature. The following year, Fagan joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he served in a variety of faculty and administrative roles. Fagan retired from the University of California in 2003 as professor emeritus, after 36 years of teaching, research, and service.
Although much of Fagan’s early career was committed to research, mainly in Iron Age Africa, he is best known for his commitment to bring archaeology to the public through the publication of numerous books, magazine articles and columns, television and radio documentaries, and, recently, interactive multimedia formats. Fagan’s interest in popular nonfiction was inspired by his archaeological research in Zambia, where he was writing history literally from the ground up, since no written history existed. Fagan also credits Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a renowned Old World archaeologist, for encouraging him to write for popular audiences. Fagan recalled Wheeler’s advice in his 2004 retrospective: “Write about the past for the public We need a new voice who’s worked outside Britain.” Fagan’s first textbook, In the Beginning, was published in 1972 and is still in press—in fact, it is now in its 11th edition. Since that time, he has edited the massive Oxford Companion to Archaeology and published over 30 books on topics including general world prehistory, the origins of modern humans, native North America, Mesoamerica, historical archeology, archaeological methods, history of archaeology, and paleoclimatology, not to mention sailing.
A biography of Fagan would be remiss to neglect to mention his love of sailing. He is an accomplished sailor who has charted courses in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and California. Like archaeology, his devotion to sailing is reflected in the publication of no less than eight books on the subject and an editorship at Sailingmagazine.
Along with popular archaeology and sailing, Fagan is equally committed to undergraduate teaching, which he sees as the key to the long-term viability of the discipline in an archaeological world marked by academic over-specialization and cultural resource management. To this end, he has pioneered new and alternative methods to teaching large undergraduate archaeology courses. His work in this area culminated in the cocreation of a multimedia approach to teaching Anthropology 101 called “Anthropology 3,” which has since become one of Apple Computer’s demonstration projects.
Whether in research, teaching, or popular non-fiction, it is safe to say that the world of archaeology would not be the same without the prolific contributions of Brian Fagan.
- Fagan, B. M. (2004). Retrospect (But certainly not a necrology!). Antiquity, 78, 173-183.
- PalArch Foundation. (2005). Brian Murray Fagan, curriculum vitae. Rotterdam: Netherlands Scientific Journal.