The Oxford Companion to Archaeology
edited by B.M. Fagan
London, Oxford University Press, 1996
844 pp. (figures)
ISBN 0-19-507618-4
$55.00 (cloth)

reviewed by E.C. Wager, M.A. Eccleston, K. Fewster,
M.C. Giles, and A. Tyrrell


Introduction to the Companion
by E.C. Wager

The Oxford Companion to Archaeology is one of the latest additions to the Oxford Companion series, an eclectic collection of reference volumes providing comprehensive overviews of topics ranging from Australian folklore (1993) to world politics (1993). In common with other volumes in the series, the entries in the Companion to Archaeology are both indexed and arranged alphabetically. Cross-references are highlighted at the end of each entry and throughout the text, and many entries provide suggestions for further reading. This structure is designed to facilitate a range of approaches to the information held between the Companion's covers: searches for a specific reference, 'sustained browsing' (1996: xi) and exploration of related topics or themes.

The Oxford University Press publicity highlights other ways in which the Companion to Archaeology complements and extends the Companion Series range:

Every Oxford Companion aspires to be the definitive overview of a field of study at a particular moment of time. The new Oxford Companion to Archaeology is no exception ... [I]t is both authoritative and comprehensive. Its purpose is to define archaeology as a critical intellectual phenomenon of the later twentieth century world -- one of the seminal ways in which we humans can achieve a better understanding of our common roots, differences, and similarities (OUP Press release, 1997).

These are big claims, extended even further by Brian Fagan, the editor in chief of the Companion to Archaeology, in his introduction to the volume. He sees the Companion as a timely reminder of the significance of the past to both the present and the future (viii) and as a long-overdue encyclopaedic assessment of archaeology's achievements and significance on a global scale (vii). As with other Companions, it aims to make specialised knowledge of the discipline easily available to a wide audience, including interested non-specialists.

Brian Fagan and the four other editors have adopted four broad interconnecting themes -- how archaeology began and developed, how archaeology works, how archaeology explains the past, archaeology and the human past -- in order to achieve these aims and to tie the entries in the Companion together. These themes are arranged as a series of subdivisions around which the volume's entries are organised: world prehistory, the origins of civilisation, states and civilisations, historical archaeology, and archaeology in the late twentieth century (vii-x). According to Fagan, 'These subdivisions have emerged from generations of archaeological research' (ix), the inference being that these categories have validity and meaning in and of themselves. However, such categories are merely products of the ways in which we as archaeologists have chosen to chop up the world, developing the analytical frameworks we need to write the histories we choose. The editors have fallen prey to a circular argument: we adopt these categories in order to give the world meaning; these categories have meaning because we have always conceived of the world in this way.

The subdivisions chosen also coincide with 'broad slices across prehistoric and historic time' (ix), peddling the misconception that assigning objects and events to a particular time period imbues both them and the slice of time itself with meaning. The editors may have chosen such a simplistic approach to conceiving of the past precisely because it is so simple -- it provides both a convenient framework within which to organise the large amount of data assembled for the volume, and a description of archaeology as a discipline concerned with divining 'which period?' that will be familiar to the general reader. Perhaps the editors hope that the individual entries themselves will highlight the fact that, leaving chronology aside, there are many more subtle ways to classify the past.

The editors themselves are certainly aware that there are other ways of seeing. In his introduction, Fagan proposes that we examine world history 'not from a narrowly American or European perspective, but as a truly global phenomenon' (ix). He is also keen for the reader to appreciate the diversity of approaches to the past and a minimal editing policy has been adopted to preserve the style and perspective of each contributor (viii). To an extent, this multivocality has been successfully achieved, a point Melanie Giles makes in her review of the volume. However, a closer look reveals that the Companion is only global in the sense that it discusses world prehistory -- in general, the only voices to be heard, whether discussing African archaeology or the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent, are familiar ones, heralding (despite their differences) from the same Western tradition. Only 15 of the more than 400 contributors are not from North America, Western Europe, or Australia. Only one is from Russia, and there are no entries by archaeologists from Eastern Europe. Africa is represented by archaeologists from Zimbabwe (four), South Africa (three) and Kenya (one), and South America by either one or two archaeologists from each Panama, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil (xiii-xx). Hence the Companion is a definitive overview of an archaeology with which we in the West are all familiar and comfortable; the 'common past' (viii) it describes is one we have produced and sanctioned.

Similarly, Fagan displays considerable idealism when assessing the role of archaeology in the construction of social identities, downplaying some of the less savoury aspects of the discipline:

To archaeologists, the human past is owned by no one. It represents the cultural heritage of everyone who has ever lived on Earth or will ever live on it in the future. Archaeology puts all human societies on an equal footing (viii).

Archaeology may have the potential to do so, but a glance at the history of the development of the discipline reveals that it has rarely achieved such lofty aims, traditionally tending to privilege the viewpoints of white, Western, middle-class males over other ways of being and seeing. Archaeologists have also, until recently, claimed the right of 'ownership' over the past and its material remains, ignoring the interests and concerns of people in the areas where we work. Fortunately, many of these contradictions are raised and discussed by individual entries. For example, the role of archaeology in the development of ethnic and national identities and the political uses of the past is discussed in sections such as 'Critical Theory' (152-4) and 'Nationalism' (487-8). The section on Reburial and Repatriation (589-90) succinctly tackles the issue of who owns the past and admits that, though we now acknowledge that 'there are [sic] a number of ways to interpret the past, and that no one group holds exclusive rights to its interpretation or possession' (589), archaeologists have not always displayed such sensitivity.

Finally, Fagan appears keen to emphasise the scientific dimension of the discipline, referring many times in his introduction to archaeologists' 'full use of the remarkable technologies of contemporary science' (vii). Perhaps he is keen to dispel the public perception of archaeologists as 'tough, pith-helmet-clad men and women slashing their way through clinging jungle or penetrating the secrets of ancient pyramids' (vii) and feels that this can only be achieved by explicitly allying archaeology to scientific development and innovation. Scientific techniques do play an important role in archaeology, but they are just one aspect of a complex and multifaceted discipline, and by positing their pre-eminence, Fagan may be overstating the case.

To address some of these comments and to find out more about the processes involved in compiling and editing such an encyclopaedic volume, we interviewed Brian Fagan. Mark Eccleston, Kathy Fewster, Melanie Giles, and Andy Tyrrell, all PhD students or researchers in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, also reviewed the Companion. Each reviewer adopted a different approach to reading the volume, from a brief flick through, to searching for detail on a specific topic, to following a number of themes. They discuss their different encounters with the Companion and assess to what extent it is a 'definitive overview' of archaeology. Unsurprisingly, their conclusions are as varied as their approaches (and likely those of the prospective audience), highlighting the Companion's strengths and weaknesses.

About the reviewer
Emma Wager is still working on her PhD, looking at the practical and social context of prehistoric copper mining on the Great Orme, North Wales. Her e-mail address is <>

Copyright © E.C. Wager 1998

Introduction by E.C. Wager
Interview with B.M. Fagan (ed.)
M.A. Eccleston on Egyptian section K. Fewster on agricultural references
M.C. Giles on sections relevant to Iron Age A. Tyrrell on the Companion as whole


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