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How Archaeologists Use Technology to Recapture the Past

by Brian Fagan

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-671-79385-3
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 In a whirlwind tour of 13 archaeological sites around the world, Fagan's sleepy, fact-heavy narrative fails to present major scientific discoveries as much more than the sum of their plodding details. Fagan (Quest for the Past, 1994, etc.) has a solid grasp of the complexities and innovations of the discipline's techniques. Nevertheless, his central point, that archaeologists are now using advanced scientific technology and have transformed themselves from ``diggers to time detectives,'' should come as no surprise to anyone with even a mild interest in science. The book is compelling in those sections where Fagan details the highly specific conclusions that archaeologists draw from mundane bits of evidence (bone-fragment analysis reveals the prehistoric Anasazi of the American Southwest practiced cannibalism) and the use of high-technology instruments to explain the mysteries of ancient civilizations (the use of NASA satellites to determine how the Maya fed their large population). But Fagan undermines his stated purpose by discussing several major discoveries that were based on low-technology innovations (the flotation tank that separates out prehistoric seeds from a site on the Euphrates river) and no technology (the interpretation of Mayan glyphs by creative linguists). Nowhere does the book explain why these particular discoveries were profiled, and not all chapters include explanatory illustrations beyond a map. As such, Time Detectives is plagued by a general sense of incoherence, which is heightened by overgeneralizations, absurd arguments (the ``similarity'' between violent conflict among the pre-Columbian Chumash Indians and present-day homicide statistics), and glaringly obvious statements: ``No single genius `invented' agriculture.'' The most serious flaw is Fagan's failure to communicate the excitement of archaeological research. We are left with a detailed but superficial review of the important findings of several modern archaeologists. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen; 26 line drawings)