I was born in England and trained in archaeology and anthropology at Pembroke College, Cambridge (BA (Honors) 1959, MA 1962, PhD 1964). From 1959 to 1965, I served as Keeper of Prehistory at the Livingstone Museum in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where I was deeply involved in museum work and monument conservation. I also excavated a series of 1000-year-old farming villages in the southern part of the country and was also deeply involved in the development of multidisciplinary African history. This experience gave me a lasting interest in writing about archaeology for general audiences. This was an exciting time to be doing African archaeology, as we were concerned both with basic fieldwork as well as using archaeology for teaching history in schools and at the new University of Zambia. In other words, we had to take archaeology out of the ivory tower of academia and make it relevant to a newly independent African nation.
After six years, I was offered a post as the Director of a three-year Bantu Studies project based on the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi. My involvement in the project lasted just a year: I was tired of the stresses of fieldwork and was ready for another challenge. By chance, I was offered a year as Visiting Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana for 1966-7. This gave me a chance to think about the future. From this year emerged an opportunity to work in California. From 1967 to 2003, I served as Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I retired from teaching in 2003 and am now a full-time writer and independent scholar.
There was a point in 1966 when I almost gave up archaeology. It was clear that I would not return to Africa, so I decided to change directions completely. Instead of being a specialist in African archaeology, I decided to become an expert in communicating archaeology to students and general audiences.
Since 1967, my career as a generalist in archaeology, and as an archaeological writer, has taken me in two directions—textbook writing and more general books. When I arrived in Santa Barbara, I was handed the assignment of teaching a large introductory archaeology course for 300 students. I found there were no good textbooks for beginning students, but a chance meeting with a textbook editor provided me with the opportunity to write such a book on basic archaeological methods and theoretical approaches. It took five painful years to write, but In the Beginning appeared in 1972, and has been in print through 13 editions, the latest coming out in 2020. Subsequently, I wrote People of the Earth, a world prehistory, which was published in 1975 and is now in its 15th edition (2019). I have written, or co-authored, eight textbooks of different types, all of which are still in print. The writing and especially revision, of these books consumes a great deal of my time.
In 1974, I was asked to write a short article on a flamboyant early 19th century Egyptian tomb robber, Giovanni Belzoni, for Archaeology Magazine. After the article appeared, I was asked by an editor at Scribners in New York to write a book on early Egyptology. The Rape of the Nile appeared in 1975, was reviewed in Time Magazine, and was translated into nine languages. New editions appeared in 1972 and 2004. This book got me involved in writing books for the general trade market as a serious undertaking and made me realize that there were important stories to be told about the past.
Since then, I have written a whole series of general books, most of which are still in print. Some of them have been breakthrough books for me, notably The Adventure of Archaeology, an account of archaeological discovery published by National Geographic in 1985, which exposed my writing to a very large audience. The following year, the London publishers Thames and Hudson, asked me to write The Great Journey (1987), an account of the first settlement of the Americas. This received wide attention and was followed by The Journey from Eden, the story of the origin and spread of modern humans.
In recent years I’ve written five books on historical climate change and related topics: Floods, Famines, and Emperors (2000), The Little Ice Age(rev ed. 2020), and The Long Summer (2004) discuss major climatic change and short-term extreme weather events over the past 15,000 years. They have caused considerable interest, for they provide a historical background to current debates on global warming. Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting and the Discovery of the New World (2006) is a journey into the little-known world of medieval fishing and how Christian doctrine played a major role in the growth of Atlantic fisheries. Climate change plays an important part in this story as well. The Great Warming (2008), which briefly became a New York Times non-fiction bestseller, tells the story of the Medieval Warm Period (see Other Fagan Books). Cro-Magnon (2009) tells the story of a remarkable late Ice Age people, the first modern humans to settle in Europe during the late Ice Age, while Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind (2010) traces the complex relationship between ancient societies and that most precious of resources—water. Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Ocean (2012) is an account of the earliest seafaring, written on the basis of my personal experience at sea. My fifth climate change book was The Attacking Ocean (2013), an account of rising sea levels and their impacts on ancient human societies. Since then, I worked on the history of humans and animals, the subject of The Intimate Bond (2015).Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization was published by Yale University Press in 2017. A high hearted diversion was What We did in Bed: A Horizontal History (2019), written with Nadia Durrani.We have now collaborated on Climate Chaos: Lessons of Survival from our Ancestors (2021)
Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal about writing archaeology for general audiences. Each book brings new challenges, fresh ideas, and additional things to learn about writing and writing about the past. How do I do it, I’m frequently asked. This is not an easy question to answer, so I’ve written a short paperback called, appropriately, Writing Archaeology, (2nd edition, 2010), as a guide to fellow archaeologists thinking about writing about the past for public audience (see Amazon.com for details on my other books).
As well as writing about archaeology, I also lecture about a wide variety of topics to audiences of all kinds both in North America and overseas. Many of the audiences have broad interests in everything ranging from water and climate change to ancient emergencies.
Fortunately, I have other interests in life other than archaeology and history. I’ve been a cruising sailor since age eight, have sailed widely in European and American waters, as well as in the Pacific, and owned a wide variety of boats. I now sail with a co-op yacht club. My interests include cats, bicycling, good food, and sea kayaking. I’m married with two daughters and we live in Santa Barbara, California, accompanied by three felines and sometimes, but fortunately not always, up to 24 rabbits.