Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 450-452
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From Black Land to Fifth Sun
From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites. By BRIAN FAGAN. Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1998. Pp. 416. $16.00 (paper).
The author of From Black Land to Fifth Sun is well known as one of the most accomplished popularizers of the early human past. In this very readable, yet deceptively simple book he turns his attention to what has traditionally been thought one of the most difficult areas in the whole of archaeology: the study of early religions, beliefs, and rituals. In an opening chapter, "The Archaeology of the Intangible," he outlines the problems of "the archaeology of mind," surveying briefly the various techniques and approaches available. In the thirteen succeeding chapters he deals effectively and sympathetically with a succession of sacred sites or special regions across the earth. Starting with "Dark Caves, Obscure Visions" Fagan discusses the Paleolithic cave art of southern France and northern Spain. He continues with the San artists of southern Africa, taking in the early farming sites of the Near East in "Fertility and Death," and proceeds to the religious beliefs and rituals of more complex societies including "Divine Kings Along the Nile" (the "Black Land" of the title) and "The World of the Fifth Sun," namely Aztec Tenochtitlan and the Templo Mayor at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The result is a very effective overview that is not available elsewhere in the current archaeological literature.
One of the pleasures of this book is that Fagan has visited in person nearly all of the sites and regions discussed, and he does not hesitate to bring in his own feelings and impressions. This is particularly appropriate in the chapters dealing with his fieldwork experience in Africa. It gives special authority to the introductory chapter, to his discussion [End Page 450] of the San artists of southern Africa, and to the chapter "Power and the Ancestors" dealing with Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The book is accessible and readable, with a convenient "Guide to Further Reading," so that it will be very useful for the non-specialist reader, and with its freshness of approach it has also a good deal to offer to the professional. But, as noted above, Fagan makes his well-informed interpretations almost deceptively simple. The reconstruction of past systems of thought is inevitably a somewhat challenging and controversial undertaking, and to call the study of sacred sites "a science" might seem more than a shade optimistic. In reality, I would argue, there is no generally agreed way of understanding or explaining such sites (as the use of the term "science" might be thought to imply). What might be thought to qualify for such a designation are the informative intervening one-page "boxes" on methodological topics that are inserted in the text: on rock shelter excavation methods, on accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating, on South African rock art copying (by recent scholars), on obsidian sourcing, on dendrochronology, and so forth. Wisely perhaps, Fagan avoids the controversies on explanation and interpretation that have divided archaeological theorists, but he is skating on thin ice in this area with any claims towards scientific objectivity.
In particular he sets out a general interpretive framework in Chapter 1, which although of widespread validity and applicability can hardly be a universal of all human experience. So his statement (p. 4) that "by 10,000 years ago, when the first farming societies appeared in western Asia, human cosmology shared several common elements or beliefs, which form the framework for our scientific story" may be too sweeping. He summarizes these "common elements" clearly (pp. 4-8):
1. "The world of living humans formed part of a multi-layered cosmos, which included the supernatural otherworlds of the heavens and an underworld sandwiching the human plain."
2. "A vertical axis served as a support for the bowl of heaven and linked the various cosmic layers."
3. "The natural and spiritual worlds formed a continuum, with no boundary between them."