Brian Fagan's 'Oxford Companion to Archaeology' is a wonderful encyclopedic dictionary of archaeology worldwide. In the past century and a half, archaeology has graduated from being the hobby of pith-helmeted explorers in search of the unknown cities and treasure to the scientific and research-oriented study of ancient civilisations. Archaeology takes as its province the entire world, and the history goes back in some parts of the world as far as 15,000 to 20,000 years of human civilisation, and back several million years to the earliest human ancestors.
Fagan marshalled a huge team of contributors -- literally hundreds of contributors and dozens of editors worked together to make this a text majestic in scope. Useful for specialists and non-specialists alike, it draws on background resources from the natural and physical sciences, social sciences and humanities. Fagan and co. have include among the entries here articles on archaeological method, general interpretation, history and discovery. This includes coverage of the history and development of archaeology itself, how archaeology attempts to interpret and explain the past, and how this comes together into a coherent discipline.
This being said, this is not a text book or an introduction (or even more advanced) narrative, but rather is a collection of pieces alphabetically arranged. In addition to the main text, there is an extensive index that includes topics, persons, places, key discoveries, and more, with blind references and cross-references. These cross-references are also listed at the end of entries throughout the text. Many major entries also include suggestions for further readings. At the conclusion of the text, there are dozens of pages of maps and timelines. The maps are not as detailed as one might hope, giving only general features and major sites. The timelines are very good at placing the various developments and cultures side-by-side; for example, the developments of culture in the Indus Valley, the Fertile Crescent, the Nile and the Mayan Yucatan arose independently of each other, but not at the same times (there were thousands of years separating the initial rise of Egyptian cultures and Mayan cultures, for example).
While there are many fascinating entries in the book, perhaps the most unique article (and perhaps unexpected) is 'Popular Culture, the Portrayal of Archaeology in...' -- this discusses archaeology in film (for many, the only exposure to archaeology comes in Indiana Jones films), in fiction, and in science fiction. The article, written by editor Brian Fagan and contributors John Pohl, Shelly Lowenkopf, and Edward James, talks about these developments in interesting methodological and interpretative ways -- Pohl, for example, demonstrates that Indiana Jones' adventures in fact represent 'dismal project planning'. The popular image of archaeology as simply digging something up causes some concern and consternation among professional archaeologists.
Despite the small print (the text is 850 pages long as it is, and a larger font, while desirable, would have likely required the book to be a two-volume edition), the writing is generally lively and interesting, concentrating on accessibility over jargon. Those with strong interest in archaeology will find this very useful; for those with interest in history, cultural studies, religious studies, art history and more will also find this a very helpful guide for background and peripheral development of their subjects. Every continent and every time period is covered -- from the statues at Easter Island to the statue-menhirs of the French Mediterranean; from the Pyramids of Egypt to the pyramids of the Central Americas, from burial mounds in North America to burial finds in China and India, this book covers it all.
A great text!