What can archaeology tell us about the spiritual lives of people who, like the painters of Lascaux cave or the builders of Stonehenge, lived so long ago that only (or mostly) their nonlinguistic material remains - their stones and bones - are left for us to study? Brian Fagan's book is a fascinating exploration, for the general reader, of this highly interesting question. The author takes his readers on a personal tour of various sacred sites, and explains how current methods of scientific excavation and anthropological research can help interpret the cultural meaning of these places and the context of belief and ritual in which they operated. While much of their spiritual content is necessarily unrecoverable in detail - think of trying to understand a cathedral with no missals or Creed - there is, still, much that can be learned.
Sites and cultures discussed in the book include: Chauvet, African rock art, Catalhoyuk, Knossos, Stonehenge, Moundbuilders, Egypt, Mayas, and Aztecs (one envies the author his frequent-flyer miles.) The book ranges in space and time from Europe in 15,000 BC, through Africa, and finally to the Americas in 1500 AD. Even so, many well-known sacred places had to be omitted. There is nothing about Malta (a personal favorite of mine), Easter Island, or Asia. Another limitation is that, with so much ground to cover (or uncover), the number of pages devoted to any one site has to be pretty small. The book does not have many photographs, and those that do appear are only in black and white.
I found the chapter on ancient Egypt less successful than the other chapters; Egyptian culture is abundantly literate, even from late predynastic times, so that its inclusion in a book of this kind seems superfluous, if not downright odd.
Written in 1998, the book still (2003) seems basically up-to-date. The author deserves great credit for producing a popular book which covers such a wide area and is at the same time generally reliable and accurate (although it should be noted that Geb, the Egyptian earth god, is not female as the book claims on page 283. Geb is male, an important exception to the usual concept of an Earth Mother in early societies.)
Fagan is of the school of archaeology that applies anthropological concepts and methods to his work. Shamanism, the mother goddess, ancestor cult, sacred-tree cosmology, and astronomical alignments will all make an appearance, although rather conservatively, in these pages. Some readers may feel he goes too far with this, while others may wish that he would take it even farther. I think he gets the balance right, but in any case his reasoning is presented in a clear and straightforward way so that readers can make up their own minds about it.
In summary, most readers who are fascinated by these ancient places, and want to learn more about how archaeology and science interpret them, will find this book to be a helpful and very interesting read.