Fish. Slippery, mysterious creatures. They are mysterious because of where they live, in vast waters, and because they elude the historical record, too: fishing equipment is soft and decays (bamboo, hemp, lines made from kelp, cedar bark, women’s hair).
Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilisation. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.