Why do people ever think that an answer exists to the most fundamental of question as regards the very things that make us human beings rather than just another variety of primate? There are many examples of this kind of thing, but the one that keeps returning to me at the moment is the way in which the study of history and archeology can suffer from this very thing when presented in a medium which is seen by the masses. I’m making my way through an interesting book about the historicity of the Trojan War as described by Homer at the moment, in which the discoveries made by archeologists in Greece and Turkey are examined to compare them to the world that is described in the Iliad and Odyssey.
More often than not it seems that there was a world which would have looked something like the one that Homer creates, but the major surprise for most experts was that when they finally managed to translate all of the clay tablets in the ancient written language of Linear B, they were given an insight into a bureaucratic, rather than heroic world. It appears that as well as spawning great warriors and tales that would be handed down the ages, the ancient Greeks were just as concerned with keeping tabs on the accounts and making sure that everything tallied at the end of the financial year as we are today.
But then why should it surprise anyone to discover that people in that age were as complicated and possessed of different aspects to their cultures as we pride ourselves on being today? I think that all too often we fall into a trap of defining others according to the features of their historical legacy that we find romantic or most flattering to ourselves. A case in point was the first episode of the new documentary entitled “The British” (I can already hear the rumblings in the hills of Wales and Scotland over that choice of title) on SKY that could best be described as “history lite”. Here we had the ancient Britons pitted against the Romans and a basic treatment of the way in which the largest part of the islands became Romanised, gaining a taste for amongst other things gladiatorial combat.
Helen Mirren then popped up as one of the many talking heads (chosen more for their celebrity value in most cases than ability to make a relevant comment) and opined on the way in which the Romans understood that such things were needed to keep the masses in line and not questioning the way things worked. But how common is this attitude towards the subject? The assumption that such things were primarily intended as a means of control and a sedative for the common man? Of course a Roman pleb would have lapped it up without a moment of thought, but when we sprawl in front of the X-Factor and forget the problems of our day, we’re just relaxing and never a hint of being kept in line by the powers that be is mentioned.
The comment reminded me of the time I was standing in the middle of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, being told what can be said about those awesome standing stones and the culture that raised them. The guide explained that while we can be sure there are reasons that the alignment is dictated by the motions of the sun, moon and stars, we cannot really be sure just what the entire purpose of the place was. In this he compared the ring quite obviously with Stonehenge, world-reknowned and yet still an enduring mystery.
But at that moment, a woman piped up towards the front of the crowd: “That’s not right, they know what Stonehenge was now. It was a graveyard…I saw a programme about it the other week.”
Well, that was the end of the debate, case solved.
Was it bollocks.
The guide was polite, nodding and making those sounds that say at once: “Really, how interesting…now please be quiet while I finish my bloody talk, for which I am not paid enough to debate these matters with the likes of you.”
What struck me about the woman’s statement was the way in which she sounded so sure the matter was closed. She had seen a TV program and so that was that in her own mind. I’ve seen more than a few documentaries on Stonehenge and the one thing that each one has left me thinking is that we really have no bloody clue as to what the point of the place was overall and we may never have a hope of finding one. To me it always seems that as soon as you find one use for the place another pops up and most likely this is because it did not serve one specific purpose at all, but rather had a myriad of roles to play in the lives of the people who built it and the generations afterwards who then used it.
Take a Christian cathedral for example, say you happened upon it in the far future and all that remained was the shell of the building and perhaps a small portion of the statuary. If you had no notion of what the religion that had been behind its construction was, what then would you think the purpose of the place was? Remember there are no books, paintings, stained-glass windows or associated knowledge with which to make your assumptions, just a massive and obviously labour-intensive building that must have been an achievement for the people who built it. Do you see it as a tomb, because there are people buried beneath the floor? Is it a venue for a musical or theatrical performance on account of the wondrous accoustics and the remains of the seats? Or could it be place of civic administration because of the similarities with the layout of a Roman Bascilica?
My point is in the end, that when we explain our own time and the things that we create, we like to allow them so many levels of meaning and different and yet complimentary functions that we would be offended if someone failed to appreciate these when they looked in from the outside. So why then are we so quick to do the opposite when we try to appreciate the things that were created by those who came before us? Why does there have to be one defining label attached to Stonehenge? Only an idiot thinks that Hadrian’s Wall existed only to keep the northernmost tribes of these isles on the other side of it. And why can’t Homer’s ancient heroes have come back from the sack of Ilium to debate with their scribes whether or not the Trojan maidens they had carried off were a tax write-off?