Category Archives: History

Wessex Mysteries

I’ve been blogging for a few weeks now about crime, murder mysteries and working with David Bridger and I’m going to keep that coming because there’s plenty to think about around the project. This week we made a commitment to a trilogy, and that these will be The Wessex Mysteries.

Wessex is a wonderfully evocative name, I think. It conjures up two wildly different things. The first is Thomas Hardy, who had a fictional version of the south west that featured in his novels. I’m not a huge Hardy fan (I’ve read three now) but I am really interested in the idea of how stories relate to landscapes, and his Wessex has been highly influential for a lot of people.

Go back a bit further and Wessex is an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and has strong associations with King Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of those historical figures who stands on the edges of history and myth – he’s the one with the burnt cake story. 

The Wessex area also has a lot of prehistory in it, and I’m looking forward to giving that more thought and attention as we go along. The presence of history in the landscape is definitely going to be a theme for these books.


Making people invisible

The history we are taught, and the history we see in pop culture representations has tended to be the history of straight cis white men. It’s not accurate. Everyone else has always existed and done stuff. However, this selective storytelling has consequences. 

A lot of people – white English speaking people especially – never get further than what little history they are obliged to encounter at school plus the problematic film and cultural content that works much the same way. This means that many people struggle with the idea that anything could have happened in the past that wasn’t centred on straight cis white men. Show them any content that even acknowledges other people exist and they can be surprisingly upset.

This means that accurate content showing queer people, People of Colour, and even active women can be dismissed as ‘woke’ and inaccurate. Some people seem to be stuck in the film worlds from the first half of the twentieth century, which is grim. They are unable to imagine or accept the existence and agency of people who are not straight cis white men. You find them on social media, criticising accurate historical content and arguing with evidence because it doesn’t fit their fantasy. They also can’t handle having this kind of thing in fantasy stories, firm in the belief that even fantasy Europe can only be straight white men.

The other consequence of this is the belief that diversity is a modern invention and that diverse people aren’t really real, or don’t matter. Again, you’ll find them on social media denying the historic existence of neurodiverse people, denying the existence of trans and non-binary folk in history, denying historical female agency, and making that a basis for saying this ‘new stuff’ is pretend and does not merit taking seriously.

History is not a neutral subject. The way it is taught and represented isn’t neutral and has ongoing consequences. Many things that are intrinsically human have been left out of how we tell our history stories and that distorts cultures and societies.


The fall of Colston

All four defendants on trial for taking down the statue of Colston in Bristol have been acquitted. Not because they didn’t do it, but because taking down that statue was the right thing to do. Of course there’s a howling backlash from people who think this means anarchy, or the end of history. I have thoughts.

The Colston statue wasn’t an historic artifact from the time Colston was alive. It was put up far later. It didn’t record history, it hid the colonial, slaving violence that was part of Colston’s actual story. He was not a nice man, putting up a statue to commemorate him distorts the real story. History itself is not harmed by taking him down. Further, at this point he’s on his side in a museum with information about both him and his statue, so overall this has led to more history, not less of it.

I’m not a Bristol person, but I live close enough to have been to The Colston Hall as a child. I had no idea what the name meant. Thanks to the toppling of the statue, I now know a lot more about Bristol and Colston history than I did.

History is written by the victors. It’s a story about the past, the selected highlights that someone wants to focus on. It may be a story that tells us who we are or that encourages us to believe certain things about ourselves. Celebrating Colston is the story that goes with colonialism and making heroes out of people who are rich because they do such a fine and sustained job of exploiting others. Toppling Colston gives us a new story, and right now it’s a story about exposing the grim truth, community solidarity and being better people moving forward.

Right now, the victors who get to write the story are people who don’t want to whitewash the history of slavery, or excuse the ‘great white men’ that we’ve previously celebrated. This works for me. I don’t want to be part of a culture whose touchstone for celebrating people is that they be white rich men. I think we need to talk a lot more about how certain people, and certain families manage to accumulate so much wealth. It isn’t their own hard work, that’s for sure. Contemporary wealth is often built on the backs of historical slaves, on the backs of colonised people past and present, on the backs of exploited workers, and with the materials taken from the earth with no care for the lives, landscape and ecosystems destroyed in the pursuit of profit.


Druidry and Prehistory

Having been poking about learning what I can about prehistory, I think this is a really good topic to put on your ‘Druid syllabus’. Not just for what we can learn directly about our ancestors.

There is more of human history in prehistory. Modern humans are perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 years old. These were not the first humans. We only have a few thousand years with written records. This distorts our sense of time, I think. 

Looking at prehistory has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. What is culture? What is civilization? What is art? What physical evidence do we take as signs of different kinds of activity? Just asking these questions tells us a lot about ourselves, and about humanity.

One find can change the entire story. This is inherently exciting. It teaches us not to be dogmatic, to remain open and flexible and ready to change our minds in face of new information. These are good life skills to have.

Modern culture is materialistic and has a high impact. Seeing how little remains from early humans makes for a powerful contrast. Can we imagine complex societies that aren’t so materially oriented? We’ve tended to assume ancient humans were inferior because of their technology, what if we instead learned to see their strengths and capabilities?  Colonialist thinking likens non-material modern societies to ‘primitive’ ancient humans, but we are wrong about that in so many ways. Studying the past can help us learn about this without having to interfere in the lives of living people.

When we imagine the Stone Age as being a bunch of people barely wrapped in animals skins, mostly saying ‘ugg’ and full of superstition and irrational beliefs about how the world works, we do our ancestors a great disservice. Modern humans of the Stone Age had the same brain capacity we do. The evidence is that our ancestors were all far more complex, sophisticated and capable than we’ve habitually depicted them. We might have a better, healthier perspective on our own state if we did not imagine ourselves to be superior. 

Contemporary humans are not the pinnacle of achievement in a progress narrative. We’re the irrational ones. We are the ones whose behaviour is driven by ignorance and irrational belief.


Material Culture

I read an interesting piece recently about the way in which we name historical eras after metals (Sorry, I have no idea where it was!). This naming shapes how we think about the past and gives the casual reader a feeling that the metals are the most important bits. Metal tends to mean weapons and hunting gear, and archaeologists in the past were often more interested in those ‘manly’ things than in evidence of gathering or other domestic activities. There’s been recognition of this, and progress, but it’s there in a lot of earlier work.

What if metal isn’t key to pre-history? It’s interesting to consider what early technologies might have resulted in significant cultural shifts. I’ve written before about the necessity of the baby sling in human development, but what else would be key?

Ceramics – for cooking, and for storage. 

The spoon – making it easier to eat cooked plant matter from your ceramic pot. Also making it possible to feed invalids and young children.

String. My son pointed out that without string, you can’t have bows or spears and are limited to opportunism, scavenging, or having to get up close and personal with anything you want to kill and eat. 

The sewing needle – enabling the making of clothes, bags, baby slings, making it easier to make shelters out of hides. Makes shoes possible.

Weaving – baskets and textiles. Increased warmth, storage, improved gathering options, means to pen livestock and make fish traps, and cradles. 

Art – the pre-history of art is really interesting. Apparently the first stage was collecting things that seemed interesting. Then we got into modifying what was around. Then we took up making art from scratch. It’s reasonable to assume there must have been a lot of less durable art, and that it wasn’t all cave paintings.

There’s probably lots of others. Not all of them could easily be dug up, but signs of less durable materials can be found. Part of the prominence of metals is how well it survives in the ground, but that’s certainly not the only factor, and less emphasis on what is assumed to be male would be helpful. It’s the focus on stone in the Stone Age that has us imagining people draped in skins and living in caves. Ceramics are Stone Age. So are string, and baskets.


Celtic Shamanism

The internet offers a vast array of content on the subject of Celtic Shamanism – books, courses, names, symbols, meanings… Which is problematic in all kinds of ways.

There were no historical people who self identified as The Celts. It’s a term applied from outside to describe an array of tribes living in Europe in the Iron Age. The Romans drew a rather arbitrary line between Celtic peoples and Germanic peoples that may have coloured our interpretations ever since. Iron Age Europeans were no doubt a diverse lot, and imagining the existence of a single, coherent Celtic culture is probably unhelpful.

Problem number two is that much of what we know about Celtic culture comes from stories recorded in the mediaeval era by Christians. This clearly isn’t going to be a precise rendering of a Pagan belief system. A brief flirtation with Irish, Welsh and Scottish tales will also give you a pretty clear sense that these are not the same people, even if some figures appear to crop up more than once.

Shamanism is a problematic word. It most probably derived from the Tungus word ‘šaman’ the internet reckons. Its use to describe the religions of contemporary indigenous people around the world is widely considered problematic. Applying it to the Celts also causes problems. It starts from the assumption that what the Celts did was shamanic and that therefore it can be reconstructed by drawing on practices from existing indigenous people. 

We know that the Celts had a lot of gods, and put up statues to them. There are ways of reading the stories that suggest ties with shamanic practices – but perhaps only if you start out looking for that and ignore the material that doesn’t fit. My personal feeling is that the desire to believe in Celtic shamanism comes primarily from a desire to believe that Europe had shamanistic practices comparable to other parts of the world. This, all too often, works as a justification for a bit of cultural appropriation. Druid sweat lodges. Druid animal guides. Druids burning white sage, and smudging their sacred spaces. And so on, and so forth. 

These are all terms deriving from other cultures that I’ve seen Druids using. We aren’t entitled to these words, no matter how much we want them. We aren’t entitled to these practices, no matter how much we want our Celtic ancestors to be like some specific group of contemporary people. We aren’t entitled to steal other people’s words and practices to fill in the gaps in our own history and knowledge. It’s appropriation, and there’s a lot of it out there.

The urge to find a way to be an indigenous person in Europe, is a good one, I think. But we can’t do it by stealing things from other cultures and trying to pretend it was ours all along.


Signs of Civilization

Margaret Mead identified a broken femur that has healed as the first sign of civilization in a culture. It’s something that could only happen when people are willing and able to take care of other people who are sick or injured and who will need a lot of time to recover. 

In a similar vein, I saw something recently where the domestication of dogs was inferred from the bones of a dog with arthritis.

Cooperation and communication are key to humans thriving. Not just what we do with other humans, but also our relationships with dogs, cats, snakes, horses, cattle, and everyone else we’ve lived alongside. 

I was taught as a young human that the basis of civilization is language, and most especially a written language. With no recognition that complex human societies have and do exist without developing the written word. For the last few hundred years, industrialised humans have been inclined to measure the civilization of other humans in terms of how industrialised they are. 

The way we think about what civilization means informs how we relate to each other. It has been informed by historical attitudes to what’s valuable, and has shaped colonialism as well. We measure civilization in so far as it looks like us, and we devalue complex, effective ways of being in the world that aren’t like the materialistic, destructive culture that has come out of Europe.

It’s also worth noting that if caring for your sick is the key measure of a civilization, the US doesn’t score terribly well on that and the UK is pushing hard to relinquish its claim to civilization. If we considered care to be the primary measure of civilization, we’d have to be less tolerant of poverty, hunger, homelessness and other forms of deprivation. Perhaps we could aspire to become civilized.


Living with history

What happens to a site when we decide it has to be preserved for posterity? Often, it stops being a living location in actual use, and becomes a museum piece. This has several consequences. One of those is that there will be no future when an archaeologist can get excited about continuity of use beyond a certain point. We do not allow ourselves to participate in sites because to do so would be to damage them. And so there may be no future equivalent of the Viking graffiti on the Hagia Sophia – and we may be the poorer for it.

When a building, or a location can’t be used as was originally intended, it may become a tourist destination. This is not a neutral outcome that guarantees the safety of the site. Sometimes quite the opposite – with issues of erosion, damage, people taking bits of the site home with them, and the kinds of interventions you have to make to enable tourists to visit. The bridge at Tintagel is a case in point here – great that it improves accessibility, but I think it mostly exists because the weight of numbers visiting made the old route unsafe. You can’t wander hordes of tourists over a site every day with no consequences.

Historically, if a site was no longer needed for its original purpose, it would be repurposed. In some cases this has meant the stone being removed for re-use. Somewhere in the vicinity of my home is all the stone from a Roman villa, and the taking of it to build other things is now part of the history of the area. If you did that now, it would seem like vandalism. But, we have no qualms about cutting down ancient woodland to make way for high speed rail – we’re more attached to the built, historic human landscape than we are to the naturally occurring ancient landscape, and that could stand some scrutiny.

I think there’s something wonderful about buildings and locations being able to stay in use, in their original functions, so that they are alive and part of our lived experience, and not separated off as artefacts that we don’t really engage with. In the UK, I think there are two types of building where this tends to be handled well and we get continuity over time: Cathedrals, and pubs. Although tragically at the moment we’re losing pubs to redevelopment because pressures on the industry are closing them down. But, on the whole, these are locations where history is often preserved, but not at the expense of the living users of the site. Toilets can be added without building a visitor’s centre. Accessibility is a thing. Features can be removed. And sometimes by this measure, the Victorian pews from the churches and cathedrals end up in the pubs.


Statues and History

Back in the summer, the people of Bristol chucked a statue of a chap called Colston into the waterways. It was a good move – he was a slaver and should not be celebrated. Of course there were a lot of people who felt that doing this was hiding or denying history, and that this is a bad thing. What is the relationship between a statue and history?

Statues are not put up at the time of events, or as part of something historical happening. They are, like other commemorative objects, put up afterwards. They are part of a decision about the story we will be telling about the past. In America, a lot of the statuary relating to the Civil War isn’t from that period, it’s from the 20th century and went up for reasons, and those reasons had everything to do with shaping the story. Taking the statue down is no more or less an act of shaping the story than puting it up.

The people who get to put up statues have money and power to deploy. Most of us don’t have an option on commissioning commemorative statues for people we think are important. It is worth thinking about the kinds of people who are officially considered important and thus get statues. It’s worth thinking about the relationship between the statue and the community of living people who have it in their midst. The act of designating some people as important and statue-worthy and others as not worthy of a statue, is a political process. I’ve not done a formal survey, but my impression is that figures on plinths tend to be representations of rich white men who were able to use their rich white man status to get something done, or more likely, done for them.

Most of us are not represented when history is depicted in our public spaces in this way. So, if lots of people want to take down a statue because it isn’t the story they want to tell, is that denying history? I don’t think so. It is re-writing. Most of us will go into history as silences and absences, never to be noted as more than a statistic, if that. The decision that a handful of rich white men don’t deserve any better treatment than the rest of us, does not undermine history, it just asks you to reconsider what the important stories actually are.


Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.