Category Archives: History

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.


Women’s technology in prehistory

These aren’t wholly original ideas.

I have seen for myself plenty of examples of pre-historians talking about prehistoric stuff that could be charting the moon. The assumption is that our ancestors needed to keep an eye on the moon for whatever they were doing. But why potentially lunar markings are divided up in ways that don’t seem to relate to the moon, is anyone’s guess, apparently. Except of course that the same monthly cycle has huge implications for female fertility.

The people in pre-history who most needed to be tracking lunar cycles, were fertile women who needed to be in control of their wombs. And who maybe also wanted to be able to educate younger women about how to do that.

When it comes to tools, there’s a tendency to focus on things with cutting edges. Partly this is because stone is what survives most reliably from the Stone Age. But, there are things to infer. Humans don’t hit the ground running the way baby horses and deer do. We aren’t furry in a way that makes it easy for babies to just hang on. Depictions of pre-historic women with babies tend towards the nearly naked, with the baby clutched to the mother any way they can.

Small babies wriggle. If you get you and them wet, they are almost impossible to hang onto. If you are holding a small baby in your arms, it is nigh on impossible to carry much else and the only thing you can do is carry the baby about. I refuse to accept that the majority of pre-historic women spent all of their time trying not to drop wet, wriggling babies. Also, babies get cold really easily, and not having a baby die of cold when it is naked in your arms all the time is going to be hard.

Our ancient ancestors were hunter gatherers. We know from modern hunter gatherers, that it is the gathering that makes up most of the diet and that gathering tends to be women’s work. You can’t gather much if every woman of breeding age is trying to do it while holding a baby in their bare hands. You can’t move around effectively if anyone under the age of two is walking. You certainly can’t run away. You can’t navigate any kind of complex terrain if both your hands are occupied with a baby.

The obvious inference, to my mind, is that one of the oldest pieces of human technology must in fact be the baby sling. Once you’ve got sharp edges, you can do things with skins, so it’s not a far-fetched idea. Women carrying babies in slings have their hands free for gathering and getting about. The baby, or small child in this arrangement is warm, safe, and easy to move about. You can’t have humans as mobile hunter gatherers if you don’t have baby slings. Our getting into colder landscapes and travelling any distance depends as much on the baby sling as it does the stone tools, the wearing of skins and the getting to grips with fire.


Thinking about Civilization

I’m currently reading ‘Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age’ by Richard Rudgely, and it’s got me thinking a lot about how we define civilization and how problematic it is. Like me, the author isn’t a fan of the narrative of human progress, and that’s certainly a story that has coloured how we think about the past.

As a child, I had one of those illustrated history books, in which the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory were summed up by a single image of some people wearing skins and using stone tools. That the Stone Age was barbarous, superstitious, and lacking in all the qualities of proper civilization is something that we used to take for granted as an idea, and many people probably still do.

History, as we understand it begins with writing, so any culture that doesn’t have writing is assumed not to have history and to be rather primitive. This ignores the ancient nature of stories in oral traditions – that Australian Aboriginal stories record ancient events and creatures is thus easily overlooked. To be a civilization, we moderns think there have to be cities. This means our nomadic ancient ancestors were not civilized, and nor are any modern people who live as hunter gatherers or are otherwise nomadic – this is a view that breeds racism, undervaluing, and intolerance. We only think cities are important because we have cities.

We look to the past for things that validate our stories about the present. Where we see things that fit in a narrative of progress to the present, we tend to focus our attention. There are other stories we might want to explore – that hunter gatherer societies had more leisure time than we do. That so-called primitive people have to develop a very rational, observation based understanding of reality to survive, hunt and gather. That we see civilization in terms of material culture, and that people who live lightly leave little evidence of themselves.

To survive as a nomadic people at the end of the Ice Age, must have meant cooperation. It’s not ‘survival of the fittest’ that will have got our ancestors through those incredibly cold and challenging times when they were first coming back into the UK. It will have been care for the young, and for pregnant women. It must have meant sharing skills and resources, knowledge and experience. It must have meant people working together. And when you can only own what you carry, or what another person is happy to carry for you, the place of material goods in your life is going to be very different.

If we can re-imagine the past, and consider different ways in which civilizations can exist, we might do a much better job of organising ourselves for the future.


Language, Culture, Celts

Let me start by saying that this is a speculative blog post. I’m a dabbler, not a historian and I am not qualified to hold much of an opinion on this subject! So, I’m just sharing some things that occurred to me, that might, or might not be meaningful.

Nomadic hunter gatherer people tend not to go in for writing. Writing calls for kit, and storing writing clearly isn’t ideal if you’d have to heft it all about with you. People who need to travel lightly tend to have oral cultures and depend on memory. Nothing controversial there.

Writing seems to go with keeping records. I’m not aware of any instances where we think a culture started writing because it wanted to keep its poems for posterity! Written records become necessary when you want to keep track of ownership and/or debt. If wealth is held in common, you don’t need records. You might need records in a larger and more complex community that is sharing resources – you might want to track that to understand what happens. So at the very least, writing represents organised and self conscious social structures, probably.

It’s very difficult to have tax without written records. It’s difficult to keep track of debt, or tithing or any other system where ownership and contribution are related. These can of course be very good things in a culture, making systems to share out the goods. But at the same time you can’t have functioning hierarchies without some kind of paperwork. Arguably the difference between a barbarian horde and a colonial project is whether you can follow through with accountants and tax the people you just rampaged over.

This leaves me with some interesting thoughts about the Celts. What are the implications of the Celts not having a written language? What does it mean about their social structures? How much of our sense of them as a hierarchical community depends on them having been depicted that way by the Romans, and by those later writing down their stories? The stories we have are full of Kings and nobles. But is that a fair reflection of Celtic peoples in Europe, or of their systems of interacting with each other? Here I am speculating, but I think it’s worth wondering about what the absence of writing might suggest.


The silent ancestors

Ancestors of not doing your dirty laundry in public.

Ancestors of lying about where the bruises came from.

It isn’t nice to talk about that. It isn’t polite. It isn’t appropriate. Don’t mention it.

The ancestors who said ‘what will the neighbours think’ and felt it was more important to put on a good show for strangers, than to deal with problems.

Ancestors of keeping up appearances, too proud to ask for help.

It is better to fail and suffer privately than to let anyone know you are struggling. You make sure your hungry child looks clean and tidy, and is polite.

The ancestors who said keeping up appearances meant not speaking about what was done to you. The parents and grandparents of other people’s silence.

Don’t bring shame on us. Don’t embarrass us.

The ancestors for whom the abuse of a female body was a source of shame, not of anger. And you wouldn’t draw attention for fear of hurting the girl’s chances of marriage, and you’d never talk or deal with what had happened that hurt the girl.

Ancestors of not rocking the boat and not making a fuss.

Ancestors of this is not for the likes of us, know your place and be quiet.

We do it my way, because I said so. It was good enough for my family. It’s good enough for you.

Ancestors of do not draw attention to yourself and do not ask for more than you are given.

We don’t talk about nasty body things, or sex, or disease, or pregnancy. We are the ancestors of having no words for these things that are good, or kind, or helpful.

 

Ancestral stories aren’t always made of large, easy to spot drama. Often the most dangerous things are the things we were not allowed to talk about. We pass on stories about the stories we are not allowed to tell. Sometimes the encouragement to silence is subtle. Sometimes it is brutal, loud, and either way it is destructive. Breaking the silence is never easy, but is often vital.


Ancestral Pie

Both of my grandmothers made pies. No doubt for women of their generation, this was a much more normal thing to do. Their pie-making was distinct and individual. My paternal grandmother had been in service. She made shallow cheese and onion quiches/flans with a light, crumbly pastry. She may have made other kinds of pie for non-vegetarians, but I never encountered that. My maternal grandmother made deep pies with a heavy, brown flour crust. They were mushroom and onion pies, with cheese on the top, and sometimes tomatoes. I don’t recall her ever making any other kind of pie.

I too am a pie maker. I make the kinds of pies that I’ve been told are ‘proper’ pies – i.e. that have a crust on the top, or a potato top. I make fruit pies. I also make the kind of pies that are egg-based and untopped. I defend my right to call these pies – my grandmother called this a pie and I choose to use my ancestral baking language!

My pies are very different from the pies of my grandmothers. Like my maternal grandmother, I favour the deeper pie and the brown flour. However, I have inherited cold hands from my paternal grandmother and this gives me a pastry texture closer to her baking style. Unlike both of them, I will cheerfully put anything in a pie. I don’t have a standard pie I make, I like to mess about with pie form.

We live in a culture that tells us that to express your identity through the medium of pies, you choose your brand. You choose from a narrow selection of fillings someone else has put together. Of course as with every opportunity we are given to purchase our identity through products, there’s not much range in it and precious little joy.

A pie made at home is inescapably an expression of self. What ingredients do you pull together? What shape of pie? What decorative features (if any)? Do you make a small selection of pies, or do you experiment wildly? Do you make sweet pies, or savoury pies, do you make them moist on the inside or do you favour a firmer, drier middle? The pie that you make for yourself, is a personal thing.

One of my grandmothers was neat and precise, and this came through in the shape of her pastry. One of my grandmothers was much more rough and ready, and her pastry was the same. Neither of them spent ages doing fiddly lattice tops or cutting out leaves, or hearts for decoration. I do, sometimes.

My pie making comes from their pie making, no doubt. It comes from eating their food. I am more influenced by the grandmother who let me be in on the process. I don’t know what kind of pie making traditions either of them had from their mothers, and grandmothers, but I bet there was something. Most of our ancestors are unknowable to us as individuals, but when we pass down this kind of thing, we pass down something of them, too. There is no fixed ancestral pie, but there’s something to tap into, and I suspect that holds true for a lot of other things as well!


The Consolation of History

I have read a fair few books about history and pre-history. There’s not much logic to it, my knowledge is patchy and random. My main interests are in radical history, and the lives of ordinary people. There is consolation to be found in reading history, and I’m feeling that keenly at the moment.

When you read about the lives of ordinary people – in any place or time, things are invariably a bit shit. Sometimes things are devastatingly shit. I read, and I wonder how anyone kept going in face of that. How people kept pushing for rights in face of tyranny. But they did, and when you look at grander sweeps of time, even as individual movements have often failed, there is a bit of a progress narrative and on the whole ordinary people have slowly gained more rights.

When I feel daunted and overwhelmed, I remind myself about my ancestors. All those ancestors of radical thinking who tried, and failed, and tried again. I remind myself that many, many people in history and pre-history have faced the end of their culture, their civilization, their people, their world. When I feel really grim about the state of things, I remind myself that many others have been here before me and I am not facing anything new. This helps me keep a sense of perspective.

The timescales of pre-history are good for perspective, too. We are a tiny, toxic blip in the history of humanoid life. Other humanoid species have fallen away in the past, it may be our turn now. Nothing is forever, including us.

We repeat history, whether we’ve studied it or not. We are not so very new. We are no cleverer or wiser than the people who went before us. As a species we seem able to learn some things very quickly, but the important lessons elude us – how to live well, how to live sustainably, and what purpose to make of our lives.


On Writing Historical Fiction

A Guest post from Laura Perry

Fiction is an interesting beast. It’s imaginary but also real. You can take a real-world setting and make up characters to go in it. You can make up the world as well, if you like, though some portion of it needs to be relatable to the reader, perhaps in the form of some of your characters being human.

Either way, the intersection of the real and the imagined creates the spark of the story. I’ve written two novels set in the known world, one in Central America and one near where I live in the southeastern US. Both had magical aspects to the story, and one had magical/supernatural characters as well. Still, both novels take place in the current time, in the world I’ve spent my whole life in. It’s familiar territory, in a sense, a world I share with my readers.

Then I decided to write historical fiction. That turns out to be a different beast altogether, with its own set of issues.

My novel is set on the Mediterranean island of Crete, among the ancient Minoans. They were a Bronze Age culture that flourished from about 3000-1400 BCE. Now, the Minoans are a subject I’ve studied for years. Decades, even. But when I started writing this book, I discovered just how much I don’t know, how much no one knows about the details of daily life and religion in ancient Crete.

So I filled in the blanks with educated guesses. That’s what every author does when they’re writing historical fiction. And I feel the weight of every one of those guesses, because there’s a thing that happens with any kind of historical fiction, whether it’s in the form of a book, a television show, or a movie: people take it as actual history. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many people get their history more from television than from the books they were supposed to read in school.

So this book took me a long time to write. That was partly because the story is heart-wrenching and I felt like part of my soul was being ripped out with each chapter. But it was also partly because I had to weigh every detail, consider every possibility as I built the world the action takes place in. I’m sure I’m wrong about some of it; that’s just how history and archaeology are. More information comes to light later on and we recognize our mistakes.

But in the meantime, I’d like to remind everyone that historical fiction is just that: fiction, even if it is framed with known facts and archaeological evidence. Historical fiction is a marvelous romp through another time and place, via the imagination of the writer. So enjoy it for what it is: a story about humanity, about the issues we’ve all faced through the generations. Some things never change.

 

Find out more about Laura’s Minoan novel here – : http://www.lauraperryauthor.com/the-last-priestess-of-malia