Category Archives: History

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.


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.