Gateway to Rome
Moving beyond the anniversary cult
Simon Denison on anniversaries, events and archaeology
A new year, a new set of anniversaries - that strange phenomenon so beloved of diary manufacturers, parade organisers and history magazines. Writing this in the first few days of 2001, I must have read a dozen times already that this year is the centenary of the death of Queen Victoria, not to mention the bicentenary of Britain's ill-fated Union with Ireland and the 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain.
At this magazine we try not to get too hot and bothered about anniversaries. This is partly because anniversaries seem a pretty lame excuse for a story, as the most facile form of historical projection - this (and any other) year being some numerical 'anniversary' of any event you care to mention since the world began.
But the main reason is that anniversaries commemorate events and, as devotees of archaeology know well enough, events have only moderate importance in the overall scheme of understanding the past. Events can be illuminating, dramatic and moving - and in rare instances can be genuinely world-changing - but their significance is often exaggerated.
Ripples on the sea
It was the great historian Fernand Braudel who, in his classic The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, likened events to the ripples on the surface of the sea - the important phenomena for understanding the past being the tides and undercurrents, the underlying states and long-term processes that shape the history of mankind. And it is these long-term processes that archaeology is ideally placed to study.
A good example of the way in which well-known historical events can acquire exaggerated importance came from Michael Wood's recent BBC2 series Conquistadors, shown in December. Filming in high Andean Peru, Wood encountered a community of Qechua-speakers using only homespun 'traditional' material culture and performing ritual ceremonies of clearly pre-Columbian origin. For many inhabitants of the continent, he concluded, the Spanish Conquest had never taken place. Closer to home, archaeology has told similar stories about the limited significance of such 'great transformations' as the End of Roman Britain, the Norman Conquest and the Industrial Revolution, as material culture has suggested an unchanging lifestyle for many.
Shaping the present
The most famous events of the 20th century must include - for anyone living in Europe or North America - the Russian Revolution, the two World Wars and man's first landing on the Moon. Yet surely of far greater influence than any of these on the way most of us live today are such long-term developments as rapid transport for goods and people, pharmaceuticals that work and cheap consumer electronics delivering 'global culture' to every home. None of these trends, however, can be pinned down to a single event.
A similar imbalance between processes and events shapes our own lives. Certain events like marriage, the birth of our children, the acceptance of a particular job can, of course, profoundly affect how we live. But although some people may experience Damascene moments, I suspect the long-term effects of upbringing and experience play a greater role in defining our personalities, the ways we choose to live, what we enjoy and what we consider important.
In the field of conservation, the CBA has long maintained that commonplace historic features of the landscape demonstrating long-term local characteristics - the field walls, the road signs, the Victorian terraces made of local brick - have as strong a claim to attention as the exceptional. Education policy too is beginning to accept that long-term trends are as worth teaching as momentous events, now that archaeology has slowly become more securely fixed in some syllabuses in British schools.
Above all, an appreciation of the importance of the long-term reminds us of the value and fascination of the study of material remains. Archaeology is, of course, quite capable of revealing transitory events either historical (Boudica's destruction of London), dramatic (the sacrifice of Lindow Man) or mundane (digging a pit, knapping a flint). But its supreme ability is to map out the slow-changing everyday realities of people's lives in the past, and so bring us closer to those who have gone before.