The edible dead
The glory that was York
Town of tin
Editor Simon Denison
When the political debate gets really ferocious some of the insults that fly are sadly uninformed by modern archaeology, and this needs to be changed. Not only in election campaigns but during normal parliamentary time the word 'prehistoric' is used as a heavy-duty debate winner: 'The party opposite insists on retaining their prehistoric view of benefits'. The 'Stone Age' is a real children's party stopper, eg, 'The Opposition's policies would return us to the Stone Age'. 'Vandals' pop up all over the place - not just out there wrecking street furniture but ruining sensible measures by the hundred.
Then there's the 'Dark Ages', as in 'this bill will usher in a new Dark Age'. 'Medieval' is always accompanied by a snarl. To cap it all there's that inevitable line about dragging the Hon Member, or the party opposite, or the public, 'kicking and screaming into the 21st century'.
For any archaeologist interested in politics, all this has an odd effect. Why is the speaker's face going red as he yells prehistoric at us when the word itself sounds like a compliment? And the sense of shock must be the same for the millions of people interested in the past. As more and more people think there might be useful things to be learnt back then, there can be few people other than politicians who still think the past is a joke.
Of course one has to be careful. When people start bristling it's never really the right moment to try and put them right. 'Ah yes, you just called me a vandal. Now there's been a bit of a mix up over the years on this one. They were really no trouble at all from ad 200-400, and after that they only did what the Romans had done and actually their achievements were rather remarkable.' 'Dark Ages eh? Yes, but these days we know a good deal more about them and it really is a most interesting period. Let me tell you about it.' No, probably not a good idea.
Abetter idea might be to reverse the cliché and take politicians kicking and screaming back to the past. Well not kicking or screaming - we could bill it as a free outing. What would Agriculture, Fisheries & Food make of the medieval village and its common fields? This required no bureaucracy to administer, produced food that was wanted, did not require the transport of animals 400 miles to the nearest abattoir, and was established by common agreement.
What would the Foreign Office make of gift exchanges between groups? I suppose they'd have no problems with communal feasting, though they would be shocked to find it wasn't just the leaders but everyone who took part. And what might Customs and Excise make of the axe and amber carriers travelling around without due regard to frontiers or their green and red channels? What a quiet life anyone in border control would have had back then.
Or what would the Treasury think of the successful millennia passed without a money supply, let alone those elusive spondulics? Or Education, learning of the scale of human progress in prehistory with not a sniff of a school to inspect? Or Transport, finding out that people could move about without every individual travelling separately at high speed and crashing into each other? Or Energy, seeing that in the past we seemed to manage heating and lighting without piling waste tips all over the place, or creating power supplies that last for 30 years and then have to be buried in concrete for 300?
Perhaps most painful of all would be the absence of politicians in prehistory. Obviously part of the kicking-and- screaming tour would have to make a little detour into history to visit the Greeks who had plenty of odious politicians of their own. But surely our leaders wouldn't be able to return to their old insults? It would be impossible not to feel a little more positive about the past. We now have the concept of political correctness. It's time to insist on archaeological correctness as well.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005