Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Archaeology is often accused of ostrich-like behaviour - just as our diggers put their heads below their knees as they trowel down and down, so our writers tend to explore a patch of ground just in front of them which might not be quite as interesting to others as it is to themselves.
However, in response to this we have a few heavyweight archaeologists who look at the 'big questions' of archaeology. Invariably these are to do with moments of change, those nerve-wracking moments starting when the Neanderthal sprinter handed the baton over to Homo sapiens sapiens, up to when an 18th century dogcart driver passed transport on to Newcomen and Stephenson.
More or less everyone is agreed in seeing the very biggest moment of change as the move to sedentism - ie, the 'Neolithic moment' when we stopped pegging around the countryside and started knocking in postholes and staying put. This is odd. When I was at school, the constant refrain of authority was to get off your backside and get out and do something. Sitting down was equivalent to dropping off the planet.
Yet apparently sitting down - sedentism - turns out to be the thing that started off the whole shebang of the modern world, poetry, books, sport, politics, art and all that jazz. Odd how we retain a solid prejudice against passivity. Everyone is keen on soldiers (sorry, 'peacemakers'), explorers, nutty guys painting ceilings on their backs for decades on end, etc, while monks and meditators come in a very poor last.
What's more, one of the key things about this great moment when the human race sat down was that we started domesticating animals. Now, I don't know whether you live in a dog-owning area, but I do, and what goes on in the park - owners crouching behind dogs, lots of little polythene bags and special bins with artwork of dogs doing poos - cannot possibly be associated with any advancement of humankind.
Look at how unpleasant we are about cows, sheep, pigs, hens and the rest of our poor slaves - we use them as terms of insult against one another. The very idea of a farm being the crucible of progress is laughable. All our great artists and writers couldn't wait to get to town and have a good shower.
The argument must be that having given up the nomadic life and found ourselves stuck in one place with a load of hens, with the same dismal view of the rain slopping across our miserable shelters, and having to look out on the vegetable patch and think that that represents the next year's sustenance, existence was so depressing that we all took up art evening classes and formed reading groups to pick through some saga about travelling Trojans.
One extra gloomy lot went up the hillside and built vast long barrows, at tremendous expense of energy, into which they put the bones of dead people. This was so that the living could go up there every so often and hoik out all their ancestor's bones and then have a really gloomy moan about it all - Why are we here? Why hens? Why couldn't we have stayed in the Mesolithic?
Our big-shot archaeologists getting to grips with the big questions are concerned, of course, to do more than provide answers. They also want to predict things. They want to be able to say that certain combinations of factors will inevitably lead to the following outcomes. Yet as our Neolithic forebears discovered - and this is a general lesson of archaeology - things do seem to come about in spite of what people want. In the words of the almost greatest Briton of all time, John Lennon, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
It is worth asking why an archaeologist would want to predict change. The answer, sadly, must be that it brings them up to the top table with the big boys, the economists and politicians. As for the rest of us, isn't the real big project finding out how things might not change? If that secret could be cracked by archaeology it would have done us all a real favour - we could stop modernising and really enjoy a nice sit down.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005