Hunting for cave art
Archaeology of industry
Editor Simon Denison
British prehistory is like one of those forgotten products that was just as good as a well known brand name but got thoroughly stuffed by better marketing. If British prehistory is the burger that nobody eats, then the Roman Empire is the all conquering Macdonalds.
Rome was the hands down winner when it landed at - wherever it was - in AD 43. Prehistoric Britain was soon issued with coins and brooches and rounded up into towns and villas, and that was that. Even when Alaric the Goth wiped his feet on Rome's doormat rather too vigorously 400 years later, Rome still had staying power. Its statues and temples have lain around ever since as a constant reminder of how marvellous they were.
School students for centuries have been offered Hannibal not henges, chariots not cursuses, baths not barrows. Politicians today see themselves declaiming away in togas, but not holding forth in woad. Religious worship takes place in mock classical churches but not in sacred groves. Cheeky London chappies make rhymes about Julius Caesar but have no slang about the Late Bronze Age.
The big marketing hook that Rome possessed was the written word. Rome could not only hype up its own grandeur in books, but it could also rubbish the ghastly tribes it conquered and civilised. Caesar and Tacitus's miserablist view of the natives still, incredibly, holds the field. Their views on British prehistory are the equivalent of getting data on India from some upholder of the British Raj.
According to the Romans, basically, Rome was doing us a favour when it launched its invasion fleets. As a result, all that prehistory has meant to people here during the two millennia since then is earthworks and cropmarks. Earthworks got fitted into the system as curiosities, while cropmarks twinkled away unseen till recently.
Now obviously it would be ridiculous to try and dismiss Rome, still central to our lives today, in a few sentences - but, what the hell, let's have a go. Take a look at all the awful things we have got from them. First, the idea that the acme of being civilised is lying around your dining table gassing about culture and politics in a nice city, while the slaves do the washing up. By contrast, in prehistory things went on without compulsion. The Avebury henge and Silbury Hill were the products of enthusiastic volunteers. Before Rome, the good life was what everyone had.
Second, there's the idea that history is all about individuals not societies. How can all those self-satisfied, uptight Catos or demented Caligulas possibly compare with the achievement of British prehistory in showing us that it is possible to have societies that involve everyone in their aims? Third, take all that imposing art and architecture. What, really, is so brilliant about their white-elephant buildings and endless statues, compared to a leaf-shaped arrowhead or a cup-and-ring marked stone?
Fourth, look at the Romans' idea of a general get-together - those amphitheatres where you could enjoy watching animals being tormented and humans murdered. Compare that with causewayed camps, stone circles, avenues and cursuses. Nobody really knows what went on in these places, but the point is that in prehistory the priority was enabling everybody to take part, not just sit around looking at spectacles of death.
Even now Rome still rules the roost in the British psyche. Why aren't the British people more interested in British prehistory? It is barely half a century old as a subject, so no one has had it spoiled for them at school. There's plenty of room for anyone to think what they like about it, as the archaeological literature shows. It's got a whacking time frame - three times as long as history - and the subject is brimming with modern technology in its methods. We don't prefer French monasteries or Spanish castles to our own, so why do we go overboard for Roman history instead of our own splendid new archaeological product? It really should be a cast iron plunger.
If only we could see that the Romans got where they did by uncontrollably scrapping round the Mediterranean like a load of Brits on a bad night in Ibiza, their bubble reputation would be burst once and for all. Our priorities would change if we acknowledged our true origins - knapping flints, not napping in a dream of the grandeur that was Rome.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005