Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
There are all sorts of little tricks designed to make the past more accessible. One is to put the whole business on the shoulders of a generalised human being - Man. This is not our cool and groovy compatriot of the 60s but a far sterner fella, a sort of John Buchan type with pockets bulging with useful things.
It was Man who discovered fire, and tools and the wheel, it was Man who got the cows to slow down enough to be milked, and it was Man who got the garden tools out and really made a dent in the environment. In modern terms Man's problem is that he's a man so though he's still at it when it comes to the really big things like taking the first steps on the bits of rock surrounding this one, these days he's more often called We. Thus it's We who have made massive progress in medicine, and We who split the atom.
The trouble is that Man and We have got a bit ahead of the rest of us. Actually rather a long way because I doubt if many of us could even light the fire that started it all off, and even standing upright, which Man conquered years ago, poses occasional Saturday night problems. We're struggling along while Man and We whizz by. If it all went horribly wrong and they disappeared from the scene, nobody would know how to mend their information systems or get the automatic sliding doors to open, and back in the home no one would have any idea how to make a door knob or a hinge, a tap or a bath plug, or get the chimney cleared so we could try and light a real fire again.
We's influence is more insidious that Man's. Look at the way We gets used in archaeology. There you are dozing away during a lecture, and you hear 'We now know from the environmental evidence that farming was practiced in the north-east earlier than previously thought' or 'We are able to date Iron Age pottery by thermoluminescence to within a century', and you feel a comfortable glow.
But the truth is that 99% of the audience, like you, had no idea that Iron Age pottery could be dated any better than Early, Middle or Late, nor could they begin to remember what was the previously thought date for farming in the north-east. This is what's happening in other fields. Basically We is constantly being called on by people to make it seem as though everyone is thoroughly up to speed together.
Man and We haven't really been a problem in the past. Stones were stuck upright in the Neolithic in meaningful ways by Man, but the rest would have pegged on with the daily business of obliterating all signs of life other than ceremonial so as to annoy future archaeologists; metalwork was brilliantly crafted by Man in the Bronze Age, but everyone else carried on being bronzed in the more plentiful British sunshine; Roman Man made great strides with underfloor heating, but the great majority of his subjugated barbarians put the heat on the floor not under it in a primitive thing called a log fire. It seems, then, that Man took time off for a millennium getting his breath back ready for his great strides in the Industrial Revolution.
The difference between now and the past is that though Man and We were at it then, they were limited in their domain while everyone else knew enough to keep things going along as they always had. In the modern world there are so many more things for Man to invent and then get the rest of us dependent on.
However it's not just that. The real difference is that we now explain the world, its past and future, in terms of Man and We, and this is a disaster. To some extent this is the responsibility of earlier archaeologists banging on about progress and inventions, and so it might be seen as the duty of modern archaeologists to set the record straight and dump Man and We before they dump us.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005