The BBC’s series a History of Ancient Britain, is an interesting proposition, not least because history is primarily based on written sources, and the program is mostly about prehistory, which, by definition, is not. I have already made my feelings fairly plain about the Age of Cosmology episode: It is a perfect example of the loss of rationality that afflicts much modern archaeological thinking and clearly informed this script.
If archaeologists start imagining beliefs, cosmologies, and perceptions for people who left no records, there is the real danger that our audience will lose faith in the narrative. However, one thing that I found most challenging, was one of the opening lines in the set up;
It cannot conceivably be the people living at the time, since for them, Ancient Britain was presumably fairly normal, and besides, they left no record of their feelings on the matter. [However, in the light of what I have said about ancient cosmologies, it remains a worrying possibility.]
If we assume the script is referring to ‘our’ perceptions, for us looking at back at the past, to say it is ‘strange and alien’ could be a simple truism, if all it is saying is that ancient Britain was very different from our modern one. I think we can grasp that there was a lot more landscape, with no rhododendrons, spruce trees, litter bins or signage, - granted one might be surprised to run a bear - but it certainly would not be ‘alien'.
I can perhaps understand that someone else’s past, Egyptian or Chinese archaeology for example, might seem a bit strange, although I don’t find it so, but to find the past of my own region and culture described in this way is concerning.
However, I suspect the scene is being set for some strange and alien ideas about the past, of the sort that have become current in university departments.
An asymmetrical conflict
Ever since I was suspended by Newcastle University for not wishing to write about how Iron Age people felt about living in roundhouses, as part of my PhD, I have been engaged in an asymmetrical conflict with a strain of academic archaeology that has given itself permission to create belief systems and cosmologies for ancient peoples, and use them to explain archaeological features.
I imagine that in other respects Newcastle in actually a normal university, where the staff would not dream of making things up just to have something to teach to their students. However, universities are moneymaking enterprises, and I suspect they don’t really care what staff research or teach, just as long as students are prepared to pay the fess. If you want to be an expert on Iron Age building cosmologies, you are free to write your own job description and make up something to teach students, such as how people that nobody has ever met felt about living in buildings that nobody has ever seen.
Looking from outside, I can see eight significant steps on this journey that have led archaeology into this strange and alien land, although seven might be considered the more appropriate narrative convention.
These are the eight steps that I would identify as crucial departures from the road of rationality that has led some to wander into a strange and alien land.
While the archaeology taught in universities is perfectly well adapted to creating the next generation of lecturers, its value to the profession is less clear. It's a shame to cream off the intellectual elite, only have them count angels dancing on pinheads, while us children of a lesser intellectual god are left to work out how to do archaeology for ourselves.
Archaeology is a young subject, and perhaps it has just reached the stage where it wants to paint its bedroom black and is demanding a vegetarian diet; but unless it starts taking a more rational approach, and develops a more appropriate narrative, it risks losing touch and credibility with its audience, which would be bad news for all concerned.
Sources and further reading