Narrative History on the BBC Television is a cultural phenomenon in its own right, and while Prehistory has always had the attraction of the mysterious, and offers the potential of a “Detective Story” format, in reality it has no recognisable narratives. Thus, I was very rude about “The History of Ancient Britain” series’ attempt to manufacture one, and so I greet the news of Neil Oliver's “Sacred Wonders of Britain” with some degree of scepticism. However, Neil is keen to get his retaliation in first;
Good; this did seem to be lacking from the last outing into the past. However, as the program promises an exploration of Prehistoric sacredness, I suspect there is going to be a “but” in there somewhere. Luckily there are experts on hand; in academia you get the “truth” you pay for.
Realistically, it is not for archaeologists like me, I study the evidence for Prehistoric built environments which are not currently part of peoples’ picture of the past.
Picturing the Past
Time Team condensed the process of archaeology into a merchandisable television format, in which it could be argued the artistic reconstruction of what has been discovered was often the visual pay off.
The “past” has been realised in a shared visual culture, and many people will still remember the pictures in their first religious narratives and history books; I strongly suspect ideas about how ancient people perceived their world, are actually about how we perceive our pictures of their world, reflecting our own visual conditioning.
If only prehistoric people had seen some of Peter Dunn’s excellent pictures we might be able to make some progress on this front; until then we have to make do with imaginary people’s perceptions of imaginary landscapes in the imagination of contemporary scholars. Luckily, these cosmologies are “peer reviewed”, otherwise you might suspect they were just made up.
Monument; noun, 1. a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event. [od]
What we call things is important, and words such as Ancient, Prehistoric, and Monument all carry wider visual and cultural resonance, however specifically we might try to use them.
One of the constant dangers of any enquiry such as archaeology is expectation, and the danger of finding only what was being looking for.
As with Adam and Eve, the past has been frequently seen as somewhere where something was lost; seemingly, religions, which draw on the past for their authority, must by their nature suppose a fall from grace and wisdom.
Thus, the past has been and is a place of lost secrets, wisdom and intellectual treasure, however, its role as source of material wealth, has probably been its most pragmatic attraction. So, perhaps it is guilt on many levels that has driven the need to understand the spiritual lives and cosmologies of our ancestors.