Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Archaeo newswatch: the Importance of being Clothed

I almost ignored the headline 'Cover-up at the BBC', so common now has 'beeb-bashing' become in the tabloid press, but, as the pictures that followed the headline all appeared to indicate, this particular story had a significant archaeo-historical dimension.

"Naturists have accused the BBC of "falsifying history" by putting clothes on actors" read the piece (always a dangerous thing, I guess, given that most actors seem only too keen to take their clothes off) in Andrew Marr's TV series The History of the World. "They" the article went on "said the BBC had attempted to rewrite the history books for profit by covering the modesty of those who appeared in the show"

British Naturism, so the press tells me, were upset by those scenes in the recent TV series that showed ancient people wearing clothes, when, of course, any right-thinking naturist knows that everyone in the past was naked - all the time.

Offending scenes included ones such as this, taken from Pharaonic Egypt:

or here, in pre-Columbian America:

or indeed here, in one of the many exoduses (what is the plural of exodus? Exodusi?) of human groups out of Africa:

Sorry, but I'm at a loss to know with what authority the organisation British Naturism speaks. I'm perfectly willing to believe that the press has mis-quoted them here (in order to generate a story on a 'slow news day') but I somehow doubt this to be the case (given the marked similarity of quotes being used in a variety of different papers). Are they really saying that distant human societies, although they had the skill, ability and technological knowhow to hunt, gather, make tools, build shelters, create tombs, modify the land, domesticate animals etc etc, singularly lacked the good sense to cover up when it got cold, protect themselves from the heat or, indeed, protect their dangly-bits from thistle/thorn based laceration whilst chasing bison through a forest?

Yes, there's always been a degree of 'sensitivity' in recreations of the very distant past (I hesitate to use the term 'reconstruction' because that implies a degree of accuracy that archaeology cannot, in truth, supply), creating some extremely memorable (and unintentionally hilarious) images showing Palaeolithic people managing (discretely) to obscure their genitalia from the prehistoric paparazzi, such as this: 

or indeed this:

but that doesn't mean that everyone in every society, from the first hunters to the first pyramid-builders, went around naked all of the time.

I've no particular desire to see archaeology being mis-used on TV (although it does, of course, happen) but then neither have I any real desire to see assorted genitalia wafting around in the breeze (heaven knows I have enough trouble looking at my own without having to watch a stranger's on primetime). Our ancient ancestors were not as stubbornly thick as some would still like us to believe. They were not the drool-covered, mud splattered primitives that one sees in the pages of Victorian school books (such as the recently republished Our Island Story) and they did, almost certainly, have the good sense to cover up from time to time.

Here, then, is dramatic recreation of distant prehistory which I offer up (free of charge) to the makers of The History of the World, just in case they ever plan a sequel, which would undoubtedly resolve the matter and help to mollify the concerns of the modern-clothes-rejecting few:

Dateline 478,000 BC (late afternoon), just before the Anglian glaciation. Two early humans are sitting on a cliff edge. They are bored.

Kevin: "ere Gavin"

Gavin: "yeah?"

Kevin: "look, I've been wondering"

Gavin (cautiously): "yes?"

Kevin: "well, you know how cold it's been getting recently?"

Gavin: "yeees"

Kevin: "well, I was wondering whether, just perhaps y'know, whether it wouldn't be a bad idea if, rather than just ripping the fur off a bear and simply throwing it away when we sit down to eat"

Gavin (bored): "yeeeeesss"

Kevin (slightly embarrased): "well, I was thinking"

Gavin: "get to the point mate"

Kevin: "well, I was thinking that maybe, perhaps, we could keep the fur and, well y'know, wear it"


Gavin: "Wear it?"

Kevin: "yeah, you know, drape it over ourselves, to keep warm"

Gavin: "warm?"

Even longer pause

Kevin: "oh forget it. You know I sometimes speak without thinking things through properly. Do it all the time. Me ol' mum, she used to say 'Kevin, this thinking business, it'll be the death of you one day, you mark my words' and then me ol' dad, well he..

Gavin: "no no Kev, I think you may have something there. Yeah. Cover ourselves in fur. That could work."

Kevin (enthusiastically): “and we could call the fur Clo-thing and we could stitch it together in different ways and walk up and down in front of each other in a big kinda show thing and then some of us could..."

Gavin: "don't push it mate"

Kevin: "yeah, ok"

Sunday, 5 January 2014

A life in archaeology

I read in the Times (for Saturday January 4th) that the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, made famous for the discovery of a series of tombs, some containing a significant quantity of gold, in Afghanistan during the late 1970s, passed away in December 2013.   

I only met him once, in the mid 1980s (when my Russian was, as it is now, non-existent) so I can't speak with any authority as concerns his life or work (but can confirm that he was indeed quite a character). Reading his obituary, however, I was struck by the comment that his "was an uncomfortable lifestyle which, when not excavating, was spent principally trying to stay alive and establish a supply of vodka" something which, I think you'll agree, rather succinctly (and effectively) sums up the profession of archaeology as a whole.

Rest in peace Viktor