Friday, 28 November 2014

Archaeo newswatch: cultures (and vultures)

There's lots of talk in the British media (as there is in any run up to a general election) about culture, nationality, sovereignty and immigration. As an archaeologist, whose job it is to study ancient culture, nations, sovereigns and migration, I find it all rather repetitive, depressing, unnecessary and, dare I say it, a little bit dull, especially in a week where the tabloid press is bleating (as it always now seems to) about what it means to be British and how 'our' cultural traditions are being steadily eroded by Europe / Asia / America / Australia (and, come to think of it, why not Antarctica given the number of penguins currently on TV?).
Without sounding like Mr Angry from Tunbridge Wells, there has, I'm sorry to say, never been such a thing as a static, unchanging 'British culture' - it's always been in a state of flux, all manner of words, customs, fashions, foods (etc) regularly coming in from other peoples, cultures, ethnicities and nationalities. Every country, nation or state (with the possible exception of North Korea) is, however much their politicians deny it, continually copying, adopting, adapting, plagiarising or stealing ideas from one another. When you take the big UK news story of today (well apart from the one about a Conservative MP calling a serving police officer a pleb - haven't we done this one already?), 
the impact of 'Black Friday', a brand new (imported) tradition in which seemingly normal people queue all night outside a department store so that, at the strike of midnight, they can assault one another with children's toys,

or the big story of last month about the impact of the (new) annual Halloween tradition of 'Trick-or-Treat' (30 years ago in the UK all we had for entertainment on 'All Hallows Eve' was apple-bobbing and whittling a parsnip), then it's clear that culture is (as it always has been) in a state of change. 
Do I mind that so-called 'British traditions' are on the decline? Well no, actually, having no particular desire to sit in a thatched hut covered in blue woad with horse urine and chalk dust in my hair eating roast pork (as the first 'true' Britons apparently did according to the totally fair and objective travel writer Julius Caesar), I'm actually quite glad that things have moved on in the last two millennia and we now have things like tea and wine and curry, not to mention shampoo and soap.
Last year, a journalist from a tabloid newspaper was interviewing me about a skeleton dug up from a Roman cemetery which appeared to represent the remains of a woman from sub Saharan Africa. 'Was she a slave?' the journalist asked (unconsciously enforcing his own cultural prejudices). 'No' I replied, 'given that she was a high status burial in a high status cemetery that seemed quite unlikely'. 'Well' the journalist went on, 'she must have appeared quite out of place in northern Europe at the time'. I could see where he was going with this (given the stance taken by his own particular paper on immigration). 'Again no' I replied, 'given that we have good documentary and archaeological evidence from Roman Britain for Syrians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Algerians and Ethiopians, not to mention Germans, Spaniards, Italians and peoples from areas now incorporated within France, Hungary, Romania, Albania etc etc, she would probably have fitted right in. In fact' I decided to really upset him with a hard dose of archaeological reality, 'Roman Britain was probably one of the most multi-cultural and racially diverse periods in British history, all these ethnicities adding to the rich ancestral mix that we have today'.
The interview ended shortly after that and never appeared in print.
Oh well, less than six months to the election, then we can all talk about some other news story - there must be something else happening in the world surely?


  1. What's wrong with wearing horse urine and clay in your hair? Its a long and very ancient British custom and I for one am going to continue applying both to my head until the government tells me to stop.

    1. Never mind the government, if your friends and family asking you to stop, I would stop. Horse urine is a rather pungent fragrance to carry with you all day...

    2. It's better than pig urine