I’ve no idea if the Chinese really do have a blessing, requesting that you live through interesting times, or if it’s just so much more internet. But we sure as hell are in strange times, and they aren’t good for heritage and education. Archaeology as a means of preserving the past, telling the stories we can learn from, is under threat from proposed legislation in Britain , we’ve witnessed events such as the murder of an academic protecting his site in Syria against beings which have degraded themselves so far they have lost their own humanity.
We watch museums become privatised, and even closed. Low morale, and even lower pay, instigated by whatever the hell you want to call the current political school of (lack of) thought in power at the moment, have made the heritage sector not exactly attractive to the public. We may as well be invisible. Irrelevant. Afterthoughts. We’re, umm… history.
Yet, people love the past. It’s the governments who have brushed us into the corner, as reminders of where we all come from and how we all got here. History can be manipulated for nationalism, fear, anger, but it’s very hard to do that with archaeology. Because once you are down in the muck, you see the debris of the town where once everyone lived peaceably together in; you see the scorched earth and battered rubble of the city which did not just fade away…. Earth remembers and when you stroke it gently with the trowel, exposing the memory held in marl and clay, it tells you willingly exactly how things were. That may not be the story you want to tell the public, of course.
But as I said, people love the past. They love the gold and the bones, the cairns, tholoi and dolmens. They love the sun playing on the carved stories which may be graffiti or may be entire chapters of humanity’s lost history. I’ve watched my own kids in museums and I’ve watched schools, and their expressions of wonder remains unchanged despite all the swish electronic gizmos waiting for them at home. I love to tell them about the things and the places, mainly because I never fully grew up either from the ragged haired wee girl hanging out of a tree watching birds and drawing standing stones from a height.
I may be in this photo….
I know an eminent academic – maybe one of the finest I’ve ever met. His publication record is fierce and inspirational, and I was rather scared of him until I looked him in the eyes – there’s a wee boy still twinkling in there. Maybe the most passionate archaeos never quite grow up. They need to tell the stories for everyone to know, though, I think academics in archaeology do themselves no favours. The writing in so many reports is brutally awkward and off-putting. You talk about the dissemination of knowledge being the prime reason for research, but it ends up being shared with the select few who speak the lingo. The average archaeology report usually consists of the English language being tied up, beaten brutally and tortured until it whimpers quietly for mercy in technical terms in a corner, just to make it all stop. The reports which the public could read, and be inspired by, are exceptions and ultimately precious. Our future hinges on those well-written pieces.I want to see people come into this business with high spirits and clear eyes, and still love what they see.
So I’m going to use this as a way of telling any unsuspecting reader why we fight; Why is the past important? I’d tell them of the klutz who had a gut feeling about a part of a medieval site, but was made fun of that she was digging up a Victorian pipe, only to discover it was a Gaelic broadsword.
I’d tell of the rag tag funeral for some unknown event after the removal of the sword from the soil, as a procession of trainee archaeologists made their way down a sweet green summer hill, one carrying the sword, the others going solemnly ahead with spoil buckets, cameras and plastic as the small crowd of tourists applauded, and parted, as if some untold story was finally ending, lacking only a sobbing piper’s music to loan some grounded soul the wings to reach eternity. Those sunglasses were glued on me for a reason, gentle reader, and it wasn’t hayfever. I was snivelling quietly. The past weighed much, much more than the sword did. That past was a town which sang a happy song of praise to shared wealth and prosperity and the devil take religious differences, until uprisings and injustices got the better of it. But that town did exist, was a small flash of good times in the sea of conflict and misery that is Irish history. We can do it, the happy thing, given the chance.
I’d tell you of waking up in a Bronze Age landscape at 430am, making my way to a bathroom in vest and pyjama bottoms and bare feet, across mists on an ancient trackway through morning mist, watched only by wary, curious wild creatures – the copper flash of a fox, the soft brown of rabbits, the only noise birdsong and the swish of feet through dewy grass. The sudden rising of a massive sun across a flat landscape heralded morning, and even the mist blushed pink and gold. Here was the wetland where tracks led to sacred places, what metals and memory were beneath my feet?
For that brief moment I was a priestess of Avalon and not a prosaic, grumpy middle aged oul’ doll in Primark pyjamas. Seeing that landscape as the ancients would have, still held transformative power. They saw Nerthus, we inherited the ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ (remember that advert for lonely places?).. There’s a bog I worked on, Bohermeen, in County Meath, where children have drowned and on the retrieval of their bodies, they were not acknowledged as human – they were beams of wood. The real children had gone to the otherworld as themselves. Complete. That idea persisted from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, part of the fabric of who and what we are, whether its fairies we see at the bottom of our gardens or kelpies, trolls and nixies.
Each site brings new stories, and deep understanding of where we come from – the sad memento mori of the skeletal remains in a Norman graveyard, the silent stone circle where only hawks can observe properly, the booley hut, the wetland…. I am in love with them all, and you should be too. They remind us there is nothing new under the sun and the only thing that separates us is technology and time. I often imagine myself having conversations with historical characters, some I’d like, some I’d despise, but I can say that about living, breathing people today. Only those who choose to forget have no real future. Our ancestors understood the power of memory which is really the super-power of identity, be it the story of the green fields over the hill and how to get there, told by a Mesolithic fireside, or the satire sung by the 14th century troubadour. Me? I like that minstrel Jennifer Lopez ‘don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block – and I know where I came from’.
These days of people in power who would alter the past, I’d urge people to remember exactly where they came from, how we are all migrants, how we all drifted in from someplace; how that never stopped our ancestors from working together and appreciating co-operation. That’s what all those terrific stories of Mediterranean migrations you read on archaeology websites translates as. It’s one of the really great things about studying archaeology, you get to know how we all link to each other. That’s how we got here. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. That’s what earth and muck tell you, and it can’t lie.