Friday, 25 January 2013

'Our Island Story': an inconvenient truth

I was offered a copy of a book today, Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls, from the Romans to Queen Victoria. Written by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall and published in 1905, the work had, so the letter accompanying it proudly stated, been reprinted courtesy of CIVITAS (The Institute for the Study of Civil Society), a "classical liberal" and "non-partisan" think tank (according to their web site) together with the readers of the Telegraph Newspaper (who appear to have forked out a not inconsiderable sum) with the view of sending at least one copy to every junior school in the UK.

So far so intriguing.

A close look at the content of Our Island Story, however, shows that the 'Story' presented is curiously outdated. Now (perhaps unsurprisingly) I'm all for bringing the past to life and I’m certainly very keen to get more school-aged children thinking about, engaging with and understanding history, my own passion (obsession?) with archaeology beginning way back in primary school when we undertook a project on the Romans (involving, as I recall, large numbers of shiny metallic bottle tops and at least one wire brush - don't ask), but there is something rather worrying about this particular book.

Perhaps it was the contents page for 'Early Britain' that first alerted me, with its chapter headings:

1) The Stories of Albion and Brutus

2) The coming of the Romans

3) The Romans come again

4) How Caligula conquered Britain and how Caratacus refused to be conquered

5) The story of a warrior Queen

6) The last of the Romans

7) The story of St Alban

8) Vortigern and King Constans

9) The story of the coming of Hengist and Horsa

10) Hengist's treachery

11) The story of how the Giant's Dance was brought to Britain

12) The coming of Arthur

13) The founding of the Round Table

14) The story of Gregory and the pretty children

15) How King Alfred learned to read

What worried me here, apart from the singular lack of anything to do with 'pre-history' (there is no real consideration of the half a million years (give or take) of human activity in Britain prior to the 1st century AD - probably, I suspect, because in 1905 there was still no consensus as to the antiquity and variety of human endeavour), was the blurring of boundaries between history and legend and the singular, overriding obsession with IMM (Invasions, Monarchy and Mythology).

Now I'm all for the writings (and mythological musings) of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bede, Gildas et al, but am concerned, for example, that the building of Stonehenge in this book appears, not in a chapter on the Neolithic or Bronze Age (not that such chapters exist in any case) but in one entitled "the story of how the Giant's Dance was brought to Britain" in which the wizard Merlin advises the semi-mythical Ambrosius on how to move a set of standing stones from Ireland to Salisbury plain. The Roman period is consigned to a few invasions (and it may just be the copy I saw, but I'm sure it was Claudius that conquered Britain, not Caligula) followed by a few brave (if misguided) British rebels, then we get the Roman retreat from Britain (together with a bit of Christian martyrdom). The 'dark ages' are here spectacularly dark and filled with savage Saxon invaders who, in the space of a few pages, learn to read, write and create a monarchy (and who in turn fight the next batch of savage invaders, the Vikings who, no doubt, are all wearing big horned helmets).

Settlements? No. Religion? Not really (well apart from Christianity). Art? Nope. Culture in any sense? No.

The book's mind-set can best be summarised in the illustrations it uses. These are, in themselves, quite exquisite works of early 20th century art, but, in the context of presenting history to a modern audience, are not all that helpful. Here, for example, are the Later Iron Age inhabitants of Kent observing the advancing fleet of Julius Caesar in 55 BC:

To the avid British reader of 1905, brought up on tales of imperial derring-do in far flung provinces of the British Empire, where valiant young officers fearlessly brought the wonders of the civilised world to unwilling natives (such as war, disease, famine, slavery, the collapse of traditional social structures, religious persecution and death on an immense scale), this would perhaps have appeared as a plausible and eminently believable scene. The savage Britons, clad in matted furs, stare in mutual incomprehension at the arrival of a Roman invasion fleet below, little realising that they were about to be dragged unceremoniously from their savage existence, kicking and screaming into the civilised world. 

Nothing before this date seems to have mattered much to the publishers of Our Island Story, because it was all undoubtedly horrible, fetid and unpleasant. The fact that many Britons resisted the arrival of civilisation showed just how unforgivably thick they really were. The wonders of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age life is not considered here; "don't worry your little head dear reader".

OK, that may be a little unfair, given the time (and context within which) the book was originally written, but if you're going to reprint it AND disseminate amongst the junior schools of today, perhaps a judicious bit of rewriting (and rethinking) would be in order.

Here, for example, is Queen Boudicca (sorry 'Boadicea') in diaphanous, Arts and Crafts-y Medieval fantasy princess dress, urging a band of scrawny, mud-splattered primitives to rise up against Rome (I'm not sure that they're all that impressed):

Whilst here's a recreation of the apparently historical King Arthur (in rather worryingly tight trousers) being acknowledged by his people (a motley Hollywood-ised flouncing pseudo Medieval population together with a wonderfully druidical Merlin) as their rightful King following the successful removal of the sword from the stone:

And, just to finish off, here's King Alfred finding "much pleasure in reading" (what appears to be a collection of Sunday broadsheet newspapers): 


CIVITAS, on their website, note that the key reason for republishing the book now is that "Henrietta Marshall knew all about the importance of the institutions of a free society, and explains thoroughly why we need to make sure the state cannot imprison people without trial, or force them to worship God in a particular way, or extract taxes without allowing people a say in the running of the country. Now that the teaching of institutional and political history is so weak in many schools, Henrietta Marshall’s message is of vital importance"

OK, nice sentiment, but I'm not sure that the way to successfully do this is to continue peddling a tale of Britannia Superior written over 100 years ago, especially when the 'facts' relating to the first half a million years of human activity in the Island are either missing or hopelessly inaccurate.

If you want to engage kids today in history, I don't think you can do much better than Terry Deary and Martin Brown's Horrible Histories, a funny, intriguing, well written and, importantly, factual account of 'the past' which first appeared in a variety of books in the early 1990s, winning many awards in the process, which continues to this day.

The books have now spawned a successful (and very funny) children's TV series which is endlessly (and quite rightly) repeated. Importantly, Horrible Histories covers all time periods, all cultures and all classes of people (not just the rich, militaristic monarchs).

Sorry CIVITAS, but these are the books that should be distributed to Schools if you really want to open young minds whilst simultaneously informing, entertaining and educating. Meanwhile let's keep Our Island History, a work that was undoubtedly extremely important 100 years ago, stashed away in the archives....

Monday, 21 January 2013

Archaeo-newswatch: Spitfires, Mummies and Killer Horses from Hell

It's interesting (well at least it is to me) to see how a news story develops over the course of a single day, especially if, as with today, I appear to have a lot of time on my hands given, in this instance, the light covering of snow that has forced the transport infrastructure of Britain to a halt. Inbetween the increasingly hysterical news reports, showing various hysterical reporters in front of various bits of motorway "STILL COVERED IN SNOW!" and the ever mounting mass of snow and ice (calculated by one intrepid reporter to be "NEARLY 10cm deep!"), two stories in particular caught my eye.

The first dealt with the apparent climax of a 17 year search for a lost squadron of partially assembled Spitfires thought to have been buried after the Second World War in Burma. The fighter aircraft, hidden in order to prevent them "falling into the wrong hands" (no one has yet explained to me whose hands prescisely were "the wrong ones" nor, indeed, why the Spitfires couldn't simply have been assembled and flown home), were discarded in a series of pits, the locations of which were then lost in the mists of time.

At least one of the potential pits had been tentatively identified at Rangoon International Airport (formerly RAF Mingaladon). Unfortunately for the news reporters, geophysical survey and excavation has not (yet) located the missing Spitfires (or Spitfire pieces) whether in packing crates or not.

A reporter for Fox News managed to interview the director of archaeological operations in Rangoon, David Cundall, who, when prompted as to the significance of the potential find, enthused that for him "the discovery would be as significant as Howard Carter finding Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt".

Fair enough, for him I can see that this is probably true; it has, after all, been his passion for nearly two decades. 

Later on, however, the BBC News Channel reported that "Archaeologists are comparing the lost Spitfires of Burma as a find that would rival that of Tutankhamun's grave", which isn't quite what anyone (to my knowledge) had actually said. This had, by 10.00 that evening become "an archaeological find as important as Tutankhamun", which, of course, it blatantly is not.

If found, the packaged aircraft pieces would certainly prove an interesting discovery, especially to WWII historians and enthusiasts of mid 20th century flight, but I don't think anyone would seriously compare the find to the lost tomb of the boy pharaoh.

Hyperbole is a dangerous thing in an archaeological context, especially if taken literally, cranking expectation up to ridiculous levels (just watch any 'documentary' set up with the premise that "this could be the most incredible archaeological find" which "will change the way we view our ancestors forever", when you know that, in reality, you are about to watch 50 minutes of someone driving up and down a desert before concluding "it's out there somewhere and one day I will find it"). I can understand why Fox and the BBC were keen to make the search sound far more exciting than a "machine digs hole by side of airport runway and finds not very much", but Tutankhamun's tomb was, at the time of its discovery, something unrivalled in the history of archaeological exploration, the wave of "Tut-mania" that followed having an immense impact upon art, architecture, the movies, fiction and fashion of the 1920s and early 30s.

The Spitfires. however, although being Mk XIV variations of the prototype (haven't quite discovered what makes a Mk XIV different from, say, a Mk XIII or Mk XII, though no doubt someone will tell me) and intriguing artefacts in their own right, are at least known, there being some significant record as to their nature, form, shape and manoeuvrability. Here, after all is a photo of one:

and here's another:

So, quite unlike Tutankhamun's tomb then, for which Howard Carter had no pictures, records or indication of size, wealth and status prior to shifting large quantities of sand in the Valley of the Kings.

Another curious news item today was more of the "Shock, Horror" variety with the report that beefburgers found in a number of British Supermarkets contained, not just beef, but apparently also horse and pig meat.

This perhaps didn't sound quite 'science-y' enough for ITV news, who later reported that "horse DNA" had been found contaminating the burger samples. By midday, this was sounding rather more sensational, one reporter stating the beef had been liberally peppered with "the DNA of a horse". Not just any old horse mind (or indeed any number of horses), the implication was that this DNA belonged to one horse in particular.

This worried me (and I seriously considered calling our Forensic lab) for, if the ITV News report was correct, it could mean only one thing: somewhere in Ireland (where the meat was supposed to have derived), there was a killer horse on the loose....

...a killer horse with a grudge against cows.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Archaeology of Christmas

Escaping from archaeology is difficult (if not impossible), even, as noted in my last post, if recommended by the doctor (and even if only for a short period). Archaeology is inescapable: at some it will creep up on you and drag you back into its own peculiar little world. Once you have dipped your toe in the archaeological sea, you will be forever frolicking on heritage beach.

Even tasks as simple (and ultimately as mundane) as the packing down, gathering up and sealing away of Christmas decorations (as twelfth night staggers blearily towards you), possess all sorts of archaeological connotations. The mind pauses for an instant and suddenly you are back in archaeo-world.

Relative dating

The removal of tinsel from the ceiling of the lounge reveals, from the collective number of drawing pin holes detectable at strategic points in the coving, just how long it's been since the room was last thoroughly decorated....

...nine years since you ask.


Moving the sofa to one side (to make room for the annual insertion of a tree) reveals a collapsing but compact slice through some of the more sci-fi, movie, music and (of course) archaeological orientated magazines of 2012. Right at the very bottom of the pile is the Christmas 2011 edition of the Radio Times TV listings magazine

Thus it is possible, not only to ascertain which months were more productive in their creation of magazine related literature, but also to calculate, should it ever be needed, the total depth of magazine production per 12 month calendar year (a nice, round 1.64 m since you ask).


The movement of strategic parts of the dining room reveals which bits of furniture are used more frequently than others and which pieces were introduced to the room first and in what order (judging by the relative levels of dust and debris secreted beneath each). Relative dating aids the resolution of phasing as it is possible (thanks to the careful examination of datable material caught up within the dust) to utilise the concept of Terminus Post Quem; one particularly memorable  pile of dust-bunnies, for example, containing two paper hats and a cheap plastic toy from last year's Christmas cracker collection. Thus a complete sequence of furniture (and book) use and movement can be plotted for the entire space.


Disassembly of the attic-stored Christmas decoration boxes provides a useful look at the changing nature and design of Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury’s (other supermarkets are available) Christmas themed shopping bags (1995 - 2012), should anyone ever require such a dataset.

Importance of archives

 Oh yes, if anyone ever doubts the need (and importance) of archives for the understanding of Christmas in the UK throughout the last decade of the 20th and first decade of the 21st century, they need only consult the Russell collection: it's all there in a (semi) accessible form, preserved for eternity (well, at least until Christmas 2013).