Sunday, 29 January 2017

Moanhenge 4: Curse of the Petrolheads

Stonehenge: the site that keeps on giving. This month it's a debate surrounding the building (sometime in the future) of a road tunnel in order to remove the A303 which appears to have captured the attention of both public and the media.

Whilst most people, with perhaps the obvious exception of Jeremy Clarkson, believe that the A303 is too busy, too full of cars and far, far to close to one of the world's most iconic ancient monuments, there is no real consensus as to how the problem can be resolved. A tunnel, to bury the road, has been proposed but no one can currently agree as to whether this is a good thing or, if it is, where the tunnel should go in order to avoid damage to areas of human habitation, archaeological sites or areas of environmental concern (of which there are many). 

Simon Jenkins, however, writing in the pro-Conservative party paper the Spectator, has noted that in his opinion, the proposed tunnel is "a monumental folly".

Jenkins writes: “Stonehenge is not like France’s Lascaux Caves, so fragile they have had to be closed in favour of a facsimile” a point of view which is, I feel I must point out, wrong on so many levels, bearing in mind that it is precisely the fragility of both stones and their setting that currently precludes the public from getting close to (or rubbing up against) the monument. "What you see is what you get", Jenkins writes, "robust stones requiring little upkeep”. Wow. Remind me again; this is the same Simon Jenkins who was once deputy chairman of English Heritage and chairman of the National Trust isn't it? One would hope that he knew something (anything) about the upkeep of ancient monuments and the pressures of visitor access, pollution, ground disturbance etc. 

What I find really troubling, however, is Jenkins' apparent rage against the great outdoors, noting that the thrill of Stonehenge ”is as much the view from afar as from close to, and is enjoyed by millions who drive past on their way to the West Country. It is the thrill of a glimpse, a passing reminder of the longevity of human habitation in this land."

Now, stop me if I misunderstand this, but what he appears to be saying is that Salisbury Plain is best appreciated, not by standing in the middle of it, breathing deeply, feeling the earth beneath your feet, listening to birdsong and moving along paths created centuries before, but by sitting behind the wheel of a car in a long traffic queue, breathing in exhaust fumes and shouting abuse at the white van driver in front who just inexplicably cut you up without indicating.

Mmmmm. I can picture it now. Lovely.

Whilst I would be the first to admit that the sudden glimpse of the sarsen trilithons of Stonehenge is indeed an uplifting one, it is, I think, far more effective when seen, as it was designed to be, on foot. Only then can you truly appreciate the beauty, scale, achievement and sheer monumentality of the construct. 

Stonehenge, like all architectural efforts of the British Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, was designed to be seen, not from afar, but by surprise and close up. If you want to understand the monument, you have to approach it along the Avenue, walking along the ancient ceremonial path that snakes out of sight along the dry valleys to the northeast of the stones. Here, moving uphill with no clear idea of where you are ultimately heading, the stones suddenly emerge, as if by magic: intimidating, awe-inspiring and really quite wonderful. 

Now that the disfiguring tarmac scar of the A344, which for decades separated the stones from the Avenue, has been removed, this prehistoric approach is now possible in its entirety. 

Mr Jenkins, however, seems wholly unaware of this, raging that “Stonehenge presents a direct conflict between the ‘bought rights’ of visitors to the stones, and the freedom of members of the wider public to see them from afar" adding that "a tunnel would kill the motorist’s pleasure stone dead”. 

Aside from the rather gob-smacking ignorance of this particular comment (noting, as we just have, how the stones were meant to be approached along the Avenue, retaining the key element of surprise, and not merely to gawp at them from 'afar') I would like to point out that the main purpose of driving on the A303 is to get to point B from point A as easily (and ideally as quickly) as possible. Having a world heritage site 'pop up' in plain view as you attempt to do this is not only distracting but really quite dangerous, contributing to the traffic jam as countless drivers slow down to 'rubber neck' the stones (as they would a collision on the other side of the carriageway). 

Perhaps, if you want a distracting, awe-inspiring view on your car journey, Mr Jenkins, you could stash a set of postcards in the glove compartment of your 4x4 and, at discrete moments in the drive you could arrange for a passenger to remove them, one at a time, and pass them before your eyes: "oh look, Stonehenge"; "oh look, the Acropolis"; "oh look, the Taj Mahal"; "oh look, the pyramids of Giza" etc etc. 

My, how the journey would simply fly by.

Alternatively, of course, you could park your car and get out. Visiting the Stonehenge visitor centre, you could then start to unwind from your, no doubt rather stressful, journey and eat some cake in the cafe. 

You could also walk around the excellent displays, take in the reconstruction Neolithic houses and perhaps stroll (or even get the land-train if you want to travel by a petrol-fueled vehicle a little bit more) right up to the stones where, if you divert to the Avenue, you could approach the monument (across National Trust land) and see the site in the way that it was originally intended.

You'll find that it's quite an amazing experience. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Secrets of Orkney: Time Travelling Voles!

Sun, Sea, Sand and Statigraphy, the new BBC series 'Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney' had the lot.

Whilst critics have been generally positive about the BBC's recent series, and, as a rather fanatical consumer of televisual-archaeology, I must say that I loved it, the archaeological community has been generally less kind. A number of academics and archaeo-professionals have taken to the web in an apoplectic rage, slamming the facts as presented (claiming that complex theories were being dumbed-down) and ranting about the perceived 'simplistic style of presentation' (citing 'breathless enthusiasm'). 

This strikes me as rather perverse, akin, perhaps, to defecating in your own dinner (not advisable for those wishing to try it at home). Let's face it; the programme wasn't made for the academic community. 

Personally (as I think I've noted), I thought it was superb: I mean what's not to like?

If you'd told me that the BBC would set aside three hours of prime time for a detailed examination of Neolithic archaeology, I would have thought you a couple of olives short of a dinner party. Usually, if we're talking archaeo-broadcasting, it's only Ancient Egypt / Ancient Rome that gets coverage (and generally just the troubling / depraved world of Akhenaten / Tutankhamun or Caesar / Caligula). If prehistory is mentioned on the goggle-box at all, you can bet that it's the standard 'What was Stonehenge for' type of show (usually with added extra: 'only one man has the answer') that gets commissioned, or worse a Freeview cut-price programme on Forbidden / Secret / Weird / Made up archaeology (delete as applicable).

But three hours (THREE hours) on my very own favourite subject (Neolithic monumental archaeology in case you were wondering) was pure, unadulterated TV heaven.

OK, so yes certain facts and theories were indeed simplified for a TV audience, but then this wasn't a set of academic papers designed for peer review in a specialist journal. If the programme inspired, entertained or even got just one member of the Great British public interested in the marvels of prehistory, then I would say it was an unqualified success. If, in these uncertain (and rather depressing) times, the message that archaeology is both important and exciting gets 'out there' to the wider world thanks to the medium of TV, then, as far as I'm concerned, that's all good. 

My only (slight) moment of concern came with the repeated statement that Orkney voles were "travellers in time". Whilst I have no doubt in the ability of these small mammals to alter the nature of vegetation to a limited degree, I doubt they possess mastery over time and space.

Now you mention it, however, I do recall, from the depths of my own distant undergraduate past, something called the 'Vole Clock' which, although memory fails, had something to do with something important about something that happened millions of years ago (....perhaps). It's entirely possible, of course, that I missed the significance of the vole-clock-hypothesis, but, if these rodents have indeed discovered the secret of time travel, then all our endless theories concerning the Neolithic are ultimately pointless; all we have to do in order to fully understand the past is harness ourselves to a vole and jump back into deep time.

Vole-jump: now that IS a series that I think everyone would want to see.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

One Show to bring them all (and in the Piltdown bind them)

I don't normally watch the One Show. That's not a comment on the content of the programme, merely that it's on at a time when I'm either working, shopping, cooking or slumped head down in my upstairs office sobbing (that's another story entirely).

Today, however, as I turned the goggle-box on (in order to temporarily dull my senses) the programme lunged out at me, forcibly grabbing my attention.

"and later on in the show our very own Ruth Goodman will be taking a look at the Piltdown Man hoax" the genial TV presenter Matt Baker effortlessly enthused.

Piltdown Man. Anyone who knows me (both of you) knows also that I have spent a lot of my time working on the Piltdown hoax (as indeed have quite a few other people over the last century, albeit for different reasons). 14 years on since I published 'Piltdown Man: the Secret Life of Charles Dawson' and five years since the follow up 'Piltdown Man: case closed' I find myself being constantly drawn back to the 'find'. That's a bit strange really, given that I really believe the case, with regard to the perpetrator of the hoax, is most definitely closed - still people want to hear more. 

Temporarily shelving my desire to be 'completely and utterly miffed' at not being asked to contribute (I did for one moment wonder if I had contributed and then forgotten all about it) I sat down and waited.

Sure enough, 'our very own Ruth Goodman' appeared

Introducing the 'mystery' of the Piltdown find, the so-called Missing Link first reported in 1912, Ruth then collared Professor Chris Stringer whose office, in the Natural History Museum, appeared to have been redesigned as a scene of crime lab (complete with pin board, photos, pins and string). Poor old Chris, I thought: given how many new and exciting discoveries there are in the world of evolutionary science / Palaeolithic archaeology, it must be frustrating to have to keep talking about the one artefact that was clearly fraudulent. Still, he looked as if he was bearing up well under the pressure of interrogation.  

With the three potential culprits identified (Arthur Smith Woodward, Charles Dawson and Arthur Conan Doyle), Ruth then surprised Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University who at that point was hard at work analysing the bone assemblage. Isabelle could, Ruth assured us, help point the decisive finger at the forger

And so, the fact that the jaw of Piltdown I matched those pieces of the Piltdown II jaw (which Charles Dawson discovered alone) proved, so Ruth assured us, that there was only one person behind the hoax which tonight, Matthew, she could finally reveal was none other than Mr Charles Dawson himself

So there you go, thank you BBC. Apart from the fact that Joseph Weiner, in his 1955 book 'The Piltdown Forgery' made this point and apart from the fact that Robert Downes research in the 1960s made this point, and apart from the fact that John Walsh in his 1996 book 'Unravelling Piltdown' made this point and apart from the fact that I made this point in my 2003 and 2012 books and apart from the fact that every TV documentary made since 2000 has also made this point, that's an entirely new revelation. 

I wouldn't mind so much if the One Show itself hadn't screened a short film in 2009 where I took programme regular Mike Dilger to the site of the Piltdown discovery (at Barkham Manor) and explained how (and why) Charles Dawson had done it.

Now I know people's memories are short but this was only eight sodding years ago...!

Ah well, least I know that in less than a decade the One Show will be able to reveal who faked Piltdown Man. In the best style of Scooby Doo, I've really no idea who it could be.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Our one duty to history...

So, I deleted the me, it's better that way

Emerging from a lengthy period of writing on the nature of historical memory, folklore and oral tradition, I immediately embarked on a personal journey of remembrance, collating, cataloging and playing music from my own distant past in order to kick start the brain prior to the start of semester 2 and the Academic Timetable of Doom (a lesser known Indiana Jones movie).

But where to begin?

Hungrily searching through the vinyl collection stored (inexplicably) in the hallway, I (re)discovered a number of mislaid gems, first of which was the 1986 single 'Mexico Sundown Blues' by the quite wonderful James Ray and the Performance (Merciful Release: MRAY52 if you need to know), an electro-gothic stomp about (so I distinctly remembered - or at least thought I did) the dangers of groundwater pollution in America

Putting it on the turntable I waited for the track began with the particularly unforgettable opening growl:

"It's in the water
It's in the ground
It's in the air and
It's all around"

I remembered that line particularly well, singing (perhaps too generous a term) along in seedy London nightclubs (there were and, I suspect still are, many of these), parties and long evenings in the UCL bar. When the vocal track started up this time, however, I was momentarily non-plussed by the fact that Mr Ray appeared have a set of lyrics in front of him that were different somehow - off-kilter, as it were.

An internet lyric database immediately beckoned.

Of course we didn't have such useful research tools back in prehistory, having to rely instead upon those (few) bands who generously printed lyrics onto their record sleeves (I appreciate that I'm using rather antiquated words now) or to what could be (poorly) discerned between needle, groove and speakers (ditto).

It was then that the dangers of the world wide web became immediately apparent: showing how things really were without the distracting fog of memory. The lyrics that I recalled were, in fact, nothing like the lyrics as recorded, the opening lines being (in my mind anyway) the far less arresting:

"Mexico Girl
Mexico Boy
What am I supposed to do now?"

So, less a cry on the horrors of pollution and more a paean to gender-based-confusion (possibly) in a Federal Republic. Admittedly there is a line, further on, that notes 

"Life is underground
Poisons all around"

Although, to be fair, this may be an allusion to the gargantuan quantity of drugs consumed by the record industry in the mid 1980s (perhaps - what do I know?). As Oscar Wilde once noted "The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it". Well, consider my own history to be in the process of significant revision - my late teenage years were evidently a lie...

Anyway, time for a major review of songs from the late 20th century - perhaps my next academic endeavour? Who knows what joys I may discover? Anyway, as the great Marilyn Manson once said "Your lemonade stand is on a big plane"...