The Times published a letter on 2 June 2009 signed by Professors Martin Biddle and Brian Fagan, who called on the nation not to forget the 150th anniversary of the historic lecture given by John Evans to the Society of Antiquaries on 2 June 1859, in which he presented crucial evidence for human antiquity – flint implements found in association with the remains of extinct mammals some 20ft below the ground in a gravel pit in the suburbs of Amiens, the capital of Picardy. This momentous lecture, they said, was in danger of being overlooked in the otherwise very proper tributes being paid to Darwin’s subsequent publication of On The Origin of Species.
Alongside this, The Times printed another letter, dated 24 May 1959. This too was signed by Brian Fagan and Martin Biddle – not as professors, this time, but as undergraduates at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In it, they expressed concern that the centenary of the publication of On The Origin of Species was overshadowing the centenary of Evans’s lecture and pleaded for recognition of the fundamental importance of that paper and its effect on subsequent archaeological thought.
Stones and bones
This echo across five decades reminds us how time flies. It also brings home just how recently Evans and his circle tried to change our perceptions of human antiquity. By contrast with the mere 150 years that have passed since Evans’s momentous lecture, consider the depths of time that the axe itself represents. We now know that Acheulian tools, named after that quarry at Saint Acheul where Evans found his hand axe, were the dominant technology from around 1.65 million years ago to about 100,000 years ago. During this time Acheulean tool users colonised the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. It is that vast period of our ‘unwritten history’, as Evans called it, that is truly the subject of our ignorance and neglect: even amongst archaeologists, how often does one hear prehistory dismissed as nothing but dull old stones and bones?
Sunspots and destiny
Amongst those who do find prehistory fascinating, a long-standing research theme is the effect of extreme climatic events on human development and behaviour. Has weather been a determining factor in human history as our ancestors adapted, innovated and migrated in response to a shortage of resources brought about by drought and cold, or by the replacement of tropical jungle by savannah? Andrew Selkirk, our Editor in Chief, is hoping to organise a session on this theme at the 2010 Current Archaeology Conference (26 to 28 February at the British Museum). But will we even survive until then? Worrying news comes from an analysis of recent sunspot activity, suggesting that solar activity is at a record low and that when this happens, empires fall.
Writing in The Sunday Times, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto says that 2008 was the quietest year for sunspot activity since 1913 and that, so far, 2009 has been quieter still: ‘the sun has not been this lazy for this long since Napoleon was the scourge of Europe,’ he says, warning that solar quiescence literally makes the sun less hot, and so threatens Earth with cooling.
Unusual weather on Earth in turn helps to cause freak political and economic events. Between the 1640s and about 1715, sunspot activity disappeared altogether, resulting in the ‘little ice age’ so beautifully captured in the winter scenes painted by Brueghel, when the Thames froze hard enough for Londoners to go skating on 14 occasions. In the 1640s and 1650s, England, France, the Spanish monarchy, Sweden, the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires and the empires of China and India all collapsed or experienced violent upheavals, and, in each case, the severity of climate change seems to have been a contributing factor, causing hardship and stirring revolutions.
Global temperature falls associated with a low sunspot count coincided with the French Revolution and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, as well as regime change and ferocious political upheaval all over Europe. Spain’s empire — the modern world’s oldest and biggest — collapsed. The British Raj effectively replaced the Mughal empire in India. The First World War, which saw the fragmentation of some of the world’s most powerful states, began after a spell of exceptional solar inertia, with more than 1,000 sunspotless days.
‘With precedents such as these,’ Felipe writes, ‘it will surely not be long before bloggers start attributing the global economic crisis to a stalling sun.’ You have been warned.
‘Dr Livingroom, I presume?’
Much heat has been generated in recent weeks by a debate at the Royal Geographical Society about the use of the Society’s annual research budget – the very chunky and useful sum of £500,000. Founded in 1830, the RGS sponsored the expeditions of Darwin, Livingstone, Shackleton, and Scott of the Antarctic. Today it stands accused by the likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Pen Hadow and Robin Hanbury-Tenison of having turned its back on ‘projects that will attract young, outgoing people’ and of abandoning its mission to fund major expeditions to unexplored corners of the globe. These days, commented one RGS Fellow, ‘if you see someone posing by the South Pole with a husky, it is more likely to be a television celebrity than someone advancing the sum of human understanding’.
When it came to the vote, the motion to restore big expeditions was lost by 61.3 per cent to 38.7 per cent. RGS funds will, in future, be parcelled out to support numerous less ambitious academic projects: hence A A Gill’s headline in The Sunday Times report on the debate: ‘Dr Livingroom, I presume?’
Part of the fascination of the debate for archaeologists is the resonance that it has for our own grant-giving institutions. The Society of Antiquaries, for example, once sponsored great excavations at Stonehenge, Avebury and Fishbourne, Colchester, Verulamium, Maiden Castle, Knossos, Ur and Atchana-Alalakh. These and other projects were central to the development of the discipline, with the result that the Society’s archives are, in effect, a record of the history of archaeology in Britain and beyond, at a time when Britain was pre-eminent in the discipline.
Now the Society’s annual grant budget of around £65,000 is sliced into sums ranging from as little as £250 to a maximum of £5,000 per project. The Society has become a minority shareholder in research projects where once it was the proprietor. Even such tiny sums are appreciated, though, by archaeologists who are well used to the appropriately named concept of ‘mosaic’ funding – garnering multiple small sums until they add up to just enough to pay for the project.
A hermit’s life
If you can’t persuade the RGS or the Society of Antiquaries to pay for an expedition to Outer Mongolia or the source of the Blue Nile, an alternative means of getting away from it all is to become a hermit. When Manchester Museum announced in February 2009 that it was seeking an artist-in-residence to live in complete isolation in the tower of its splendid Victorian Gothic building for two months, ‘reflecting on topical issues including biodiversity, climate change, extinctions and the future of the planet’, it was inundated with applications.
Manchester Museum Director, Nick Merriman, said the aim was to ‘update notions of the hermit and the ivory tower for a contemporary context’. Chosen from scores of applicants to perform that role is Calcutta-born Ansuman Biswas, whose astonishingly packed CV includes translating Tagore’s poetry from the Bengali, designing underwater sculptures in the Red Sea, living with wandering minstrels in India, touring with Björk, playing with Oasis, redesigning Maidstone High Street (he says), being a soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, running seminars on democracy for monks in a Burmese monastery, and flying on a real magic carpet in Russia (ditto).
Biswas is a serial hermit: he has already been ‘an ornamental hermit in the English countryside’ for the National Trust, spent two days blindfolded ‘in an unknown place’, travelled with shamans in the Gobi Desert and been sealed in a box for ten days with no food or light – compared to which spending 40 days in the museum’s tower, engaging members of the public in debate by writing a Hermit’s Blog, will be a doddle.
Leaping to the defence of the church
Churches and cathedrals were also once havens of peace and retreat before they became the focus of mass tourism and of happy-clappy evangelism. Some churches, however, still like to keep the lid on noise, and archaeologists working within their precincts usually have to sign an undertaking not to play radios or use profane language.
Reviewing just such a contract recently, Mark Collard of Cotswold Archaeology was amused to encounter an unusual variation on the standard wording: ‘Radios and other audio units will not be permitted on site,’ it said, ‘However the singing of psalms and plainsong will be encouraged.’ Reading on, Mark was amused to find that the standard section on ‘Civil Unrest’ (which normally states that the cathedral authorities cannot be held responsible for resulting loss or damage) said instead that ‘in the unlikely event of civil unrest, the contractor’s site operatives will be called to arms to form a militia under the direction of the Dean and Chapter to defend the cathedral; the Dean and Chapter will contribute one shilling per person per day in pay and provide free food and mead’. Mark comments: ‘a contract with a sense of humour is rarer than a genuine sliver of the True Cross!’
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