Bye bye nursery rhymes?

The readers of the Daily Telegraph thrive on apocalyptic stories predicting the end of civilisation as we know it, usually because of a European directive — banning the sale of ‘traditional’ 100 watt light bulbs, for example, or forbidding the sale of fruit by the imperial pound (never mind that the fruit is probably French or Spanish).

But one such headline in October has to be taken more seriously: this predicted the demise of the nursery rhyme. New research for National Bookstart Day has discovered that a quarter of the parents who took part in their survey had never sung a nursery rhyme with their child and that only 36 per cent do so on a regular basis. And more than 20 per cent of young parents claimed not to use them because ‘they are not educational’.

Not educational? Leaving aside the vital role they play in children’s language development by introducing them to word play, rhyme, rhythm, melody and humour, what better introduction to the worlds of theology, philosophy, astronomy, physics and even archaeology (think Stonehenge and the humbling beauty of the night sky) than the words of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are?’

Fortunately the Telegraph report went on to say that Twinkle Twinkle (written by the poet and novelist Jane Taylor (1783—1824) and first published in Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806) remains a perennial favourite with children and parents. The rhymes that have fallen out of favour tend to be the more violent ones; and who can blame parents for passing up on the puzzling morality of the Taliban-like narrative of Goosey Goosey Gander (‘there I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers, so I grabbed him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs’). How exactly do you explain that one to a child? (for grown ups, a possible explanation is given by the historian Chris Roberts in his book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown (2005) on the history behind common nursery rhymes in which he says it refers to anti-Catholic propaganda during the reign of Henry VIII).

The ancient origins of fairy tales

Darker narratives do appeal to older children, though, and who has not, as a child, enjoyed the vicarious terror of meeting trolls on lonely bridges, hungry for human flesh, or hairy grandmothers who turn into a wolves or worse. Now Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, says that such stories are not only very ancient, they also occur in many different cultures. He has found 70 versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for example (and that doesn’t include Nicolas Roeg’s film version of Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now), including the Chinese variant, in which the little girl is tricked by a tiger masquerading as her grandmother.

Adopting taxonomic techniques used by botanists and biologists to study genetic lineages, Dr Tehrani has shown that Little Red Riding Hood may have been published for the first time in 17th century France (by Charles Perrault), but the original story can be traced back more than 2,600 years. That many stories are very ancient is evident from the numbers still told today that were first recorded in Aesop’s 6th century BC fables.

From Lucy to Language

Clive Gamble has argued eloquently in books and lectures that story and play-acting probably formed a critical role in the development of the characteristics that make us human. We share primary emotions, such as anger, fear and affection, with many other species, but what makes us different is the ability to imagine the unseen, to ‘know’ things we have never witnessed, to associate ideas with objects (imbuing them with associations, such as the memories evoked by a shell collected on a distant beach) and to experience ‘higher order’ emotions, such as guilt and remorse.

These emotions are essential to the development of ethical systems and are based on awareness that another person’s point of view could be different from our own and that actions can be judged according to a complex set of moral values.

Clive’s thoughts on the way our ancestors constructed, explored and communicated human values through the ‘what if’ scenarios of fictional narrative were developed as part of the research programme entitled From Lucy to Language. Lucy, in this case, is better known to physical anthropologists as specimen AL 288-1, or Australopithecus afarensis, and named Lucy because the members of the team who discovered her in the 1974 in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley celebrated by staying up all night and watching the stars come out to the sounds of the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (back to Twinkle Twinkle?).

Now however, Lucy has lost her place in the evolutionary tree as our oldest bipedal ancestor (at 3.2 million years) to an even older hominid: Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million-year-old hominid whose details have just been published. Ardi was bipedal when moving on the ground, but quadrupedal when moving about in tree branches, and so has been hailed as ‘the missing link’ between knuckle-walking, tree-swinging apes and upright-walking humans.

Let us hope, however, that this does not mean that Clive’s project will have to be renamed: From Ardi to Language does not quite have the same alliterative ring.

William Brown: England’s Don Quixote?

‘Sherds’ has a decidedly literary quality to it this month, and why not: archaeologists are a pretty obsessive bunch, but some do have other interests in their lives, and it was fascinating to read in the obituaries for Paul Ashbee (hailed in The Times as ‘perhaps the most talented, and certainly the most prolific, postwar archaeologist concerned with the excavation of prehistoric British burial mounds’) that he was also President of the Just William Society.

In part, his Presidency is explained by the fact that his wife’s aunt was Richmal Crompton, the author of the Just William books. But Ashbee also had a genuine regard for those books, and was a very knowledgeable President. Nor is he alone in his esteem, for a letter published in the Times Literary Supplement recently revealed that the Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza was also a devoted fan: the letter went on to say that Mendoza saw William Brown as a latter day Don Quixote, and ‘who are

Jumble and the Outlaws if not Rocinante and a collective Sancho Panzo [Don Quixote’s squire, a man of earthy wit]; and who is Violet Elizabeth Bott but the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso’, the simple peasant girl that Quixote imagines to be the most beautiful of all women and whom he calls ‘mistress of my most hidden thoughts’?

Nighthawking and the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard, whose riches Current Archaeology shared with its readers in the last issue, attracted crowds who queued in their thousands when it went on display at the Birmingham Museum in the first fortnight in October, proving that people really are interested in the past, despite what modernising politicians might like to say.

But many archaeologists were concerned that the reporting of the hoard in many newspapers concentrated on its monetary value and the fact that the finder stands to share a seven-figure sum with the landowner. Less was said about the challenge that museums face in raising such a sum to purchase the hoard at a time when their acquisition coffers are empty, nor of the fact that the finders benefit financially while the Portable Antiquities Scheme struggles to find the money for excavating, conserving and studying such finds, and depend upon expertise donated for free.

Several archaeologists also expressed concern about the stimulus the find would give to metal detecting, especially of the illegal variety. Pete Wilson of English Heritage said ‘we are getting increasing attacks on private land where nighthawks have no permission to be; we are seeing sites die the death of a thousand cuts as finds are removed’; and even the normally conciliatory Mike Heyworth, Director of the Council for British Archaeology, said, ‘These people, who have no morals, frankly, are stealing our past.’

A report in the Sunday Times suggests they are right to be worried. An undercover reporter spoke to one detectorist who said he had found a hitherto unknown Roman temple that ‘is producing loads and loads and loads of stuff’. Asked if he had reported it, the detectorist said: ‘I’ve kept that under my hat. I don’t want to publicise it until I’ve really hammered it to death.’ The same detectorist said he was unfamiliar with the Treasure Act and expressed incredulity when told about it: ‘So, what you’re saying is anyone who buys a metal detector should know about the Treasure Act? I think that’s ridiculous’, he is reported to have said.

December 2009

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