Boats against the current

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The famous last line from The Great Gatsby has been rattling around my head recently.

We live in interesting times. And much hinges on the past, on the stories we tell about who we were and how we got here. My job is to explore things from the past, to build narratives from those Old Things, to apply retrospective significanceand in doing so, to illuminate the present.

This matters. “Who controls the past”, wrote Orwell, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

But these past few months, my Old Things have been mute.

There’s a fine cartoon by Tom Toro: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”.

But I have written before that the past is never repeated; besides, there is no such thing as ‘the past’. And to assert that situation x is equal to situation y gives an easy response to those who disagree. Conditions are different, they will say, the comparison is not accurate. The test is not whether the analogy is a perfect fit, but whether it is useful.

Yet my Old Things: my potsherds, the soil beneath my fingers, the bones I lift from the cold earth… all are silent. They tell me nothing, offer no balm for these times of tumult.

I have a difficult relationship with my own past. I am reluctant to subject it forensic study, perhaps because I am not fond of the version of myself that I find there.

The same can be said of societies. We like our narratives clear, and resist challenges. Revisionism has become a pejorative term. We do not like to see our imagined foundations undermined. Historical narratives are attractive because they offer the illusion of permanence.

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,

The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.”    Edward Thomas, Early One Morning

We’re comfortable with visions of our past selves that emphasise an honest struggle, a purity of ideals, identities, and common purpose.

But national narratives are prone to conflating two different visions of the past: remembered glories and ideas of longevity. A case in point is the phrase “we have always been”: you’ll see it everywhere. A fortuitous set of circumstances for one nation at a point in time is not a replicable model. For all our accomplishments, there is nothing innately superior about the British or American psyche, nor are we inevitably destined to prosper. The wave we rode through much of the 19th and 20th centuries has dashed itself against the breakwater of history, and much as the likes of Trump and Farage may tell us that we can go back, it is gone. I fervently hope we can find a new path through the surf, but history is rarely kind to those who would seek to slavishly recreate past glories.

And still my Old Things are silent, and Gatsby echoes around my head. I wander, and I draw. I beat on, to a small village church.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Alfrick, Worcestershire

St Mary Magdalene, Alfrick

It’s old, a muddle of mismatched masonry. The porch leans, the roof curves and the deep-sunk windows peer from behind choking coniferous fronds. Its original form is lost in countless rebuilds, its style a collision of architectural trends. I don’t agree with much of what’s said within it, but I’m fond of it. It makes no sense in isolation; it is part of a network, sharing resources and visions. In its ideal form, it is a place of sanctuary, welcome and tolerance. It’s not a bad analogy for a country.

Every step you take through the churchyard draws you deeper; your tread taps the resting places of all those who passed before and lie there still. The ground itself bulges skyward with the sheer volume of burials. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. You cannot escape it. So, embrace it; history has much wise counsel to offer.

There are cyclical patterns at play. We are caught in an eddy, disturbing dormant silts of self-interest, and snagging on the rotten branches of those who promise a free pass to a better life back upstream. No such promised land exists, nor has ever done so. 

Above all, be critical. History is not whatever you make of it. Not all histories are equal. Over the next few years, many will invoke histories to warn or promise. To beat on through the mire will require effort and struggle, and not merely the passing of time. The course of human history does not run smooth and straight.

The axe in the water

Few artefacts are as universally appealing as a pristine polished stone axe. A Neolithic extravagance, their neat forms litter the sacred spaces of the final phase of the Stone Age in Europe.

But, 5000 years after its deposition, we pick up the story of one recent discovery not in the splendid setting of a monumental tomb, but in a damp field on the edge of a village on the edge of suburban sprawl, the hum of the M5 ever-present.

It was discovered in a routine exercise, a few trenches to test some ambiguous geophysical survey results: in archaeological jargon, an ‘evaluation’. Come rain or shine, on any given day dozens of these trenches will be dug across the country, to inform planning decisions, building designs or road layouts.

On a cold October afternoon, the excavator bucket skimmed another slice of topsoil from the stubble field, and the watching archaeologist scuffed at a smooth surface exposed in the loose earth. Curiosity turned to delight as the dirt slipped easily from the edge of a flint axe.

Neolithic polished flint axe

Neolithic polished flint axe

Flint is a mercurial material. Indomitably durable and sharper than a razor, this toughest of materials forms within the softest of rocks: the chalk beds that are the remnant of ancient tropical seas. It cleaves along neat and predictable planes, but the hard crests and ridges that render flint so desirable for toolmaking make it the very devil to grind and polish.

But ground and polished this axe was, and the investment in time would have been considerable: knappers tell me that experimental replicas can take up to 150 hours of graft. The grooves in stone polissoirs found in or around Neolithic settlements are testament to that labour – sandstone, sarsen, quartzite or even granite, worn smooth and grooved from years of cumulative effort.

All for the production of axes that in many cases never bit, never chopped, and were seemingly never even hafted. Our axe is made from a honey-coloured flint, the polish highlighting the flaws and mottled colouration like a fine marble tabletop. It probably originated around 100 miles to the south of its resting place, but other examples of the era travelled the length and breadth of the continent.

Which brings us back to the damp field by the M5. Sometimes axes seem to have been deliberately broken prior to deposition. Ours is complete, and it is extraordinary that in the passing years it has avoided the blows of the plough, a common cause of damage. But there is little to suggest the presence of other Neolithic activity. The field yields scattered traces of Iron Age and Roman settlement, heavily scoured by medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture, but nothing contemporary with the axe remains.

So how did our axe end up here? The clue is in the heavy, sticky soil and the adjacent pools and brook. This is likely to have been a watery, marginal place in the Neolithic. From Scandinavia to Ireland, the Netherlands to western Britain, extraordinary and beautiful axes were thrown into bogs, rivers and lakes.

Why? With their mists and mysteries, bodies of water are otherworldly places, even today. Besides the vital role and life-giving qualities of water, we think these places had significance as gateways to a world beneath our realm, and points of contact between the two. 5000 years ago, Neolithic Europeans shared not only trade networks, but aspects of spiritual belief.

And perhaps, in some ways, those beliefs aren’t so very far removed from our own. Ever thrown a coin into a wishing well or fountain?

Duck stamps and Goose steps

Early on Friday morning, I woke to an agonising feeling that part of my identity had been swept away, emphatically rejected by over 17 million of my compatriots. Over the garden wall, our overseas neighbours wept into morning cigarettes. Dazed, sick with worry, I walked to work, past the jubilant strains of a group of construction workers whistling The Great Escape.

On my desk, waiting to be photographed, was a small bag of pottery from a site in Gloucestershire, occupied around 2500 years ago, in the midst of the European Iron Age. One piece bears a beautiful example of a duck-stamp, a decorative motif resembling swimming ducks. It’s an example of a tradition of waterfowl depictions on ceramics originating in the Aegean and spreading via Italy to the South and West of England, where it is commonly found on pottery from Cornwall and the Severn valley.

Middle Iron Age 'duck stamp' Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

Middle Iron Age ‘duck stamp’ Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

I was struggling to focus. After all, what do pots matter, in the grand scheme of things? The economy was tanking, and I was staring at a row of swimming ducks. There is an argument that it is not for archaeologists to embroil themselves in current affairs: that the role of the public intellectual should be to present facts, not deliver arguments, to inform debates rather than to shape them. Any sympathy for this view on my part has long-since disappeared in a welter of sinuous half-truths peddled by all sides on the issue of Europe. Besides, working in an austerity-susceptible public body, my post chiefly funded by the freefalling construction industry and small public research and education grants, my employment prospects are bleak. So I’d best make hay while the clouds gather.

The lessons of history are as tangled and complex as the national and cultural identities they have shaped, and the one thing all can agree on is that no-one knows what Brexit holds in store for us. Why, then, should you listen to what I have to say? Haven’t the British people, in the words of Michael Gove, had enough of experts? The climate of anti-intellectualism is one of the most pernicious aspects of the Brexit affair. The Leave campaign scoffed at experts. The Remain campaign listed reams of them, numbers drowning out personalities, and repeated their message ad infinitum in the manner of a jaded sports commentator. Repeat after me: 90% of economists agree

Personally, I’m wary of the term ‘expert’. I tend to find that those quick to define themselves as such turn out to be nothing of the sort. But specialist knowledge is hard-earned, and it matters. And the more complex the issue, the less consensus there’s likely to be. Judge all you like, but don’t ignore expertise, and don’t believe that all opinions are equally informative. I hope I know a good bridge if I see one, but you’d be a fool to trust me to tell you how to build one.

So what of the historical precedent? There are no easy answers. Gerda Lerner put it well:

“What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way.” Gerda Lerner

She knew. An Austrian Jew, born in 1920, her formative years were spent in a febrile atmosphere of nationalist sentiment and antisemitism. A teenage anti-Nazi activist, her father’s attempt to send her to safety in England backfired when she was lodged with supporters of Moseley’s blackshirts. Following Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, she was arrested and imprisoned. But she understood that nothing is ever repeated.

I’ve seen many invocations of Godwin’s Law over the last few days. . From the dangers of referendums and warnings of allegiance to country over society, to a sickening wave of hate crime, it seems that all roads lead to Hitler. But accusations of fascism are casually made, and easily refuted. The very definition of the term is so disputed that its meaning is obscured. And there are key elements of the 21st century political landscape that make the goose-stepping authoritarian dictatorships of the mid-20th century all but unthinkable. Key elements such as the legislative and economic union of fractious, warring European powers in the ashes of postwar Europe. The union we’ve just voted to leave.

So, what can we draw from our two lines of comparison, the duck stamp and the goose-step?

There are ugly sentiments afoot, bubbling up through the cracks in our society, drawn out by a vote perceived as a confirmation of legitimacy. And those who have stoked them, through neglect or incitement alike, must counter the narrative of conflict and division. If your vote fans a flame, you cannot walk away from the bonfire. If you warned of the dangers of playing with fire, you cannot throw up your hands in passive despair.

The rise of such sentiments does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs against a backdrop of an internalised vision, a climate in which a much-needed overhaul of the teaching of history in schools became a uncritical exercise in navel-gazing, drawing protest from government supporters and detractors alike. A climate that emphasises nebulous ‘British Values‘ – not human values, not common values, but British values. Repeat it often enough and we start to believe that our values are exceptional, different, better. There’s a wonderful document, drafted by British lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe, that sets out exactly what those British values were seen to be, at the end of a war in which Britain fought with moral conviction in the name of European unity: it’s called the European Convention on Human Rights.

Leave voters, by now, will doubtless be aware that immigration will not fall steeply, that there will be no windfall bonanza in public spending, and that if we’re to have the faintest hope of clinging on to what remains of our economy we’ll need to accept the vast majority of EU regulation that we’ve just voted to ditch. Remain voters are coming to terms with the fact that, legally binding or not, a referendum re-run or parliamentary veto isn’t likely. I do not believe we will not end up dictated to by serried ranks of goose-stepping blackshirts, but something equally dangerous is lurking.

Leave voters were promised pride, control and a brighter future. The turmoil currently engulfing Westminster, and the reluctance of any of the Leave campaign’s most ardent campaigners to seize the nettle or present a coherent plan, risks leaving a dangerous vacuum. If delivery of the promise is delayed, watered down, or abandoned altogether, a sizeable proportion of those 17 million, whose vote was an emphatic rejection of the status quo, will feel betrayed.

There is no more dangerous popular feeling than betrayal. The lever that gave a foothold to the most infamous of all 20th century dictatorships was the festering sore of Dolchstoßlegende: the pernicious ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth of a hearty German army betrayed at home by a self-serving political elite, a heady fictional cocktail of Jews, Marxists and liberal politicians. That wound was ruthlessly exploited by the ascendant right, and helps to explain how decent people, in difficult times, can be drawn into a cycle of increasing division and internal conflict. Nigel Farage has already expressed concern over ‘backsliding’ on immigration issues. If concern turns to anger and a feeling of betrayal, we risk a fragmentation that no Winnie-the-Pooh meme can fix.

So, what of those duck-stamps? What lessons can we possibly learn from a thumbnail -sized scrap of 2500 year old pot? Well, I pin my hopes on that row of swimming ducks. Those ducks are a marker of European identity that stretches from the late Bronze Age Aegean to a muddy Iron Age field in Gloucestershire. It is unusual to see any figurative decoration on pottery from prehistoric Britain; indeed, some of the ‘ducks’ are pretty abstract. I’m not suggesting the potters consciously paid homage to some ‘Golden Age’ Aegean ideal in an act of European solidarity, or that their humble stamps were an attempt to copy the extraordinary bird-vases of Greece and Cyprus. But they did come into contact with a design which resonated with them. Quite what that resonance was is hard to unpick: was it aesthetic, symbolic, religious? Whatever it meant, it meant something: duck pots are a thing – a prehistoric meme, if you must. And 2500 years ago, it’s a thread that binds the Iron Age people of the Severn Valley to the south Cornish coast, to Italy and to the Aegean – from east to west across a continent.

As one part of the western edge of Europe seeks to detach itself, reports are coming in, as I write, that the eastern edge of the continent –  the gateway to Europe – has erupted into carnage. We are, inextricably, a part of Europe, geographically and historically. We share in its triumphs and tragedies. We have never existed in isolation. Let us not seek to do so now.

Perspective

I am European. Right now, in the murky depths of a campaign that has spilled into violence, I feel dislocated from my own country, a place I love and cherish through an increasing fog of worry and anger. But more than ever, I feel European.

I am an archaeologist. I spend my life delving into the dark, clouded corners of our human story. I tease the mud from the pots and bones, I draw the ink from the archives. I set them in order. I build an understanding, a narrative. I help to weave many histories. And always, I seek to put the present in perspective.

The events of Thursday were a hammer-blow to my faith in humankind. And so, seeking answers, I turn to the man who taught me that moral optimism is a position worth defending: Michel-Rolph Trouillot. A refugee fleeing Duvalier’s Haiti, a New York taxi driver, an anthropologist, historian, and cultural dynamo among the Haitian diaspora, he published a history of the Haitian revolution in Creole, the first ever non-fiction book in that language. He knew tyranny. And better than any commentator before or since, he unpicked the dangerous seam between past and history, control and silence, authenticity and manipulation.

“As various crises of our times impinge upon identities thought to be long-established or silent, we move closer to the era when professional historians will have to position themselves more clearly within the present, lest politicians, magnates, or ethnic leaders alone write history for them” (Trouillot 1995: 152)

That era, it seems, has arrived. So here goes. I set out my stall.

We have been an island for just 8000 years. That is less than 1/5 of the span of modern human history in Europe. Our island story has its roots across the channel.

Bronze Age barrows, Kempsey Common, Worcestershire

Bronze Age barrows, Kempsey Common: a marker of European identity stretching back 4000 years

But that was then, and this is now, people say. We need to take our country back. Back, presumably, to some date at which a line in the sand can be drawn. A point of self-reliance? A point of pride? Some point of peak Britishness? It’s the ‘back’ that pinpoints the malaise. Replace it with ‘away’ and the argument shifts, but the headlines, the Question Time audience, the Facebook comments, bark “back“. I’m sure every Leave voter could pick a point in the past at which, for them, the pendulum swung, and it’s insulting to dismiss that sentiment as ‘nostalgia’.

But here’s the problem: the past is not history. No set of circumstances can be considered in isolation, no point in time can be captured as a freeze-frame. Context is all. And for context, we need the historical narrative. The debate is not short on narratives – let’s look to the invocation of the spirit of Winston Churchill by both Leave and Remain. Churchill expressed many views over the course of his life: these are moments, dots on a roadmap. But the historical context is stripped bare, as words are rendered into meme or soundbite, tawdrily shoehorned next to a heavy-jowled photograph to fit into a twitter preview pane.

Conflicting claims for the spirit of Churchill

Conflicting claims for the spirit of Churchill

“Historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-à-vis the present as it re-presents the past” (Trouillot 1995: 148)

In comparing European unification under the EU to Hitler’s expansionism, Boris Johnson fell woefully short of authenticity. “A historian’s point”, Chris Grayling defended, but Boris is no historian; his chief contribution to the pursuit of historical veracity was to get himself fired from The Times for falsification. His appropriation of history cannot go unchallenged. Less than 24 hours after Jo Cox’s death, against a incongruous backdrop of flashbulbs and parquet flooring, a German court convicted Reinhold Hanning of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at Auschwitz. It may be one of the last such trials. Four survivors bore witness. They knew tyranny.

“Any historical narrative is a bundle of silences.” (Trouillot 1995: 27)

Those four are the exception. The majority are represented by silence, by absence. The obsession with Churchill is a symptom of a malaise: of the assumption that historical narratives are to be found and read in the letters of great, white, old men. That’s one narrative. The rest are built, and fought, and contested in the spaces between the lines on a page, and are no less valuable for being hidden from sight.

The most powerful of the silences, in this debate, are the voices of those lost in conflict. Ours is the first century for millennia in which war between European polities has not ravaged the continent, and the European Union is the living embodiment of that commitment to one another. This is the context. Forget cheap memes, forget wildly speculative economics, forget paper-thin accusations of unelected bureaucrats: our history is the thread that binds us. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to adapt, to forget, to move on, but:

“our contemporary arrogance… overplays the uniqueness of our times… [and] may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born” ( Trouillot 2003:29).

I grew up in an atmosphere of European harmony. Everywhere I have been in Europe, I have been warmly welcomed with open arms. As a teenager and student, I spent wonderful times working in international summer schools, in which the hundreds of students I had the privilege to meet taught me, as Jo Cox firmly believed, that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. On 23rd June, I will walk into a Church Hall to cast my vote, enveloped by the weight of the memorials to those who trod the same path, left to fight Europe’s wars, and never returned. I will vote to Remain. And I will do so in the knowledge that:

“…deeds and words are not as distinguishable as we often presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” (Trouillot 1995: 153)

And I will do so in the hope that those whose motives are insular and divisive are outnumbered by those of us who take history into our hands in a spirit of optimism, cooperation and unity.