Dusk

 

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire. Pencil sketch, Rob Hedge

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire

A sketch to reflect a mood. Dusk falls over Porthgain harbour, a place as fine as any to watch the sun sink. It leaves a westerly smudge. The brick hoppers stand sentinel, but they are empty now. Holidaymakers and fishermen hunch up against the evening breeze, and watch the light fade, willing it to hold a little longer.

It’ll be a long, cold night.

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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?

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.