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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘archaeology’

A Miscellany

Or, photo post of the week by another name

I was asked the other day to provide a photo of The Children for a family project. Nothing difficult, nothing complicated, just a photo of the two of them, together, both looking at the camera, such as you might want to put on your wall. So I spent a while one evening going through all the photos I’ve taken since the start of 2020, and did I find a single photo that matches that description? Just one with both of them in it, looking at the camera, not pulling a daft face? Not one. Zero. Nil.

Oh well, I suppose that means that over the weekend I’ll have to try to actually get them to appear alongside each other in a reasonably-sensible-looking conventional portrait photo at some point. It did make me think, though, that actually over the past year I did take a few photos that were not too bad but are buried away in my archive. So here is a very random miscellany, from the last year or so.

Wayland's Smithy

Woods near Abergavenny

Exploring a riverbank

By Glastonbury Tor

Field of sheep, Stonehenge

On Troopers Hill

Or, photo post of the week

As it is such a lovely, sunny, bright and winter day, we went out for a walk, for a picnic on Troopers Hill. The lumpy, bumpy and steep slope overlooking the Avon, crowned with a rough and slightly wonky chimney. It was busyish, not crowded, but full of groups of families, walking dogs, eating picnics and flying kites. We sat and ate our food, tried to look at the view without squinting, and watched buzzards hovering and circling over the woods.

The chimney

The chimney was probably built in the late 18th century for copper smelting. Various copper and brass works lined the Avon and Frome in the 18th century; it was Bristol’s major industry, powering the city’s corner of the transatlantic slave trade. The chimney on Troopers Hill fumed to turn copper and zinc ore into brass kettles and other ware, for sale in West Africa in exchange for people, to be shipped as slaves to the Caribbean for the enrichment of Bristolian merchants. Quite a dark history for a local landmark. The brass works did not survive the end of the slave trade, as they no longer had a guaranteed profitable market for most of their products; by the mid-19th century, the copper smelters had closed. Troopers Hill was still covered by other heavy industries, though: coal mining, clay mining, stone quarrying, and a tar distillery. As the industries declined through the twentieth century, though, it slowly turned into a slightly wild and unruly green space. The chimney, though, was left looking over everything.

A view from a hill

The council have repaired the base of the chimney, where the flues would originally have entered it, and built a little passageway into it. Inside, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Chimney entrance

Inside the chimney

Books I Haven't Read (part eleven)

On myth, poetry, and all that

When I first moved down to South-West England, I was intrigued to note that one of the major local commercial property firms, their boards decorating every half-empty high street, was called Alder King. No doubt this is because at some point in the distant past Mr Alder and Mr King got together to form a business (their website is sadly unhelpful on the subject), but in my own private imagination I liked to think that their founder was deliberately trying to invoke a mythical archetype, implying that the cycle of closure, vacancy and opening on the High Street echoed the ancient cycle of death, sacrifice and rebirth, the brief but spiritually charged reign of the sacred king destroyed by the Great Goddess as described by James Frazer and popularised by one of the twentieth century’s best-known English-language poets. No doubt that poet, if he had lived to the 2010s and had seen Alder King’s advertising boards himself, would have thought the same. Rather, he would not just have thought “that’s an amusing coincidence of naming,” as I did: he would have thought it yet more evidence that all of his theories about mythology and prehistory were incontrovertibly, emotionally and poetically true, and that anyone who disagreed with him was probably a contemptible writer-of-prose or Apollonian poetaster with a degree from Cambridge. At least, I assume that’s what he would have thought. I’ve never managed to finish reading his book on the subject, and I’ve threatened to write a blog post about it more than once in the distant past. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is, as you potentially have already guessed from this introduction, The White Goddess by Robert Graves.

I have a strange relationship with Graves. I’ve been intrigued with him, puzzled by him, almost obsessed with him, since I was a teenager and my English teacher loaned me his own copy of Goodbye To All That, Graves’s infamous autobiography. He wrote it in a great rush to raise cash in the late 1920s after abandoning his final full-time salaried job, and it’s a fascinating mixture of anecdote and recollection dominated heavily by the one great horror at the heart of his life. He had the bad luck to be born into the English upper-middle-class in the mid-1890s: he left public school, and was about to join Oxford University, in the summer of 1914. He became an army officer without even having to try; whilst still a teenager he was a lieutenant, and by the time he would theoretically have been graduating, he had almost been declared dead and was no longer fit for front-line service. Writing your autobiography at the age of 32 might seem somewhat precocious, but the greatest part of Graves’s is purely about his life between the ages of 19 and 23. I hadn’t even realised, when reading the book, that I was reading the now-standard second edition. It was revised by Graves when some thirty years older to take out the more controversial parts: some passages that hugely upset his close friend Siegfried Sasson, and any references to his 1920s attempt at “feminist” polyamory. The original text is a lot harder to find these days, which is no doubt what Graves would have wanted.

I have a strange relationship with Graves, but I don’t think I could ever like him, and certainly I don’t think we would ever have got on if I should happen to somehow go back in time and meet him. He was a mass of contradictions and swirling neuroses. He always insisted he was a poet, but the majority of his income was from novels and biography, books that he himself always derided as “potboilers”. He had a great skill for making stories make narrative sense, though. His retelling of mythology in the Greek Myths has almost become a standard from a literary standpoint, but he picks and chooses sources and details indiscriminately according to his own subjective view of what feels “more mythological”, or in other words, what he feels best fits the story he wanted to tell. Similarly his best-known novel, I, Claudius, is no use at all as history precisely because its point is to fit a narratively-satisfying story on top of a patch of history which Graves felt needed a better explanation than evidence alone could provide. Above all that, he seems to have been a fairly horrible person: misanthropic, homophobic, racist, and with an irrational hatred of anyone with a degree from Cambridge.*

This post, though, is supposed to be a review of The White Goddess and why I’ve never read it all the way through, or, indeed, got more than a few chapters in. Its subtitle is A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth, and in it, Graves first gives a very narrow definition of poetry, before explaining why his interpretation of ancient Celtic sources proves that his definition of poetry is correct in an almost geometrically-perfect circular argument. In short: poetry is verse which inspires subconscious terror, fear, and makes your hair stand on end,** because its subject is always male devotion to the all-commanding White Goddess, the triple-goddess of birth, fecundity and death, the goddess who marries her suitor the Alder King for one glorious day before he is destroyed as a sacrifice to her.

All true poetry—true by Housman’s practical test—celebrates some incident or scene in this very ancient story (p20 of the fourth edition)

“Hang on a minute, Captain Graves,” I can almost hear you saying. “I mean that’s fine for you to say, but I’ve written some poetry and it wasn’t about that!”

In that case, clearly according to Graves’ rules, you’re not a poet and you weren’t writing Poetry. To you and me this might indeed sound like nothing more than highest-order gatekeeping, but Graves goes into great effort to explain that it’s true, much of what you might think is poetry just isn’t Poetry by the standards of Graves The Dedicated Poet. Indeed, according to his standards, the English have barely understand poetry at all.

The Anglo-Saxons had no sacrosanct master-poets, but only gleemen; and English poetic lore is borrowed at third hand… This explains why there is not the same instinctive reverence for the name of poet in the English countryside as there is in the remotest parts of Wales, Ireland and the Highlands. (p19)

So, Robert, you’re saying that the True Poets are those dashing chaps in flappy shirts like Byron and Shelley and so on, who were always saying they wanted to dedicate themselves to their muses?

This is not to identify the true poet with the Romantic poet. … The typical Romantic poet of the nineteenth century was physically degenerate, or ailing, addicted to drugs and melancholia, critically unbalanced and a true poet only in his fatalistic regard for the Goddess as the mistress who commanded his destiny. (p21)

In other words, the only true poets in the world are, really, Robert Graves and a handful of contemporaries he respected (Alun Lewis being one example he quotes approvingly). Others? Sorry, no, whatever you thought you were doing, you’re just not writing poetry by Graves’ standards. The problem I have with this is not just the way it immediately writes off huge swathes of literature, but that this is apparently done so in order to centre Graves, his neuroses and his relationships as the epitome of Poetry, the pinnacle of literature. Graves described himself as a feminist as far back as the 1920s, but his feminism was one in which in reality he was at the centre of things: in which he chose a woman, elevated her onto a holy pedestal, and jealously ensured she stayed there. An emotional masochist, he poured his creative energy into worshipping his chosen muse almost in the hope that she would make him suffer for it. In this sense, his explanation of what makes True Poetry is nothing more than a recapitualation of his personal relationships of the 1920s and 1930s, which he claims to be some sort of universal religious truth. Jealousy itself is elevated to being a vital emotion for the True Poet to have.

What evidence is there, in The White Goddess, that Graves’ inner demons really are the key to both True Poetry and to the ancient mystery religion he claims to be decoding? A dense and cryptic analysis of medieval Welsh poetry, specifically the poem Cad Goddeu, taking it like a set of crossword clues and reordering lines and stanzas in order to produce something that Graves thought made more sense than the original poem. Graves’s “poetic logic” here is much like his logic in writing I, Claudius, or his Greek Myths, or his novel about the life of Jesus: his rewrite of the poem makes a better story, because rewritten it supports his argument, and therefore his argument must be true, because the poem supports it. As a key to understanding Cad Goddeu it is not really anything other than speculation, and certainly not the self-evidently true reconstruction that Graves insists he has produced. To be fair, Cad Goddeu is a famously impenetrable poem and most interpretations of it are little more than speculation, but at least most of the people who attempt to understand it admit that they have no clue what it really consists of.

I said earlier that Graves’ life was governed and steered by the pure luck of being born where and when he was. Similarly, he wrote The White Goddess at just the right time for it to become highly influential: at precisely the time that a new religion was being created in Dorset. As Ronald Hutton has documented in The Triumph Of The Moon, Wicca arose from a seething mixture of British and Irish cultural influences from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and The White Goddess, coming at the very end of that period, was one of the most influential on later Wiccan development. Its goddess and its underlying Frazerian story are now widely adopted in modern Paganism, and I’m sure you can find pagans who not only worship Graves’ goddess themselves but believe the ancient Welsh did too. The book has stayed in print for many years, although I do wonder how many of the sold copies have been read all the way through.

So why haven’t I—as of the time of writing—been unable to complete it, despite several attempts? I suspect I’m just too well aware that its basic premise is wrong, or at least, fundamentally flawed. Graves seems to always have been greatly annoyed that academics in both literature and archaeology didn’t think much of it, and that any reviews that did come from academia were generally scathing. He showed it in quite a passive-aggressive way: not only did he write long letters of reply to magazines that gave it a bad review, but some are printed as an appendix to the modern Faber edition. Sadly, they largely show nothing more than his own arrogance and lack of understanding: his insistance that his own outdated knowledge of archaeology and anthropology was far more accurate than that of the professors criticising him. Given I received an introduction to Welsh myth and archaeology at university, I am well aware firstly that much of Graves’ understanding was wrong (even at the time it was written, and it has only grown more wrong since), and secondly that some of his statements make huge leaps in logic and present whole towers of assumption and supposition as if they were solid fact. The entirety of the text rests on sweeping syncretism, with claims such as that the Welsh mythological magician Gwydion is the same character as the Norse god Odin, or that Gwydion’s nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes is the same character as Hercules and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. The text resembles a grand conspiracy theory as any similarity between stories and people, however weak, is jumped upon as meaning an equivalence. I opened the book at random to find an example and found this passage, on the ancient Irish poem Song of Amergin:

Tethra [a name mentioned in the poem] was the king of the Undersea-land from which the People of the Sea were later supposed to have originated. He is perhaps a masculinisation of Tethys, the Pelasgian Sea-goddess, also known as Thetis […]. The Sidhe are now popularly regarded as fairies: but in early Irish poetry they appear as a real people. […] All had blue eyes, pales faces, and long curly yellow hair. […] They were, in fact, Picts (tattooed men), and all that can be learned about them corresponds with Xenophon’s observations […] on the primitive Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast. […] They occupied the territory assigned in early Greek legend to the matriarchal Amazons. The ‘blue eyes’ of the Sidhe I take to be blue interlocking rings tattooed around the eyes, for which the Thracians were known in Classical times. Their pallor was perhaps also artificial—white ‘war-paint’ of chalk or powdered gypsum, in honour of the White Goddess, such as we know, from a scene in Aristophanes’s Clouds where Socrates whitens Strepsiades, was used in Orphic rites of initiation.

There you are: the “real identity” of the mythological Sidhe is uncovered by picking apart random coincidental parallels with things Graves had picked up in his Classical-themed public school education. It’s more like a word association game than genuine historical research. Apologies for editing out the description of the Mosynoechians; it’s impossible to tell from Graves’ account whether there genuinely were coincidental similarities between them and the mythological Sidhe, or whether Graves is being Graves and jumping to conclusions based on the flimiest of matches.

Hopefully one day I will complete reading The White Goddess. The last time I picked it up, I was tempted to live-tweet every time I came to a passage that infuriated me, but soon realised what a thankless and hopeless task this would be after just the second page of the introduction contained the line that Judaism is “a Semitic [religion] grafted onto a Celtic stock”, which is closer to conspiracy-history than anything grounded in fact. I’m certainly not ready to read it just yet. Maybe, instead, I should write something better. Something that is full of open inspirational ideas, not closed and self-justifying ones.

* As someone whose degree is from one of the Ancient Scots Universities, I don’t really have a horse in this race; but I do wonder if he generally thought that any universities other than Oxford were beyond contempt, or if it was just Cambridge specifically.

** This isn’t me colloquialising. He specifically says: a verse is a poem if it makes your hair stand on end if you recite it silently whilst shaving. I can imagine that’s quite handy for doing those tricky bits around your chin; as a test, it’s attributed to A E Housman. I can’t really imagine Housman agreeing with the rest of Graves’ thesis.

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Evidence of ritual activity

Neu, es i fwyta pysgod a sglodion

Sunday: a trip out to Stanton Drew stone circles. They are a mysterious and imposing group, relatively little-investigated and therefore with little certainty about them. The Great Circle, second in size only to Avebury, appears to be the remains of a complex henge monument containing multiple concentric circles of wooden posts and an avenue down to the nearby river: rather like Woodhenge, if you know it. The precise date or sequencing, though, is very unclear; it is almost certainly at least four thousand years old, possibly five thousand or more, a range of timescales which in the modern day would easily encompass both a medieval cathedral and the latest office blocks with a huge amount of room to spare.

Pointing to Stanton Drew

We have no real way of knowing what sort of rituals were held here, just that some sort of ritual presumably was, and that over time it will have changed radically. To the last prehistoric people to carry out a religious act here, it might have said to have been immeasurably old, here before the start of the universe; or it might have said to have been built just beyond the touch of living memory, in their fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ time. What we do know is that in reality it may well have been in continuous use for fifty generations or more. In that time there may have been considerable change in language, belief and ritual, or it may have been relatively static. Modern reconstructions of the site, which you can see on the English Heritage website, show an almost-alien forest of posts, completely foreign when compared to any modern-day religious rituals or structures.

Of course, people still carry out religious rituals at Stanton Drew today. They have no real relationship with the religion the site was originally built for, but they do have a deep spiritual and emotional connection to the site itself, as we today see it: to the land, the landscape, and the goddesses and gods that the people of today call upon.

Walking around and exploring the site, we looped around two-thirds of the Great Circle and wandered over to the North-East Circle, much smaller and on a much more human scale. It, too, had its avenue down to the river, and may have had some sort of four-post structure in its centre. Today, at its centre, we found a dead crow. Wrapped in black silk and placed there carefully face-down.

Crow in the circle

We had no way to tell if it had been sacrificed deliberately, or had died a natural death. We had no way to tell who had placed it there, or why, other than that they clearly cared, that it clearly meant something, to place it directly in the centre of the smallest circle, its head facing north. “Insects will eat it and turn it into a skeleton,” said The Child Who Likes Animals, and, indeed, we could see small flies on its soft feathers already getting to work and returning it to the soil. We stood back respectfully and let it go on its way, just as the brambles still ripening in the hedge at the corner of the field will in a few weeks time wither up probably still on the plant.

Stone circle brambles

And then, as it was barely even lunchtime, we headed off to the fish and chip restaurant at Chew Valley Lake to dine in style from cardboard boxes and with wooden forks.

Fish and chips

Hurrah, even if the peas are a bit too fancy to be proper mushy peas.

Solidity

In which FP becomes a rather paranoid architectural historian

In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.

When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.

“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.

Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.

* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.

Calling Dr Jones (part four)

In which we finally finish talking about Tudor Parfitt and the Ark of the Covenant

Series of posts, on here, always seem to take me longer to write than I had planned. It’s now, ooh, at least six weeks since I wrote the first post in this series, so I really should tidy it up and finish it off. For people who aren’t regular readers: some time ago, a Jewish Studies professor called Tudor Parfitt made a documentary about the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical artefact which starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in reality has been missing for well over 2 millennia. Professor Parfitt’s theory is that, although the original ark is probably long destroyed, it passed into east Africa, into the possession of a Jewish tribe there called the Lemba, and that its replacement is a war drum now sitting in storage in an Harare museum. Feel free to go back and read what I’ve written so far, if you’re a new reader.

All that is so well and good. It may well, indeed, be true, so far as I’m concerned. However, that’s not the end of the theory. Its logic goes as follows: the ark’s descendant is a war drum; therefore, the original ark must have been a drum too. Even though all the evidence for its existance states that it wasn’t a drum, a drum it is now, so a drum it must have been. In part three, I discussed how, in some ways, this theory is typical of what I suppose you could call “primitive archaeology”: the traditional diffusionist archaeology that held sway until the 1960s. Change was seen as a hard thing to do, and the possibility of cultural change tended to get swept under the carpet.

Change happens, though, in the real world: we can see it every day. It’s hard to see it occurring in the archaeological record, though; and very hard to determine its cause. Archaeological change and historical change are very different beasts.

There is one case in the British archaeological record where archaeology and history match up, and together provide evidence for inward migration. It’s in a small area of East Yorkshire, and archaeologically it’s known as the Arras Culture. It’s distinctive because of its chariot burials, unique in Britain. The nearest parallels are with similar cemetaries in the Ile-de-France region and the surrounding area.* Some of the riding gear buried with the chariots – the bits, for example – also resemble continental riding gear more than British.**

Fast forward to the end of the Iron Age; and the Romans arrive in the area. They have historians with them, and said historians write down the names of the various British tribes that the Romans encounter. The tribe that lives in East Yorkshire? They’re called the Parisii. They’re not the only tribe of that name, though. The Romans had discovered Parisii before, in the Ile-de-France, where they even had a city named after them.*** On the face of it, then, an obvious link. One of the few clear examples of cultural change in the British archaeological record which has matching historical evidence for a migration.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Yorkshire Parisii and the French Parisii both buried people in chariots, and they used similar riding gear. But if you put a Yorkshire horse bit next to a French horse bit then, although the Yorkshire one looks suspiciously Continental in its general design, it’s still also clearly separate from the French one. Its detail design work will still be distinctively British. Overall, the Arras Culture is something of a hybrid of British and Continental Iron Age styles.

How does this fit in with Tudor Parfitt’s Ark of the Covenant theories? Well, archaeologists have tried to explain the Arras Culture in various ways other than straightforward migration. For example, a British tribe might have been trying to adopt Continental styles and fashions.**** Or, it might reflect a limited migration: a small number of leaders move, bringing their technology with them; but the craftsmen and engineers doing the actual work are British and use the same styles as their ancestors did. And, curiously, this is exactly what the Lemba say happened to them. A small number of priests came down from the north, bringing with them Jewish traditions, laws, and their holy war drum.

It’s entirely possible that this happened. There aren’t many other ways to explain the Lemba’s existence, after all. However, we do know that the priests from the north didn’t bring all the Jewish traditions with them. The Hebrew language, for one thing: the Lemba speak a Bantu language. Just like in Yorkshire, the new leaders brought with them the outline of a culture but not the detail. They brought with them an idea of the Ark, if not the Ark itself, as a holy object through which God could speak and smite, to be carried into battle in front of the tribe. But the concept of the Ark as a reliquary didn’t survive. In the Lemba culture, it became a drum, the literal and thunderous voice of God.

Professor Parfitt is forced to admit that the Harare drum is definitely not the Biblical Ark, because, being wood, it’s straightforward to date. He wants to stick with the idea, though, that the Harare drum is as close to the real Ark as we can get now. It may well be the closest surviving object to the Ark we have, yes. But that doesn’t mean that the Ark was always a drum. Cultural change happens, details of culture get left behind, and things change and adapt. The Lemba’s religion isn’t Judaism as the rest of the world practises it: it is Judaism filtered and absorbed through a small group of priests and the African tribe they evangelised. There’s no reason why we should follow their lead and say that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, when the rest of Judaism***** says it was a reliquary. Tudor Parfitt’s theory may be partly right, but it is also very flawed, because of his inability to consider how the Lemba culture developed, and how cultures can adapt and change.

* Confusingly, the “Arras Culture” name is nothing to do with France at all; it refers to a place in Yorkshire.

** Specifically: the number of joints in the bit mouthpiece.

*** It’s still there today, apparently.

**** Even today, I can see why, if you came from Hull you might want to imagine you were from Paris instead.

***** Not to mention Christianity, and Islam.

Calling Dr Jones (part three)

In which we return to Tudor Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant, and consider how archaeology has changed

About time I finished off writing about SOAS Modern Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, and his rather dodgy theory, shown on TV in his documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, that the Biblical Ark Of The Covenant was not the ark that is biblically described, but was in fact a drum; that it was taken to Africa, survived in the possession of a Jewish tribe there, and that its final version is now in storage in an Harare museum. Which might make more sense if you read the previous posts I’ve written about it: part one, and part two.

Previously we’ve discussed the theory itself, and its basic flaw: in order for it to be true, every piece of evidence for the original ark’s existence has to mis-describe it in a fundamental way. Now, I want to discuss why Professor Parfitt might have come up with his rather misguided theory. He has trouble with a concept which archaeology itself had trouble with, in general, for many many years. The Parfitt theory states that there is a medieval African war drum which was constructed to replace an earlier Ark of the Covenant, so those earlier Arks, all the way back to the Mosaic period, must have been drums also. This is because Parfitt is unwilling to consider any degree of cultural change.

Cultural change is, as I said, a concept which archaeology has always had trouble with. In traditional archaeology, it was one of several concepts which was not so much discarded as never considered. Change in material cultures was almost always explained by means of migration, often mass-migration: wave on wave of homogeneous and distinct peoples moving about the map, rather like a game of Risk, never themselves changing. There are probably a few reasons for this. For a start, archaeology as a discipline arose after the formulation of the classic “nation state”, and during the period that the Western countries were dividing up the third world with lines across the map in just the same way that archaeologists then divided up prehistoric maps. For another thing, there was a rather patronising attitude that invention was rather too hard for “prehistoric barbarians” to do. If your stereotypical woad-covered Ancient Briton wasn’t up to inventing new stuff, then any archaeological change must come from outside. Small changes in style could be explained by trade; large changes by immigration.* This theory was known as “diffusion”, and was finally put to bed in the late 60s and early 70s.**

Cultural change took a long time to accept, partly because it complicates things. It’s not, itself, an easy explanation, compared to diffusion and migration. Moreover, archaeological theories of change were first adopted by “processual archaeologists”, who explained change in terms of biological and ecological analogies like the spread of muskrat populations. They were followed up by “post-processualists”, the postmodernists of the archaeological world, who liked to use words like “hermeneutics“. They introduced some important concepts into archaeological interpretation, but not in a very accessible way. Nevertheless, whilst processualists had given archaeologists tools and techniques for analysing technological change, the post-processualists’ concepts were the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change. I am, of course, wildly overgeneralising in everything I say here.

Looking at historical evidence, though, it’s hard to see why the supposed correlation between migration and cultural change was accepted for so long. Take British history, for example. In the first millennium AD there were three major migrations that we know about from British history prior to the arrival of the “Vikings”. The first, the Roman invasion, probably involved the fewest people of the three, but is extremely well-represented in both history and archaeology. The second, the invasion of the English-to-be, is represented in archaeology quite well, but there is huge debate as to the actual number of people involved. Particularly, genetic research has shown that the old 19th-century theory, that the Angles and Saxons completely replaced the previous Welsh-speaking inhabitants, is almost certainly wrong. The language changed, the rulers changed, but most of the people probably did not. The third, the migration of the Scots from Ireland into western Scotland, is well-known from history; it changed the language of western and highland Scotland, and the government of the whole country,*** but is impossible to find in the archaeological record. There are plenty of buildings and sites from the period in Scottish archaeology, but none of them give any indication that the culture of western Scotland was changing in the way that history tells us it did.

I had intended that this was going to be the final post about Tudor Parfitt’s Ark theory; but this post is growing to be rather larger than I’d thought it would end up. Additionally, my dinner’s ready. The final final part of these posts will talk more about cultural change, and show how it could, potentially, correct Professor Parfitt’s ideas.

The fourth and final part of this post follows, here »

* Moreover, changes in metalwork were seen as indicating trade or war, because metalwork must have been a man’s job, distributed either by traders (men) or raiding warriors (also men). Changes in pottery were seen as indicating mass migration, because pottery must have been “domestic”, made near the home, used by women, and so must have indicated homes, families, and therefore population movement. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a history of archaeology, largely because theories like that are so easy to take the piss out of.

** The final big nail in the coffin of diffusionism was when Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe. However, it’s a shame that people didn’t just look at it before that and go “actually, this is a stupid idea”.

*** and gave it its name, of course.

Days Out

In which we describe Portishead

Another lazy weekend this weekend. Wanting to get out of the house, though, we took a trip to Portishead.

It’s a strange town. A strangely-shaped town. Like Clevedon, it’s a seaside town that doesn’t look towards the sea. The harbour is lined tightly with recently-built classically-themed terraces, designed to look like Totterdown or Clifton, but packed in much more densely. Further south is a muddy bay, a headland looking across to Newport; and the remains of an old fortress, little more than lines of concrete in the clifftop grass. There is also, signs said, some Iron Age defensive works; but they are well-hidden by trees and my rusty eye couldn’t make them out.

Clevedon had a pier and an interesting bookshop; Portishead didn’t seem to have any similar attractions. We tried to find the lighthouse marked on our map, before going home, blown back by the wind off the sea.

Calling Dr Jones (part two)

In which we discuss lost relics once more

Time to return to Tudor Parfitt‘s documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, which I started to discuss last week. A brief recap: Prof. Parfitt has discovered, in a museum in Harare, a 14th-century southern African war drum whose descent can, arguably, be traced back to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, as described in Raiders Of The Lost Ark Exodus:

“Have them make a chest of acacia-wood: two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

If you remember the film: the prop-makers on Raiders Of The Lost Ark followed this description pretty much spot-on. Tudor Parfitt, though, has another theory. As the Ark’s descendant is a drum, the original Ark must have been a drum also.

There are, though, a couple of glaring problems with this. Apart from one verse in the Quran which is pretty consistent, the evidence we have for the Ark’s original existence comes from the Bible; from the Old Testament and related books. In all those Biblical references, it’s described in the same way, as a chest. That’s very clear. For Professor Parfitt’s theory to be correct, then we have to assume that although the ark existed according to our sources, all those sources are wrong about what it essentially was. It’s like saying “I believe the Battle of Agincourt happened just like it says in the chronicles – only it wasn’t a battle. And it was somewhere else.”

Furthermore, it makes good archaeological sense that the chest the Israelites built was indeed a chest. If you follow the description of the Ark in the Bible, it’s a chest, about a metre long, designed to be carried on poles. According to the Bible, it was built just after the Israelites had left their Egyptian bondage; and the Egyptians used very similar chests in their own religious rites. They had portable shrines, chests borne on poles just like the Ark, used to carry iconic statues in religious procession – just as the Ark was carried in procession in front of the Israelites. Indeed, Parfitt’s documentary covered all this, and pointed out that the description of the Ark quoted above is pretty close to a description of an Egyptian portable shrine. He didn’t believe in it, though, because it’s a very ornate object to be built by people wandering about in the desert.

In Deuteronomy there’s a different description of the building of the Ark:

At that time YHWH said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.

None of the ornate decoration, just a wooden box. A box, note. This passage has led some people to believe that there might have been two arks, an ornate one in the Temple and a practical one for use in war; but equally, it could be that the Israelites built a simple chest first and decorated it later.* In any case, it’s still most definitely a box, not a drum.

In order to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was a war-drum, as Tudor Parfitt thinks, you have to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant didn’t exist at all; and that the Israelites had some other holy object which they carried in front of them, some holy object for which there is no evidence at all. On the other hand, if you’re willing to embrace a more sophisticated model of archaeology and culture than Professor Parfitt apparently is, it’s quite possible that there is a 14th-century AD African war drum which is, in some way, a descendant of a 14th-century BCE** Israelite reliquary. A lot can change in 2,800 years, after all. In the final part of these posts, we’ll talk about cultural change, the archaeology of Yorkshire, and why a holy chest might well become a holy drum over time.

Part Three of this post follows, here, even though I haven’t got around to the Yorkshire bit yet »

* Or, this could be a brief summary of the previous chapter which didn’t need to delve into the full specification.

** That date’s based on Moses’ traditional Jewish birth date, in 1391 BCE