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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; and nevertheless their concepts were still the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change.****

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.***** 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.

** after Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe.

*** I’m not exaggerating: when I was a student, we were given, as a prime example of processual archaeology, a paper that compared artefact distributions to the spread of muskrats in, um, Canada I think.

**** the processualists, on the other hand, were pretty hot on technological change. I am, of course, extremely over-generalising on all this.

***** at least before the Danes and Norse arrived, towards the end of the millennium.

****** and gave it its name, of course.

******* and I’m clearly running out of footnotes.

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Renovation

In which we’re not looking forward to a new kitchen


Next week is going to be hell. I’m dreading it. Our kitchen – which passed its 25th birthday last winter – is being ripped out, torn up, and being replaced by something nice, new and shiny. The only problem: it’s going to take all week. The house is already in uproar, and I have no idea how we’re going to eat. Lots of dinners out next week, I think.

It’s a bit of a milestone, doing all this. I can only very faintly remember the kitchen we had before, at the old house. It had a sliding door from the dining area. Erm, that’s it. I’ve lived with the current brown cupboards, brown tiles, freezing cold green tiled floor for so long, it’s going to feel very strange living in something different. This morning, I took photos from the kitchen doorway. I’ve never taken many photos of the inside of the house, itself,* so when things do change I rarely have a proper record of them. If you want to see what our house looked like over the years, you have to look in the backgrounds and the corners. So, I took photos from the kitchen doorway, and I’m going to keep taking them next week as the old kitchen is pulled apart and the new one is built.

The mother didn’t get the point. “I don’t want you taking pictures of it and showing everybody when it’s a mess,” she said. “Wait until the new one is finished, then you can take pictures of it.” I will do. But I want pictures of it how it is now, too, because I don’t want to remember something that’s new and novel. I want to remember something that’s old, faded, and comfortable.

* except for, once, the big green Victorian mirrored ball, round, not tiled, that hangs in a corner of the dining room.

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An anniversary of nothing

In which FP remembers how things have changed


It’s rare that you can say: a year ago today, I was doing X; with any degree of accuracy. Well, I don’t know about you. It’s rare for me to be able to say that.

A year ago today, I drove up the A1, then across to Penrith, and up to Glasgow, and checked into a hotel. I blogged about it here, after a fashion, and posted some photographs too. It led to … what? Not much, on the face of it. Nothing good that lasted for very long. Plenty of disagreement and argument. But I learned things, about people, and about how people sometimes behave.

After last October, it was a long time before I had to drive up the A1 again. But now, when I do, I’m in a good mood. Despite the roadworks in the Wetherby Gap, or the traffic at the Hook Moor interchange, I’m in a mood of cheerful excitement. A year, now, seems like a very very long time.

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The Cycle

In which we sit back and don’t let other people stop us enjoying life


It’s dark outside. It’s not night, but rain-gloomy and grey. It feels dark. Winter is on its way. Soon, it will be dark.

Lots of things have come to an end in the past year; but lots more have begun. The year may be coming to a close, but the next one will be just around the corner. So much has changed for me in the past 12 months, that for the first time in a while I’m thinking like an optimist. I’m a changed person. I might not still be sure who I am, what I’m looking for, and where I’m going, but I’ve taken several steps along the path. I’ve made mistakes, but I don’t regret making any of them.

I can’t say where I would be if I hadn’t done X, or Y, or Z. You never know how things would have changed if you’d taken a different path one morning. Driving to work today, I saw a car parked on a sharp bend, and slowed down. Its driver was stood by on the phone, and an unconscious biker was laid by the side of the road. The ambulance was still on its way. Maybe, if I’d left home five minutes earlier, it would have been my crash.

This isn’t meant to be a melancholic post, by the way. I don’t know what’s coming round the next corner, and I’m not sure I want to. I’m just going to see what happens, and make decisions as I get to them. I don’t have a strategy; I don’t have a plan. I’m probably going to make more mistakes at some point, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m not going to stop anyone else making mistakes either, because they deserve to learn things too.

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YAEOTWP

In which it is Friday


Or, Yet Another End-Of-The-Week Post.

End of a rather strange week, in fact. Another emotional rollercoaster of a week, as regular readers will have gathered.

I’ve always felt that things you anticipate never happen quite as you expect. And, indeed, this week has proved that to be true. The world turns, and things change. Things never stop changing, and the emotional rollercoaster has to be ridden.

Yes, I’m going all emo. Shoot me.

Anyway, right now I’m going to go and get dressed up, head off in the car towards Wooldale, and make sure I have a damn good night out. Because, to be honest, I think I deserve it. See you next week.

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Of, or pertaining to, priests

In which people are happy


It’s the end of the week again. It’s hot, and sunny, and I’ve just been zooming up and down the motorway to Another Part Of The Forest and back. Windows wound down, music on, it really does leave me feeling cheerful.*

Things seem to be changing all around me. I’ve always taken a vicarious interest in seeing other people become magically happy. There are a handful of people I know, and several people I don’t know whose blogs I read, whose lives and relationships are changing in wonderful ways. Some of them are completely positive they’re doing the right thing, some of them less so, but in general they do seem to be brimming with happiness.**

I arrived back at the office just now, planning this post, to sit down and write it during my lunch break. As soon as I sat back at my desk, one of the branch managers came through to say hello. “I’m leaving,” he said.

“Back off to your office?” I knew he’d been over at head office this morning.

“No, completely. I handed my notice in last night, and I’m leaving now.”

Which, really, fitted in with everything I’ve been thinking about. People all around me are all having their lives changed.

Another beautiful thing I’ve seen: driving home from York at about midnight Wednesday night, past the steelworks. Something was going on there, because the whole place was lit up in an orange flaming glow. Industrial beauty, almost as inspiring as seeing a happy person.

* but I try not to think about all those carbon emissions.

** I know blogs aren’t real life, of course. People withhold things. And if you’re worried I’m talking about you: I might be, but I’m not trying to make a comment about your own specific situation. This is about everyone in general.

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