A Roman Brick in the New World

There are many things I love about this article (via @lornarichardson I think but I can’t find the tweet now) about A ROMAN BRICK TURNING UP IN FORT VANCOUVER OMG!

I’m not being sarky here with my capitals, I’m genuinely thrilled. Maybe this is a familiar phenomenon and other people are totally over Roman bricks turning up in North America, maybe they are constantly offloading them in yard sales or accidentally baking them into cookies and whatever else. But it’s a new one on me. It probably came over as ballast in a Hudson Bay Company ship, apparently. I just love things like that. I was in the Roman Baths Museum recently and they had a great picture of a local church with a couple of dodgy-looking “saints'” statues built into the fabric – reused Roman worthies, in fact. No sense wasting them.

Another thing I love about the article is that before they explain WHY THE ROMAN BRICK TURNED UP IN FORT VANCOUVER, they explain that a kitteh has left some pawprints on it. Cos a 2,000 year old brick turning up in Fort Vancouver is fine and dandy, but it’s not a kitteh, is it. And this is the internet, and there are standards.

The other thing I love, which suggests that everybody else is, actually, as thrilled about this as I am, is that the brick is now being stored in a special climate-controlled room and you have to make an appointment to see it. BECAUSE IT’S A ROMAN BRICK IN NORTH AMERICA FGS!

Gove and All That

I tore Michael Gove a new one about his shocking “proper narrative of history” before the election, so I approached the end product of his feverish patriotic vision (opens as a pdf) with due dread. I emerged with a few specific objections and bafflements that I still might write about, but for now, the headlines.

The bad news

This is still, in its emphasis and viewpoint, an insular account of Britain – no, England. It is insular in the “sceptr’d isle” sense, and Shakespeare, puzzlingly though people quote him in these  contexts, wasn’t a historian. Is this educationally backward? Actually, it needn’t be. There is a case to be made for the teaching of a single state’s chronological history; it gives you a sense of broad sweep, of long-term change, of themes that abide and those that drop away. If it’s taught well, that is. If it’s taught as Gove’s syllabus encourages, it runs the risk of being on an intellectual level with philately – monarchs and facts collected and pressed into a pre-printed album whose only justification for being so ordered is tautological; because it’s there. Prof Sir Richard Evans strikes the single most telling point against the syllabus I’ve read:

Worst of all, the document gives no sense at all of the fact that history is an academic discipline, like chemistry or physics. The preamble says, correctly enough, that “a high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgment”. But this is then completely forgotten in the rest of the document, like the similar lip-service given in the preamble to the need to “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history”.

Far more central to the curriculum’s purpose is the programmatic statement that “pupils should be taught about key dates and events, and significant individuals”.

You could learn every single damn thing on this syllabus in a “facts and dates” sense and still not have a bloody clue about how to study history. Still, you’d probably do a lot better in those history quizzes for the under-40s the Daily Mail regularly uses to exercise its readers’ blood-pressure, and since quite a lot of Tory policy seems to be formulated in response to tabloid outrage perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is no exception.

Incidentally, it also continues the error that history syllabuses already commit; shackled by its devotion to chronology as ideology, it puts the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval history in early, at KS2. Because it’s easy and basic, you see, because it happened a long time ago, and people were really simple then, weren’t they. Whereas the twentieth century is really complicated and grown-up, and people have more complex motives nowadays. And we wonder why medievalism is represented on our screens by blubbering hobbyists.

The good news.

It isn’t the Nazis, the Nazis, Henry VIII and the Nazis. See my notes about chronology and narrative above.

It’s considerably better than Gove’s original tossed-off-for-the-media version I fisked in 2009. Well, it would have to be, frankly. Someone who has glanced at the contents page of a medieval history book has had at the pitiful opening lines of the original. The Enlightenment has appeared. The Empire is no longer happening offstage to someone else. There is some economic and social history in there, though due to the constraining nature of the “proper narrative” this somewhat alternates with political history rather than complementing it. You could learn by this syllabus and have the impression that political and constitutional history stops at the beginning of the fourteenth century so that the Black Death can take place and duly work out its social and economic consequences, and the kings and battles pick up again a century later with the Wars of the Roses. In between the guys just kind of hung out.

Sorry, I was on good news, wasn’t I? The other good news, or rather the non-bad news, is that as ideological history syllabuses go, Gove is not the only guilty party in this discussion. He is a rubber-lipped berk who would prefer us to swallow uncritical Boys’ Own patriotism whole, and Evans points out that his syllabus names Nelson and Wellington and doesn’t name Paine and Wilkes. But this is telling of the fact that Gove’s opponents have been drawn into the individuals-as-totems game too – Paine and Wilkes are as much political statements as Nelson and Wellington, if you care to take any of them that way. On the Mary Seacole controversy, it seems to me that Guy Walters is drawing something of a false distinction between her “real” historical importance and her status as a mixed race British woman of some contemporary renown – the latter is a valid fact in itself and might well be worth teaching.

But actually I rear back from the idea that we need to get upset about any particular individual being on the syllabus or off it. Because it really shouldn’t be making that much difference to your ability to teach a period of history whether or not you have a list of names to choose from to illustrate your core themes. When people get into conniptions over the status of totemic individuals, I start to wonder where the hell the history has gone, and who are these supposed lackwits in our classrooms who apparently can’t be trusted to comprehend or teach it without being shown a series of flashcards. Which is exactly how I feel about Gove’s whole approach, really.

And back to the bad news.

So the worst thing about all this for me is that the damn syllabus is there at all. One berk’s proper narrative is another berk’s ideological indoctrination. And while the ideological cherry-picking would simply move to a lower level if we had a Swedish-style 20-page curriculum, I’d really much rather it was there than in the hands of any government minister, of any stripe. If history teaches us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t let political overlords use history syllabuses for their own hardly disinterested purposes.

On digging up bones

To my great shame, I’ve never been on an archaeological dig, which is a bit embarrassing if you spend most of your day hanging around in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. So I don’t know whether archaeologists approach cemetery excavation in a spirit of reverence or a spirit of medical-student-making-cadaver-fart. But as far as my understanding goes, archaeologists generally only dig up bones in two circumstances: 1) rescue archaeology (ie the site in question is about to have an office block built on it) and 2) where a specific and valid research question will be answered.

So I’m not that upset to learn that the Church of England has repeatedly refused to open the putative burial urn of the Princes in the Tower in Westminster Abbey “on the grounds that it could set a precedent for testing historical theories that would lead to multiple royal disinterments.” I’m not usually a fan of slippery slope arguments – particularly not from the Church – but I think this one has something. Funerary archaeology in the media has always been a teensy bit prurient (“Is it – gulp – HUMAN SACRIFICE?”) so I can understand why the Church doesn’t want to offer up remains in its care on a platter for the purposes, basically, of tingling spines. It’s not like enough people haven’t been buried over the millennia to satisfy our apparent need to hear about grisly ends.

Because that’s really all it would amount to. As the Church pointed out, a positive identification of the bones as those of the Princes won’t prove anything by itself about the murder. If, on the other hand, the remains prove not to be related to the skeleton unearthed at Leicester, that could open up all kinds of cans of historical worms, but it will also present the Abbey with the problem of what to do with the remains – put them back in the wrongly named urn? No clear answers about the mystery of the Princes’ deaths will result, either way. Of course, it might be that analyses of the bones would tell us something utterly intriguing (they are the Princes, but they died of natural causes? Imagine that!) But where would such “let’s see if…” enquiries end? “Let’s see if…” enquiries are what you do at your desk, not in the field or in the lab. The human stakes are too serious. And it’s too expensive.

Anyway, I’m nigglingly interested in the two children whose remains were found when workmen accidentally broke into the tomb of Edward IV and his queen in the eighteenth century. They were assumed at the time to be the bones of two other children of the couple who were known to have died young of natural causes. But twenty years later, coffins apparently with the names of those children on them were discovered elsewhere. So who are the children in Edward IV’s tomb? See how ghoulish this stuff gets?

Things that are not necessarily untrue

One thing I find interesting about the Richard III Society is that (in their collective worldview at least) they seem to fundamentally agree with Shakespeare’s model of the medieval state. They might inveigh against his propagandising, but they still accept what his play asserts, that medieval politics is about characters. Personalities and relationships is what creates the history. Policy, governance, the institutions of parliament and monarchy are props to this process.

I guess this is why their missions are important. If you believe that an accurate picture of late fifteenth century politics relies on being bang on about personal qualities, then you will think it’s vital to do things like “rehabilitate” someone, defend them against defamatory propaganda and accusations of political murder. This personality-based approach is probably reinforced by Starkey et al, Tudorists who spend quite a lot of time on personalities for reasons of their own. It’s often Tudor historians who give us any glimpse we get of medieval history in the media. I don’t know why this should be, although if Monday night’s Richard documentary is anything to go by, we sure are suffering for the absence of proper medievalists.

Some people are opposed to the idea of history as a narrative of kings. I’m not, but just as there is cock-eyed posturing and sober analysis in modern political writing, so there are better and worse ways of writing political history. A sober political account of the  fifteenth century is likely to deal with things like relations between the king and parliament, the role of counsel in executive decisions, the reaction of localities to political change at the top – as well as the will of the king. The questions Rosemary Horrox asks, as far as I remember, are how the hell Richard reconciled the nobility to his usurpation, who were his supporters, how did he pursue his legislative agenda, and how did he see the whole exercise panning out for the house of York (given that he obviously didn’t intend to get killed)? It is, in short, possible to discuss much of Richard’s reign and legislative agenda without giving a damn whether he was responsible for one particular political murder or not. It’s certainly possible – for goodness’ sake – to discuss all these things without giving a damn whether he had a spinal deformity or not (touchingly written about here, by the way). I found the resistance of some Ricardians on the programme to this notion frankly chilling.

Yet the Richard III Society is neither wrong nor controversial about a lot of things, and it’s slightly straw mannish of them to affect otherwise. For instance, the idea that medieval and post-medieval kings used propaganda – against their predecessors, their nobles, their rivals, enemy states, literally their own mothers – is widely acknowledged. So we have a combination of totally uncontroversial assertions with an elusive underlying wrongness in approach. And what may be presented as a battle between orthodoxy and revisionism actually seems to be a conversation at cross-purposes. I wonder if the same is basically true of all (for want of a more accurate term) conspiracy history?

History on TV: MOAR Richard III

I’ve seen some fantastic historical TV. Frances Pryor’s The Not So Dark Ages was almost 100% flannel-free with some great in-depth case studies, well worth seeking out. Time Team is always worth a look as long as you don’t mind Tony quavering “human sacrifice” every time they turn up someone who didn’t die peacefully of heart failure at a great age. Richard Miles’ Ancient Worlds aimed to contextualize our centuries-old obsession with Greece and Rome by setting them alongside other ancient civilizations, and went into an impressive amount of depth given that broad remit. Pretty much everything Alice Roberts presents is fantastic.

I’m currently watching Jago Cooper’s Lost Kingdoms on BBC4 because I know next to nothing about South America, though to be honest I’m enjoying cheering on the Tintinlike antics of the presenter as much as the actual archaeology. In the first episode alone he was featured paddling down a river on a giant lashed-together raft, macheteing his way through tall undergrowth and abseiling none-too-happily down a sheer cliff-face in the cause of archaeological enquiry. I thought we were in for a real treat when he turned to the camera with a haggard expression and said, “There’s another tomb just over there I really want to explore, but it’s guarded by A NEST OF KILLER BEES.” The producer must have backed down on that one though, because no TINTIN JAGO FIGHTS NEST OF KILLER BEES sequence ensued.

Anyway. There are your classics, your fair-to-middlings, your Starkeys and Schamas (needing no review from me, which is just as well because I’ve never seen any of them). And then there are your abysmal turkeys.

Really, is anyone not at least a bit disappointed by Richard III – The King in the Car Park? There was some good stuff in there, probably 25 minutes worth over the hour and a half and nearly all of it proceeding from the lead archaeologist, the site director, the osteologist and other ladies and gentlemen of the lab whose statuses I haven’t retained. The rest of it was basically exploitation of a rather tearful woman from the Richard III Society who looked – bafflingly! horrifyingly! – like Nadine Dorries and was scarcely less fundamentalist, though you soon realised she was positively moderate in her defence of Richard’s name, character and person set alongside some of the horrors the presenter unearthed from dark corners of the internet for Skype interviews.

I’m not saying it’s not anthropologically interesting to reflect on organisations like the Richard III Society – in fact I may well do so soon, and not in an altogether hostile way, either. Simon Farnaby did it rather cleverly, I thought. But for all that she made me want to scream, I ended up feeling sorry for Philippa Langley. TV is famously a total bastard. At times we seemed to be segueing from one “Make Philippa cry and point the camera at her” sequence to another. Whether TV’s bastardly instincts are reigned in at all depends on the task at hand, and I would have hoped that something trailed (however misleadingly) as a great triumph for scientific and historical enquiry might have attracted a certain seriousness of purpose in the documentary maker. Nup.

Within hours of the presser this morning, commenters on the University’s website had got more deeply into the problems and implications of the DNA evidence than the programme managed in an hour and a half. How do we know this was not another matrilineal relation of Richard’s and Michael Ibsen’s? Were all other matrilineal lines of research exhausted, even though Richard’s mother Cicely Neville came from one of the most prolific noble dynasties of the fifteenth century?

Of course, taken altogether the circumstantial evidence – features and age of the skeleton, the oral tradition regarding the burial – is weighty, so one doesn’t necessarily need certainty on the DNA. It is perhaps enough to rule out the possibility that it will disprove everything. But it’s exactly that kind of compromise you might make in an archaeological or historical investigation that I naively think people would like to hear more about. The point of history and archaeology, the thing that it’s about in its – hah – bones, is problem-solving and pattern-matching. If you like that, you’ll like history and archaeology. If you don’t, it’s hard to see how any amount of “human story” is going to talk you into liking it. There is a separate programme – and a fascinating one – to be made about amateur history, its good bits and bad bits, and how it inspires emotion in people. This shouldn’t have been it.

UPDATE: The stuff we wanted to see, both about the investigation of the skeleton and the wider details of the dig, is on the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel.

Richard III and the missing paradigms

On CiF, Charlotte Higgins is getting a hard time with her Richard III piece. This need surprise no-one, because CiF is universally considered to be one of the shoutiest community care centres on the mainstream internet, even by those who hem hem comment there.

One of her points is, to be fair, a bit silly. Yes, this little exercise will have helped the University of Leicester’s “impact” measurement in the dreaded Research Excellence Framework no end. But while the damn thing is there, I’d much rather archaeology and history departments avoided being crushed by its spiky wheels and paid their dues to “impact”. Total crock it may be, but if you don’t survive it, you won’t be able to carry on being snooty about it for a living, as Kissinger almost said. Anyway, the impact measurement surely does most harm where actual funds are being diverted from the worthy to the flashy, which in this case is only partially true because the project was run in association with the Richard III Society and supported by some ad hoc fundraising. There are people across the globe who are happy to contribute to the cost of researching this particular Plantagenet king, a fact of anthropological interest in itself which I may come onto in the next post, lifetime of the universe permitting.

Her other point, which she has borrowed from Professor Morley at Bristol, is that our view of Richard III’s reign remains unchanged at the end of today, and this point is a sound one. This is not the stuff of which paradigm shifts in enquiry are made. Not that the disinterment of single individuals can’t be that, of course – think of Lucy, or the Ice Man, or Sutton Hoo, all in their different ways startling milestones in method or theory. But it is hard to imagine the archaeology or the history of medieval kingship undergoing a great revolution as a result of this one discovery, and the fuss surrounding it is disproportionate to its historical importance (and I say that as someone who was heard to squeak like an enraged gerbil when the BBC chose to cut away its press conference coverage to the downfall of Chris Huhne, who I think it is fair to say will be a footnote long before Richard III is, and today would perhaps prefer to be).

In fact, I’m a bit horrified by the idea – proposed in the comments at Prof Morley’s blog – that this is history’s “Higgs Boson moment”, because this totally impoverishes the public’s view of what historical and archaeological enquiry is. The stakes, the narratives, and the uncertainties resolved, would have to be a hell of a lot bigger than this. Discovering incontestable proof that – for example – agriculture in Britain predated agriculture in the Levant might be getting towards a similar order of magnitude. The advantage of parlour game history – did Richard III kill the Princes? was Shakespeare a cover identity? – is they allow you to explore a historical problem within fairly limited constraints, and with easy-to-grasp narratives, facts and characters. It’s fun, it exercises the mind, it gets people interested (including once upon a time me). And yes, actually it would tweak the political history of the reign if someone somehow managed to prove that Richard didn’t kill the Princes. But today’s revelations don’t even speak to that small mystery, and so we only have ourselves to blame if unkinder STEM colleagues write off the importance of the humanities on the basis of claims like that.

On the other hand, if I’m not lovingly polishing a shiny new paradigm, I have learnt a few horrifying things today about medieval humiliation, mutilation and war, specifically with regard to the whole sword-in-the-bottom thing (Films Disney Will Never Make #246). I have also learnt that an extremely precise oral history tradition about someone’s burial plot is, against all the odds, true. That might give us pause for thought about other oral history traditions of similar antiquity, and concerning some of the other characters in the Richard III canon. In fact, one of the extremely serious and not at all parlour gamey arguments you can make for the archaeology of individuals is that it allows you to falsify your archaeological claims with reference to known facts about an attested life, and then use this to evaluate your archaeological reasoning in other cases, where your claims cannot be tested.

So there are solid things to derive from the Greyfriars dig, with or without the accompanying glitz. But it likely won’t result in what Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society suggested it would: the rewriting of history books.