Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Noble Savages

One of my favourite television shows is Time Team. It consists of a bunch of hirsute archaeologists with three days to dig a site somewhere in the UK. Usually, it is set is a picturesque field in the rain. Despite the three day time limit and the presence of Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick as the presenter, the archaeologists do try to do a serious job. The show has been a shot in the arm for university archaeology courses and incidentally taught me quite a lot about ancient pottery.

The academics on Time Team are entirely typical of English scholars. Quite learned, a bit politically correct and with a great fondness for beer. If you have watched the show for as long as I have, you get to know their quirks and foibles quite well. For instance, they never talk about religion, but only ritual. I have no idea why this is, but even a medieval monastery is described as a ritual site rather than a religious one.

Another view often articulated on the programme is that the great Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts and many other smaller enclosures that dot the English countryside were just for show. The enormous ditches and palisades of stakes were, we are often assured, intended to show off the power of the local chieftain rather than provide a defensive position against enemies. For a long time I believed this. After all, the archaeologists on the show are experts. But I’ve now realised it is complete piffle. The evidence for the pacific purpose of the hill forts is that there is no sign that they were ever attacked, let alone reduced. Therefore, archaeologists have convinced themselves that everyone in prehistoric Britain was living peaceably with their neighbours.

A reader of this blog kindly put me on the book that shatters this rural arcadia and dispels the idea that the huge defensive structures were built even though there was nothing to defend against. Lawrence Keeley’s War before Civilization (1994) explains why the hill forts were not attacked and why this is no evidence that the inhabitants had nothing to fear. Instead, he shows how prehistoric life was constantly prey to small scale violence. Raiding parties conducting lightning attacks, killing and pillaging, but could not take the hill forts. So they never even tried. When raiders arrived, the population took shelter in the forts and simply waited for the raiders to go home. There was no question of a war of conquest and so the hill forts were left untouched. There is no evidence of them being attacked because they were an effective defence.

The small scale violence that blighted ancient lives leaves little trace in the archaeology. But we have plenty of evidence for it in more recent contexts, for instance in the New Guinea highlands or the Yucatan in Mexico (as explained by Jared Diamond in Collapse). Unless prehistoric Britons had some genetic trait that made them uniquely nice to each other, we have no reason to think things were any different. The green fields of England were soaked in blood.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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