Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

5. Inventing the past

It can surely be no coincidence that writing makes its appearance at the same time as the world’s first centralised state comes into existence. Ours is not the first society to recognise that information is power: command of resources requires both good record keeping and the ability to issue complex commands over distances. Laws are also much better written down, because there will less argument about what they mean and they can be disseminated far more easily. There are exceptions: the extraordinarily centralised realm of the Incas in South America was administered by means of a system of knotted strings – the quipu – which told local administrators hundreds of miles away what the sovereign Inca in Cuzco required. In Egypt however, and in the other great river valley civilisations that parallel its rise – Sumeria, the Indus Valley and China – writing proved indispensable to the exercise of public power. Nor was this just to exploit the peasantry: writing allowed rulers to commemorate their achievements and to ensure their names were not forgotten. Indeed as a piece of information technology the Narmer Palette has worked pretty well: five thousand years after he walked the earth we know who Narmer was and what he did. As long as there are human beings capable of attaching sounds to symbols his name will not be forgotten.

Because the Egyptian hieroglyphs are pictures the earliest decipherers thought that they only signified the thing pictured: an eagle was an eagle, an eye an eye and so on. It wasn’t until the discovery of the famous bi-lingual Rosetta Stone that scholars realised that the hieroglyphs could also be used alphabetically. Objects whose names in Ancient Egyptian were short, one syllable words like ‘b’, meaning a leg, were often used to spell longer words, especially those with abstract meanings. A simple example in English explains the principle: a drawing of a bee, followed by a ewe, followed by a teacup, spells out the word ‘beauty.’ In Egyptian the word for beauty is ‘nfr’ which could either be written as a single sign (appropriately a perfume pot) or spelled out using the word for water (n), the word for a cobra (f) and the word for a mouth (r). Sometimes the Egyptians would add a sign called a determinative to make it clear that a preceding group of single syllable signs should be read as one word. Thus the diminutive figure of a man or a woman is generally written after a personal name to indicate gender and a round disk generally follows either the name of the sun god or any word to do with daylight or day.

Boys and girls of all ages seem to enjoy learning how to write the hieroglyphs and a large industry in Egypt itself exists to supply tourists with trinkets embossed with their names in the ancient script. There are a number of problems however. Firstly there are no letters to represent the vowel sounds, although there were soft consonants like ‘w’, ‘y’ and ‘ch’ (pronounced as in the Scottish loch). Imagine the confusion if this were true of English: the word ‘bear’ would be written ‘br’ allowing for the possibility that it might be bare or bore or even ‘bra’… Secondly, the simple alphabet given in most children’s books contains no letters for ‘c’, ‘q’,‘v’ or ‘x’. Nor should there really be a letter for ‘l’ as this sound does not occur in classic Egyptian. In practice we can substitute other letters with similar sounds for the ones that are missing, for example ‘k’ in place of the hard ‘c’ and ‘s’ in place of the soft one. ‘F’ can be used as a softer version of ‘v’ and ‘j’ for the soft ‘g’ in ‘George’. The usual substitute for ‘l’ is ‘r’. Be prepared for some bizarre results: ‘r-y-n’, for example, being the nearest equivalent we can get to ‘Eileen’!

A third problem relates to the fact that the Egyptians often enlarged or repeated hieroglyphic signs in order to avoid leaving spaces. We can see this in Tutankhamen’s name which includes that of the supreme god Amen, meaning the ‘hidden one’. Amen can be written alphabetically – ‘y-m-n’ but in Tutankhamen’s cartouche it appears as ‘y-mn-n’, using a double consonant sign ‘mn’ which is a representation of a kind of board game similar to draughts or chess. The final ‘n’ is repeated so that the characters can be written neatly in a rectangle. There is a clue here that there are many more signs to learn than the basic alphabetical ones. Actually there are hundreds, including some that represent three consonants, for example ‘htp’ meaning ‘satisfied’ (as in the name Amenhotep, born by four kings of Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty). What did this mean for Ancient Egyptian pedagogy? With all these characters to learn, lessons seem to have consisted of copying, copying and more copying. Discipline was necessarily harsh but there were real rewards for success. Being able to read and write was a passport to privilege in Ancient Egypt and the highest in the land were happy to be depicted in the guise of simple scribes.

By now your learners should have acquired a healthy respect for their Egyptian forebears. They might also have realised that words belonging to one language are not easily written in a script belonging to another. This has an important bearing on the teaching of English. Have you ever tried to explain to a child why ‘through’ is pronounced ‘thru’ or ‘though’ is pronounced ‘thow’? What’s the letter ‘g’ doing in there? And what about silent letters like the ‘b’ in ‘lamb’ and ‘numb’? The truth is that of all the languages in the world English is the least phonetic! The reason is that most of the basic words in our language are German in origin, brought over by the Angles and Saxons when they settled in England in the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. For a generation or two the newcomers seem to have been hostile to Christianity but when St Augustine arrived in 597 AD he offered them the chance to re-join the civilised world which meant – amongst other things - using the Roman alphabet instead of their own runic script. Unfortunately the fastidious Romans had no letters in their alphabet to represent the guttural sounds typical of German so when it came to writing their own language as opposed to Latin the Anglo-Saxon monks had to do their best with the letters they had – just as happened when we were trying to spell English names using Ancient Egyptian letters. Thus the word pronounced ‘throghta’ became ‘through’ and the word pronounced ‘thogha’ became ‘though’. Over time the middle ‘g’ has disappeared from speech but not from the written word. Result? We write our language in an alphabet not designed for it and no longer speak it in the way that it is spelt. Not much comfort for those learning how to spell but another instance of the influence of history on our daily lives.

We come then to the question of what is to be learnt about Egypt or any of the other great river valley civilisations whose rise was based upon the success of intensive agriculture and the control of surpluses by elites. In other words what made an Egyptian an Egyptian or a Sumerian a Sumerian? We know from their literature that Egyptians were deeply attached to what they called the ‘black’ land of the Nile in contrast to the ‘red’ land of neighbouring Syria. So far from indicating an obsession with death their tomb paintings are a celebration of life in all its variety. The images show us people who are forever young and forever happy but what poetry survives from Ancient Egypt has a distinctly wistful tone. Despite the grandeur of pyramid and temple, the writers know these things will not last. ‘The gods who were afore time rest in their tombs,’ sings the blind harper, ‘but their places are no more. What has become of them? There is no-one who returns from beyond to tell us of their condition or set our hearts at ease as we make our journey to the place where they are gone…’ Yet when we look at the face of an Egyptian king who died three thousand years ago it does look as if he has somehow cheated death. That is one of the reasons why Ancient Egypt has the appeal that it does. Moreover, Egyptian religion, obscure as it is in many of its details, incorporated a respect for the natural world which young children in particular find accessible. Those strange animal-headed gods seem to make perfect sense to a seven-year-old who finds nothing extraordinary in the way the Egyptians mummified cats and falcons and even crocodiles. It is all very human.

In contrast Indus Valley cities seem like stage sets without any actors. Because their script is still un-deciphered and their graves are un-located we are left to infer almost all the important facts about the people who inhabited them. The first archaeologist to excavate the Indus city of Mohenjo Daro was struck by its rigid street plan and inward turning dwellings. It reminded him of the bleak uniformity to be found in communist Europe after the Second World War. In fact the most characteristic artefact of the Indus Valley culture appears to be the cylindrical seal, clearly used to signify ownership of a wide variety of perishable goods and chattels and an indicator that this was a trading society. The other trademark feature of Indus cities is their large scale management of water and its obvious importance in a ritual sense. Mohenjaro Daro had a walled-in elevated area (which the excavators called a citadel) whose chief feature was a large pool or bath. Disposal of the waste from this sacred bath was carefully controlled as if the water that filled it was of a special purity. Other Indus cities display similar features but it is important to remind children that they could just be leisure complexes such as the Ancient Romans built: without any clues to the way the inhabitants thought about their world the evidence from archaeology alone is insufficient.

Despite this quite a few schools choose the Indus Valley as their non-European culture to study at Key Stage 2. Children like the fact that there are large gaps in our knowledge and that much remains to be discovered. The simplicity of the surviving objects makes it easy to produce replicas whilst the Indus script can be treated as a secret code to which the children can provide their own answers. With older learners who have begun to think in general terms about the relationship between environment and culture can hazard some guesses about the likely structure of Indus society given parallels elsewhere. It seems inconceivable, for example, that there was not a ruling elite based upon the control of land as there was in Egypt, Sumeria and China. Nor is it likely that the Indus was a civilisation without war as some have imagined – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! The Maya of Central America provide an instructive comparison here. Until the Maya script was deciphered scholars tended to portray the classic Maya as peace-loving like their descendants in the present day. When the Mayan glyphs revealed their secrets however, they told of incessant warfare between cities with kings frequently capturing and killing each other and the wholesale sacrifice of captured populations. We must beware of moulding the past in our own image, finding there only what reinforces our view of ourselves: an Indus Valley civilisation based upon peace and justice may be an attractive idea but have little to do with reality.

The other aspect of the Indus Valley civilisation worthy of special consideration is its rapid and almost total collapse after about 1500 BC, leaving very little behind to inspire succeeding cultures in the same area. We have seen how climate change may have contributed to the fall of the Old Kingdom in Egypt: many scholars think that similar problems with the water supply might have led to the abandonment of the Indus cities. Cities in any age are huge consumers of surrounding resources – fine in good times when they provide a ready market for whatever food their hinterland can produce but unsustainable when the peasants need all they can grow for themselves. Some city dwellers may find safety by returning to the countryside but such migrations leave little trace in the archaeological record. At Mohenjo Daro the final phase might even have been a violent one. Groups of skeletons have been found in the streets there, either hastily buried or left where their owners died in some kind of massacre.

The contrast with China is a striking one. Whereas the Indus Valley was unknown until rediscovered just after the First World War China presents a spectacle of extraordinary continuity. Like the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt the earliest Chinese script was a combination of alphabetical signs and signs representing whole words, but whereas the art of reading and writing the Egyptian hieroglyphs was lost for fifteen hundred years, the Chinese version has been in continuous use for more than three millennia. A similar conservatism can be seen in the style and decoration of buildings and objects. From the first organised state within the region of the Yellow River to the present day it is possible to discern a distinctively Chinese mindset that has survived both invasion and conquest and continues to dominate Chinese thinking, as the recent Beijing Olympics demonstrated. Technically accomplished as they were what impressed most foreign observers about the Games was the immense number of people involved, all of them ready to play their own small part in making a success of the whole.

More than two thousand years earlier the first emperor to rule the whole of China, Qin Shih Huang (259-210 BC), ordered the building of his enormous tomb with its thousands of terra cotta guardians. He had already initiated the building of a series of walls to protect his domain from the raids of nomads to the North West. Like the Beijing Olympics these projects impress by their sheer scale but they are also a reminder that absolute power can corrupt absolutely. The philosopher Confucius (born about 550BC) had already based the Chinese concept of good governance on the simple tenet – ‘do as you would be done by.’ If the people do not obey their rulers there can be no order but if the rulers do not respect their people there can be no justice. Either way society fails. The First Emperor asked too much of his subjects and so forfeited what Confucians called the ‘mandate of Heaven’. Driven by a fruitless attempt to discover the secret of eternal life he lost all contact with reality and as a result his regime did not long survive his death. For the Chinese it was (and is) an object lesson in the need to avoid excess, either in individuals or governments. Indeed, their legendary good manners are far more than mere etiquette: they are all that stands between mankind and chaos. This is essentially the same concept as the Egyptian ‘maat’ but it differs in one important respect: the Chinese argument is based upon experience rather than divine authority and it reflects Confucius’ belief in the power of the human intellect. Religion, he said, lay outside his brief: all he was interested in was knowledge and the wisdom that could be derived from it.

After the death of the First Emperor Confucianism came to dominate the thinking of the Chinese elite. Its only drawback was the reasonable belief that China now had all the answers and had nothing to learn subsequently from its contact with Western ‘barbarians’. Without being aware of the fact it had become a ‘closed’ system like that represented by the medieval ‘Mappa Mundi’ in Hereford Cathedral or the ‘Dreaming’ of the Australian Aborigines. As we will see in the case of Cortes and the Aztecs cultures that have developed universal explanations find it very hard to accommodate new facts especially when these ‘facts’ take the form of strangers with superior weapons who don’t know the rules. Our own culture is better armed against such surprises precisely because it recognises its own ignorance. We may yet discover that there are extra-terrestrial beings whose forms and actions are beyond our imagining but we won’t need to rewrite our ideas about ‘life, the universe and everything’ in order to accommodate them.

To summarise: the four great river valley civilisations that arose on the basis of successful agriculture have much in common. All are based upon the surpluses that successful agriculture produces and upon the control of that surplus by hereditary elites. In every case it seems that these elites found support for their continuing good fortune in the belief that heaven willed it so. There was thus a strongly reciprocal character to their religion: temples were built and offerings made in order to secure the goodwill of the gods. In many cases those charged with the performance of the necessary rituals were set apart from the rest of society by their greater purity of life; they thus became the guardians of morality and history. As far as we can tell all four civilisations were primarily ‘demand’ economies with the produce of the land being ear-marked to maintain monarchs, nobles and priests. Markets, as such, seem to have been restricted to low-level transactions between ordinary people, such as the tomb-robbers of Ancient Thebes who need to ‘fence’ the gold and silver they were stealing from the graves of the pharaohs. All four civilisations developed writing to aid administration and transmit knowledge but all four faced crises on both a physical and intellectual level when the basis of their stability was challenged, either by climatic change, disease or foreign invasion. Nevertheless they all showed remarkable resilience in the face of such disasters and two at least have survived, albeit transformed, into the modern world.

With such broad outlines in mind it is possible to take any one of the four as representing a crucial phase in the development of human society and so vary the curriculum without losing a sense of continuity. From what made them similar the focus and shift to what made them different, with particular emphasis upon art and literature because it is most often these things that tell us where we are in the past. As we saw in detail in the case of Ancient Egypt, the environment is directly reflected in the forms of cultural expression. Egypt had many sources of stone for carving and building and a climate which, until recently, provided little in the way of erosion. Sumerian architects on the other hand were restricted to mud bricks which they could only make weather-proof through glazing. Once this covering was removed their tall towers, or ziggurats, were swiftly reduced to shapeless mounds. Yet it was their script – cuneiform – which became the ‘lingua franca’ of diplomatic contact between the states of the near-East and it was they who produced the world’s first great work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh was a king of the city of Uruk in southern Iraq about 3000 BC. Quite why he became a legendary figure is impossible to say but his adventures include what seems to be a precursor of the Great Flood as described in the Bible, whilst the epic ends with a fruitless quest for everlasting life reminiscent of that undertaken by the First Emperor of China. The hero is not so much defeated by his enemies as by the greater wisdom that experience brings. Having fought his dragons he discovers that they are mere illusions and that life does not end with victory: more complex challenges lie ahead. Ultimately however there is nothing, unless Nature contradicts herself and the hero is transported into some other dimension – to become one with the stars like Hercules or an Egyptian pharaoh. The great philosopher Carl Jung saw in the recurrence of such themes a path of psychical development common to all human beings, which would not surprising if the world’s current gene-pool were indeed derived from a very few individuals. The story of humanity would thus become one of variations upon a theme and it is upon this theory that my teaching has always been based. Tap into the basic psychological journey which all of us are embarked upon from birth and you will always have an audience.