Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

6. How old is ‘old’?

It is a curious fact that most UK pupils learn about the history of their island as if it were entirely separate from the rest of the world. A good test of this is to ask any group of undergraduates who came first, the Tudors or the Aztecs? Most will guess the Aztecs because they seem more like the Ancient Egyptians than Europeans of the age of Columbus. Yet Hernan Cortes’ first encounter with the Aztec emperor Montezuma took place on 8th November 1519, within a year of Henry VIII’s famous meeting with his rival Francis I of France at the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’.

The effect is more striking when it is prehistory being studied. How many students know that the final phase of Stonehenge belongs to the same era as Tutankhamen in Egypt or that Britain has its own great ‘pyramid’ – Silbury Hill in Wiltshire – raised at approximately the same time as the one in Egypt? The reason for the discordance is the lack of a detailed chronology for the British monuments. Without the names of peoples and rulers which a written record would supply we are forced back to the traditional system of dating based upon technology i.e. Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The problem here is obvious: there is no reason to suppose that the adoption of metal tools in place of stone ones signified a cultural advance, any more than the introduction of iron in Egypt caused the state to alter course. Stonehenge is not the equal of the temples of Karnak and Luxor in architectural terms but it took formidable powers of organisation to bring it into being and its comparative lack of sophistication may have been much less evident when it was complete and ancillary buildings and structures were in place. We can be sure that it existed within a mental landscape of equal richness to that of the Egyptians, one whose roots may have stretched back to the time of the hunter-gatherers when the original site of Stonehenge was no more than a sacred clearing in the midst of forest.

The lack of specific information about Stonehenge’s purpose has provided an opportunity for the development of all sorts of theories, the most recent of which – the suggestion that it was a healing centre - has already been mentioned. Modern druids gather at the circle to celebrate the summer solstice but it seems clear that the building is actually aligned on the place where the sun rises on midwinter’s day. Like the Incas of Peru the agriculturalists of Southern Britain must have feared the gradual decline in the sun’s height at noon as the end of the year approached. The Incas actually ‘tethered’ the sun in a ceremony to prevent it falling any further and one imagines that some sort of similar ritual took place at Stonehenge (almost certainly involving sacrifice given the transactional nature of ancient religion already referred to). As the earth continued on its orbit the sun would rise slightly to the right of its December 21st position and within days the people would see clearly that the crisis was over; that would be the time to celebrate ‘Twelfth Night’.

Whilst none of this can be certain the very existence of Stonehenge proves that those who constructed it must have had time and energy to spare at certain times of the year and links with many other parts of the country. What restricted their efforts was probably the poorer yield overall of their land. Whereas the Egyptian pharaohs could call upon the labour of thousands at the time of the Nile’s inundation, the ruler of ‘mid-Britain’ could raise a few hundred at most – and this only for a short period, probably in June, when the men weren’t needed in the fields. A number of attempts have been made to guess at the actual numbers involved but they probably overestimate the figures. Patience and experience must have played a much larger part in the lives of prehistoric men and women than experimental archaeologists can afford whilst working for Channel 4. Efforts to reconstruct ancient ways of doing things generally tell us more about our own society than they do about the society being studied: you can put the people in the past but you can’t put the past in the people!

Nevertheless experiments such as the Butser Iron Age Farm increase our respect for our ancestors and they bring history alive in a way no other technique can. If our objective is to create interest then the past has to be seen as a legitimate alternative to the present, one whose skills might well be in demand if Sainsbury’s closes for ever.

Another curious fact about our teaching of history is to treat monuments like Stonehenge as if they were unique, understandable in the case of Stonehenge because of its size and prominence. In fact the British countryside has scores of scarcely known landmarks that chart the progression of British society from the earliest days of farming to the threshold of the Roman invasion. The oldest features are the so-called ‘causewayed camps’, circular enclosures consisting of ramparts and ditches crossed at intervals by the causeways that give them their name. Thought to date from around 4000 BC (i.e. within a few hundred years of the adoption of farming and the systematic clearing of the land which followed it), they demonstrate all the difficulties of interpreting sites for which there are no other sources of information. Were they farmsteads or cattle pounds? Or were they places where the dead were exposed before being buried in ‘long barrows’, whale-shaped tomb-houses of which the most famous is ‘Wayland’s Smithy’ on the Berkshire Downs?

This is probably the point at which your learners – however young – need to confront the question ‘how old is old?’ A few years ago this would hardly have been necessary as the scientific method was taken for granted as the only one which could supply an answer. However, with the rise of fundamentalism in both East and West there are once again people in the mainstream of politics who think that the universe was made in seven days six thousand years ago – a Hollywood version of history which would have the dinosaurs walking the earth alongside the artists who decorated the Lascaux caves. This is not the place to discuss the problems of those who base their faith on what is revealed in sacred texts that cannot, by definition, be updated to reflect new knowledge. Yet it is inconsistent, to say the least, to accept the discoveries of modern science in one area – for example medicine – and deny them in another. Like the scientist the historian has to base his or her findings upon evidence, even if it takes us in directions we would rather not go. One is reminded of Galileo looking through his telescope and seeing the moons of Jupiter for the first time. They were always there but they could not be seen with the naked eye. Once you accept that what you see depends upon the range of your vision you may have to accept that the boundaries of time, like the boundaries of the universe, are limitless. It is unlikely that you or your students will be content with explanations that are demonstrably incomplete.

It was the fossil hunters of the early 19th Century who first undermined the old idea of Creation. How could strange and extinct creatures have been turned to stone except by an immense process of time, especially when the rocks in which they were found were once deep underground? When the first fossils of early humans were discovered their obvious status as intermediate forms strengthened Darwin’s case for the common ancestry of men and apes. However, there was no absolute certainty of age until the discovery of radiation and in particular the presence within the remains of dead organisms of radioactive carbon-14, ingested during life. Carbon 14 decays into non-radioactive Carbon 12 at a consistent rate: half of any given sample is gone within 4000 years and another half within eight. Within sixteen thousand years the proportion is down to one quarter and so on. Naturally no-one can see this transformation happening but the machines which measure it are just like Galileo’s telescope: devices which make the invisible visible. Unless you dispute the existence of radiation altogether you cannot ignore the information they provide.

Carbon-dating can now take us back about a hundred thousand years. Other radio-active substances have been discovered whose ‘half-lives’ are much longer. The potassium present in some volcanic rocks takes millions of years to transform into argon but it does so at a consistent rate, telling us the age of the rocks and any fossils found within or near them.

Turning to recorded history the problem becomes both simpler and more complex. All the early civilisations devised calendars but none had a consistent system of dating. The Ancient Egyptians referred to regnal years e.g ‘year seven of (the reign) of King Tutankhamen’. King lists survive, enabling Egyptologists to be fairly precise about when this or that monarch reigned. Thus Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid, is assigned the dates 2551 to 2528 BC. The Greeks, who invented history, were only interested in the major themes of war and national survival whilst the Ancient Romans identified particular years by the consuls then holding office, a list of whom was displayed in the Forum (the ‘fasti consulares’). From this a curious citizen could work out for themselves how long ago an event occurred but this was much less important than the manly qualities displayed by those who took part.

The advent of Christianity brought a new perspective. Although the early church fathers seem to have got the date slightly wrong, the birth of Jesus clearly signified a new beginning from which it was appropriate to date subsequent events. Not to be outdone Jews and Muslims have their own starting points (the Exodus and the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca respectively) so that 2008 is the Jewish year 5769 and the Islamic Year 1428. In academic writing it has become usual to use the term CE (the Common Era) in place of AD although some scholars prefer BP (Before Present) with the obvious disadvantage that BP dates change as the years advance. If you find all this confusing, don’t worry. In my own teaching I hardly ever use dates. Young children are quickly bored by them and even with adults I have found ‘once upon a time’ to be a surprisingly precise point at which to start an exploration of the past.

In English the earliest document to use dates systematically is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which is – incidentally – our only authority for the fact that the battle of Hastings took place on Saturday 14th of October (‘the feast day of Callixtus the pope’)1066. The Chronicle exists in four versions, as it was kept up to date by several monastic centres. How do I know it’s not a forgery? Most of my students would say it must be old because it sounds old and it looks old, but be warned: appearances can deceive! I appear old because I have grey hair; this carpet is old because it looks worn out; these trousers are old because they are unfashionable. Actually I went grey at thirty (I’ve had a hard life.); the carpet may be worn out but it came from Turkey and is very valuable; and these trousers are tomorrow’s fashions today… The church on the corner of the road opposite, constructed in immaculate Decorated Gothic of the 14th Century, was put up at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. The golden rule in history is to take nothing at face value.

Accepting for the time being that Stonehenge really is what it appears to be and not the creation of Merlin the wizard or some 18th Century view improver, what do we know about the ordinary lives of those who may have helped to build it? For those studying in Devon the Bronze Age is much closer at hand. On Dartmoor there is the greatest concentration of Bronze Age sites to be found anywhere in Europe, many of them within easy walking distance of a road. Most common are the outlines of round huts, their walls constructed of stone gathered off the moor. Their roofs were probably made of turf laid over rough tepee-like frameworks, the timber also gathered from what, three thousand years ago, were still heavily-wooded slopes. Sometimes the circles are found in groups. In the well-known prehistoric ‘village’ of Grimspound twenty or more are surrounded by a low wall, thought to have been built to keep domestic animals in rather than enemies out. In other cases the huts are found singly but always within a patchwork of small fields, defined by dry stone walls that are almost indistinguishable from those built in medieval times, twenty centuries later. One of my favourite English Heritage films, Looking at Prehistoric Sites (1981), provides an atmospheric reconstruction of Grimspound in its heyday. Despite references to the vermin that must have infested all prehistoric dwellings there’s an idyllic feel to the scene. Later in the same film we see Bronze Age worshippers on their way to a ceremony at Knowlton Henge in Dorset, where a ruined medieval church occupies the centre of a much older enclosure. Again the tone borders on the elegiac: no reference to sacrifice for example. Nor does the film mention the attraction which Knowlton has for modern practitioners of witchcraft, the same people who regularly leave lighted candles and offerings of fruit and flowers in places like Wayland’s Smithy. Brought up as I was in a Yorkshire village where harvest festival still had a meaning, these seem to be the actions of sentimental town-dwellers who have no real understanding of life on the land. I believe the ancient people deserve greater respect.

To return to the point about isolation. All national myths downplay the role of foreigners. Thus we’re delighted to find that a two thousand year old Romano-Briton dug up near Bath shares DNA with someone living in the area today and a skeleton found in the Cheddar Caves, thought to be nine thousand years old, has a living descendent not far away. On the other hand analysis of tooth enamel shows that Stonehenge had visitors from across Europe and a fourth century citizen of Winchester came from Syria. The English Channel which serves us ‘as a moat doth a fortress’ has always been a highway, as a flat bottomed Bronze Age boat discovered at Dover proves. Arguments rage as to whether major cultural shifts in our history have been the result of invasion or merely the infiltration of new ideas, with the emphasis tending in recent years towards the latter. The flood of Anglo-Saxon invaders referred to earlier has now been reduced to a trickle. Even the Romans, who made us part of their proto-European Union, can now be seen as having no more than a temporary effect and that not necessarily a benign one. As a consequence the original ‘Invaders and Settlers’ unit of the UK National Curriculum became ‘The Early History of Britain’.

No such revisionism has yet attached itself to the Greeks. Their cultural dominance of the Key Stage Two curriculum remains un-challenged and with the 2012 Olympic Games on the horizon, almost unassailable. Before we measure the impact of the Romans therefore we need to examine just why the Greeks still hold their position as the only foreigners from whom we have been proud to learn.