Monday, 19 January 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part four: not so grand narratives

Caesar crossing the Channel
from Bill Nye's History of England, 1900
One of the main courses in the postmodern diet is its identification and criticism of the grand narrative which the postmodernist likes to replace with a "tapas menu" of "little narratives" (micronarratives).

Grand narratives promote, and then reflect the current social mythologies but when the grand narrative becomes too far removed from the social mythologies it becomes replaced with a new grand narrative and sometimes even a new mythology which encompasses the Zeitgeist.

When I was at school in England, we were taught how Britain brought civilization to Africa in the nineteenth century. Today, the same events are more likely to be exaplained as how Britain subjugated and brought colonialism to Africa. Yesterday's heroes (such as Cecil Rohodes) become today's villains in accordance with current nationalist views and pointed views of history and archaeology serve as handmaidens to state indocrination.

Without deliberate attention, influences from previous grand narratives still survive as believed realities: there is still a very strong belief that the Romans brought civilization to Britain in much the same ways that Britain was believed to have helped civilize Africa, even though the current anti-colonization popularity would serve just as well for Rome's interest in Britain.

What might be seen as a revealing micronarrative can also be indicative of the effect of an unnamed meme (while the meme is always a specific statement that becomes incorporated into individual's belief models, or mythologies, the influence of a number of memes is less obvious and these help to maintain some grand narratives that have become mostly extinct in the overriding belief structures of the day.

My favorite example of such an "infected" micronarrative comes from a footnote in my Penguin edition of Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. Responding to Casar's statement:
"Caesar made active preparations for an expedition to Britain, because he knew that in almost all the Gallic campaigns the Gauls had received reinforcements from the Britons." (IV.3.20.)
the editor says:
"Although there was much intercourse between Gaul and Britain, the military aid which Caesar says the Gauls received from the Britons cannot have been of much importance, and in any case the Romans were now in control of the Channel. ... (Note 27).

the editor then goes on to explain the Roman's "important motive" of glory over a distant and unknown island... an explanation in keeping with the colonialization of and bringing civilization to Britain.

Memes and their effects do not come with stated evidence (probably because of a strong peer-belief in the previous and perhaps even forgotten memes). In order to evaluate such a statement we must assume no such beliefs at all and look at what sort of evidence could settle the question. Fortunately, there is only one type of evidence that could address the subject of British reinforcements in Gallic battles and that is the findspots of the gold stater (Gallo-Belgic E) which strong evidence has identified as the currency paid to Celtic troops in those campaigns. I chose the fiigures given by Simone Scheers in Traité de numismatique celtique, II, La Gaule Belgique. Because of its 1978 publication date, very few of the British findspots can be assumed to have been discovered because of much metal detector use there as most of the figures mostly predate the publication by many years and metal detecting was just starting to become popular in Britain in the early seventies.

I found out from the numbers and findspots of Gallo-Belgic E in Britain, that the physical evidence does, indeed, support Caesar's statement. The British finds generally are missing the larger hoards that might be attributed to payments to tribes for the supply of their troops and instead have many smaller finds that we would expect to have been paid to individual mercenaries or small groups of the same (auxilliaries). Why would such evidence be neglected? It would argue for the idea of cross-Channel culture and thus against the idea of a primitive and unspoilt people about to become civilized by the Romans; that the Celtic presence in Britain at the time consisted of a small number of elite (which is also an oxymoron because Caesar also explains that elite status was measured only by the size of the leader's military presence); It also makes it much easier to forget about, or to lessen, the importance of the Celts military service for Greek leaders starting at about 400 BC. These campaigns were the impetus for the Celts adoption of coinage in the first place and later copy the subjects shown on the coins paid to them by the Greeks.

The most strained part of the footnote was that the Roman's controlled the Channel. Caesar had very little good to say about how his ships fared in Channel crossings. One ship was swept hopelessly off course, ending up in the west country after trying to reach Kent and the Roman galleys were hopeless against rough seas, shallows and sand bars causing Caesar to commisssion Gaulish-built ships for his expeditions to Britain. The subject of the Romans surviving the crossing is valid, but the idea of them controlling the Channel is laughable, especially when it comes to the Celtic shipping routes to Hengistbury and further west.

So to spot the influences from previous grand narratives. simply look for the "matter of fact" types of statements where the author seems to think that providing any justification is completely unnecessary. It can often be a gold mine to the contrary.

No comments:

Post a Comment