A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics
One of the fascinations of history is trying to understand the mind of people who lived long ago, and how the societies they lived in were organised. That’s particularly true of prehistory, when we have no written texts to guide us – just physical objects.
In How Ancient Europeans Saw the World: Visions, Patterns and the Shaping of the Mind in Prehistoric Times, Peter S. Wells uses one of the most original approaches I have come across in trying to understand the minds of Bronze and Iron Age Europe by thinking about the shape of their world.
I came away from it thinking that an awful lot of archaeological theory ignores the fact that the world these objects were used in is very different from our own. For example, Wells stresses how different objects look by lamplight or candlelight compared to under electric light, as we usually see them in the museum. If we’re going to understand how they were used, how they were understood, the social context, you’ve pretty well got to look at them in the same way.
It’s also fascinating to think how few human-made objects Bronze Age people in particularly would generally have come across – and how they would have stood out against the natural environment. One spectacular object would probably have lingered in the mind, been talked about for decades – whereas we’re bombarded with human-made images every second. And before writing, interpretting objects – perhaps an object that arrived from abroad, with little “story” attached to it would have relied on detailed interpretation of the object itself – much as an archaeologist has to do today.
Or think about landscape. Wells says Bronze Age people (probably 98 per cent plus of them) were involved in ploughing, digging, cultivating, harvesting, threshing, making fences, and constructing buildings… They perceived a physical world with a directness and an intensity that most of us can only try to imagine. .. he or she would have seen the features of the landscape – the fields, trees, fixes, and hedges – as a product of intensive labour, direct bodily engagement, and also as a potential source of the raw materials for sustenance and trade.” (p. 38)
He uses the concept of “ecological psychology” – the idea that an individual’s perception is directly dependent upon the environment in which the perception occurs. “We see things by interacting with them – touching them, handling them, carrying them, using them. The same principle that applies to our perception of landscapes … Somethings to act in – to walk-through, to collect wood in, to harvest cereals in.” (p. 23)
I doubt that all of Wells’ conclusions are right, it would be astonishing if they were, but they’re certainly thought-provoking. So he notes that storage jars, one of the main categories of pottery vessels in use in the Bronze Age, at the only one that have a purposefully roughened surface, and the only one where every vessel has a different pattern of ornament. Wells suggests that this reflected household ownership, and possibly even reflected the field from which each part of the harvest came.
Yet this differentiation gradually diminishes during the Early Iron Age, which Wells suggests reflects reduced anxiety about productivity, and an increasing tendency to regard grain and other produce is just a commodity. By contrast cups, one of the other main categories of pottery, started with limited decorative range in the Early Bronze Age, and were generally quite large, but they gradually got smaller and decoration became much more varied, suggesting individual rather than group use. So Wells suggests, a focus on the landscape was gradually shifting to a greater focus on the social.
And he attributes to Joanna Bruck the fascinating idea that “the notion that prehistoric people distinguished between ritual and secular activities in the way that we do is probably wrong…. Deposits such as those with early Bronze Age pottery in pigs in the ground may well have been made in the context of activities that the participants felt would affect the desired outcome – a bitter harvest, a healthy community, protections from raids by neighbours – but they most likely did not conduct the “ceremony” (if we may call it that) in a way that we would consider “ritual”. It was simply the way things were done.” (p. 86)
He also looks at burials, not with the eyes of the archaeologist, but the eyes of the participant in the ceremony that created the display that the archaeologist finds. It is obvious when you think about it, the ancient people weren’t thinking of what we find when we uncovered the graves that they created when they were taking part in a solemn ritual – often involving feasting. Maybe they were thinking about the final image they would leave with, but that would be in the frame of all of the ceremonies that came before.
One of Wells’ particular concerns is explaining the much-debated transition from the Hallstatt Celtic culture to La Tene. He suggests that this came not from simple exposure to the culture of the Greeks and the Mediterranean, but a much broader interaction with ideas and objects, from as far afield as Central Asia and China, that led to “the emergence of a whole new mode of visualisation” (p. 202).
Traditionally this has been regarded as a trend only seen in elite culture, but Wells says that archaeology has found many objects in non-elite settlements and burials, ” and there is a trend today to see burials as community representations rather than the statements about the deceased”. (p. 206)
This isn’t a terribly accessible book; it’s an academic text, written as such and making few concessions to the general reader, but it’s worth hanging in there for the fascinating ideas that you will encounter.