Part 1 (The second part appears in issue 3 of Vanguard)
ANDREW BRONS REVIEWS THE CHANNEL 4 TELEVISION SERIES ON THE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE
IT IS TO BE hoped that it is not a portent of the British people becoming an ethnic minority in their own country that Channel 4 ― the channel associated with minorities of all kinds, political, sexual and racial ― should broadcast a programme devoted to a reaffirmation of the homogeneity and achievements of our ancestors.
However, that should not detract from the academic excellence, moving photography, evocative music (Coronach sung by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull), interesting and amusing presentation and (unintentional) ideological relevance of the series ― or from the delightful presenter, Dr. Catherine Hills, who is as distracting as she is informative.
The title is perhaps deceptive, as her approach is archaeological, rather than anthropological, and concentrates on buildings and artifacts rather than on ethnic characteristics.
Nevertheless, the series does not ignore the ethnic character of the people, although most of its conclusions are derived from cultural rather than anatomical premisses. We can hardly expect scholars to engage in controversial escapades like measuring skulls in front of the television cameras.
The central message in the series is expressively articulated by Dr. Hills in the remark:
"Most people think that those who lived before the Norman Conquest were a primitive and incompetent lot." However, as she explained: "These views are depressing and cut us off from our ancestors".
She said that there was a powerful view, also held in academic circles, that "changes in pots (and other developments) meant a change in the people" and that "all good ideas came from outside ― from invasions".
'To contradict this view, Catherine Hills interviewed Professor Philip Ratz, of York University, during his excavation of the deserted Medieval village site of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire. He explained that on the same site there had been an Iron Age Territoriam, a Roman villa, an Anglo-Saxon settlement and a Medieval village.
"The point is that they are the same people. The only thing that changes is the people they pay their taxes to," he explained. He might almost have quoted Kipling's poem The Land:
'Hob, what about the River-bit?'
I turn to him again,
With Fabricus and Ogier and William of Warenne.
'Hev it jest as you've a mind to,
but' ― and here he takes command.
'For whoever pays the taxes old
Mus' Hobden owns the land'.
Professor Ratz's comments were also reminiscent of Dr. John Baker's Race (published by Oxford University Press). Baker concluded that the modern population of England was largely descended from Celts and Belgae of the Iron Age, as well as from Copper Age 'Beaker People' and earlier Neolithic people; and that the incoming Anglo-Saxons did not simply displace the existing people but settled down with them.
Dr. Hills' principal difference with Dr. Baker would be that the so-called 'Beaker folk' were probably merely a few traders rather than a warrior elite or a large invading population.
One political implication of her findings did not escape her: that the English are not as distinct from the Scots, Welsh and Irish as some would like to think. The various peoples in the British Isles share approximately the same ancestors, albeit in different proportions.
The most specific misconception exposed by Dr. Hills was that the Neolithic culture in the British Isles was imported ― ultimately from the Near East and that the level of culture was primitive even so. Stonehenge was, until a couple of decades ago, thought to have been built around 1400 BC, copied from circles built around 2000 BC, which in turn were supposed to have been copied from the Mycenaean culture in Crete around 2700 BC.
However, radio-carbon dating has now shown that the first phase of Stonehenge was built around 3000 BC ― 5000 years ago ― and that circles in Brittany, Spain and Crete are correspondingly of more recent origin. If influence there was, it was in the other direction ― an export and not an import!
The second phase of Stonehenge, built around 2100 BC was an even more remarkable achievement. Dr. Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, in a recent Horizon feature devoted to the monument as well as to previous and contemporary sites, demonstrated that the Sarsen stones had been brought from a distance of thirty miles and that the Blue stones had been brought from a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, from the Preseli mountains in Wales!
Professor Renfrew and Dr. Hills each visited the settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, built around 3200 BC and inhabited for about six hundred years, with its stone dressers, beds and houses ― each arrived at from covered paved streets. The chambered tombs visited by each of them at Quoyness in Zetland were even more impressive, with their shaped stones and corbelled roofs.
Dr. Hills explained that modern research suggested that when the Vikings landed, they did not simply expel or exterminate the existing Pictish population but mixed in with them, so that modern Shetlanders can claim the builders of the Quoyness tombs amongst their ancestors.
Most impressive were the sites contemporary with the second phase of Stonehenge: Avebury, a circle surrounded by a ditch the circumference of which extends one mile with ninety-eight stones on the inside and a hundred pairs of stones at the entrance; and Silbury Hill, built in steps like Egyptian pyramids and involving an estimated one million man-hours of work.
In the words of Colin Renfrew: "The people of Late Neolithic Britain are as worthy of admiration as the Romans and the Mycenai". Such investments of labour, as were necessary for the monuments built around 2000 BC, required an organised society and extensive arable farming to feed those responsible for the building.
Indeed, Catherine Hills showed that, "Our view of the extent of prehistoric land-use must be revised". In County Mayo, in the West of Ireland, Patrick and Seamus Caulfield have discovered stone walls and drainage ridges that can be dated before 3000 BC. On Dartmoor, Andrew Fleming has found 'reeves' or prehistoric walls which are conclusive evidence of field agriculture around 1700 BC.
Together, they show that our (part) ancestors, the Neolithic peoples, who were in this country even before the Celts, were capable, not merely of pastoral but also of arable farming, on a scale that would, until recently, have been thought inconceivable of such 'primitive' people.
The previous misconceptions about our ancestors' achievements cannot merely be the product of routine mistakes by archaeologists and historians. They are the product of a peculiar facet of the psyche of Europeans. We are all too ready to see evidence of prehistoric African civilisations and we are dismayed by the fact that no such evidence exists! However, we are also too eager to accept the jaundiced accounts of our ancestors from their contemporary detractors.
There is no reason to think that Dr. Hills, Professor Renfrew et al are closet-Nationalists. I should not be surprised to hear they were Renault-driving, Guardian-reading, inner-city-deprivation-bemoaning, SDP supporters. That should not surprise us; not should it dismay us. The probability that they were not seeking, and may still not appreciate fully, any political significance in their work, does not detract from their scholarship. Indeed it enhances it.
The Nationalist Movement has in recent years discovered the word 'revolution' and readily punctuates its writings with it. However, the revolution we do need is in the Nation's view of itself and its past. That 'revolution' will be achieved not just by those of us who are striving for it consciously. It is dependent on honest, intellectually-gifted, but essentially non-political people, who reflect, albeit unknowingly, the pride that the Nation has in itself.