History, they tell us, is about the past. But the study of history shows an oft-repeated cycle of events. Since human beings have not changed over thousands of years, they have reacted time after time in the same way to events as we do today. The emphasis in the teaching of history in schools and universities has always tended to be on political history (monarchs, wars, treaties, laws) and has perhaps made us forget that history is about people like ourselves, trying desperately to get on with their lives in spite of what their rulers, neighbours, the climate, etc etc may throw at them.
Today’s world, at least for most of us, is an urbanised, industrialised one, with a sophisticated governmental, social, economic, legal, and educational system. We tend to forget that when the first urban civilisations developed in the Middle East over 5000 years ago they too had to develop systems parallel to our own in order to survive. They experienced the need to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to plan their environment, to evolve a legal code which enabled society to run efficiently. They were concerned not just with survival but with “getting on” in the world. They deplored the lack of discipline and respect in the “younger generation”. They despaired of the lack of interest in education in the young. They rejected malign “foreign” influence on their lifestyle. As states grew wealthy the “haves” competed with one another for bigger, better, and more beautiful possessions. The “have-nots” either strove to emulate their better-off neighbours or expressed their anger and resentment at those who had done better for themselves. Social classes evolved, usually based on wealth, privilege, birth, and ownership of property, (traditionally land).
Wars took place — sometimes through sheer “need” — at other times through sheer “greed”. Prosperity brought with it all sorts of problems — not least such questions as “who inherits your property after you’re gone?” I.e. — what happens to the share of the children of the original marriage if the mother dies and the father remarries, producing more children? (Pliny’s Letters Ist. Cent. AD).
Modern states have for the most part only just solved, over the last 150 years, the age-old problem of the fact that ownership of land gave one a higher status in society than ownership of, for example, a business. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has put status firmly in the ownership of business, money, and property generally . But has this “solution” made us any happier? Is the power conferred by economic status much different from that once obtained from land? Just how “democratic” is our system today, where on paper in most places everyone has equal rights?
Our ancestors spoke strange languages, wore funny clothes, did not have our present means of transport, communicated by speech and writing without electronic assistance. Yet they faced and tackled the same issues as ourselves in a parallel environment. Intricately carved ornaments and cave paintings of 40,000 years ago show manual and artistic skills even in the less sophisticated societies of that time.
We tend to regard present-day issues, whether personal, national, or international as unique to our current time and situation. This is only natural — and yet the same situations have been affecting people and society for thousands of years. Perhaps it should make us more optimistic when we realise that the human race has survived all this time in spite of such recurrent problem situations. On the other hand some folk may feel depressed that mankind has not yet solved such problems and driven them away for all time — “Will we never learn?”
A few points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that human intelligence over the last, for example, 10,000 years has not changed. Whether a culture is or was more sophisticated or less sophisticated has no relation to the IQ of its members. The second is that human society evolving from the basic family situation shares common elements equally with the early hunter-gatherers and with today’s urban dwellers. Concepts of acceptable behaviour and of right and wrong are permanently and universally valid. Thirdly, human personality, psychology — call it what you will — has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Many things have changed over the millennia — government in particular has evolved from the tribal assembly to that of the city state, through the nation state, to that of the international community (European Community). But what we tend to forget is that our generation didn’t invent the city, the nation, or even the “empire”. The process of urbanisation began between 4000 and 3000 BC – possibly in Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Indus Valley (north-west India), Iran (Persia), and Egypt. As these areas developed cities they evolved written, legal, government, economic, and religious systems on a par with our own. They handled diplomatic relations, international trade, war, employment, price and quality control, town planning, building standards (to name but a few), on a daily basis. Such areas as religion, recreation and social welfare were all catered for.
From 2000 BC this more sophisticated lifestyle began to spread to the fringes of Europe, with Cretan, Phoenician and Anatolian (Turkish) cultures creating “modern” systems and in particular international trade. By 700 BC in Greece urban areas (city states) began to grow, with a prosperity based on the manufacture and exchange of agricultural and other products. These cities were independent of each other and each set up colonies (mirror images of itself) all around the Mediterranean Sea. These cities — in particular Athens — began to gain a reputation for philosophy, literature, and above all experiments in government (democracy).
It is not always appreciated however that the “classical” Greeks in the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc. went for their tertiary education to Egypt — providing a link between the early Middle Eastern cultures and Western Europe. (Links between the Cretan culture of 2000 BC and Egypt were strong and Crete influenced Mycenae and Greece).
In the centre of Italy the town of Rome began to expand from around 300 BC, over the centuries taking over Italy, Greece, North Africa, West Asia, and a great part of Western Europe (excluding Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia). This Roman culture produced an international language (Latin) which is still the basis of many European tongues, a legal system on which much modern European law is based, a government system which has been adapted right up to modern times. Many Roman concepts and ideas in themselves were borrowed from Greece.
One point about these cultures over the past 6000 years is that they faced the same problems as we do today. Since they had evolved writing systems we can follow their recognition of these issues which we are still coping with today and their attempts to solve them. Surviving written material is more limited from Egypt and Mesopotamia, much less limited from Greece and Rome. (Even there a vast amount of material was lost during the Dark Ages after Rome fell). Because of the greater amount of source materials is from Greek and Roman sources we tend to make the mistake of thinking that their civilization was in some way on a higher plane than older cultures such as Sumeria.
Nor should we think that urban cultures parallel to our own represent a higher level of intelligence. For example the Celtic tribes of the Upper Danube and Alpine areas had a more rural-based culture which in intellectual achievement was on a par with their neighbours and contemporaries in Greece and Rome. Although literate, they preferred to learn by heart, and to learn through live discussion and argument, rather than via books. This indicates to us that we will probably never learn the real capacity of cultures such as that of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 8000 BC. We tend to judge a culture by the amount and quality of three-dimensional material remains it leaves behind. Perhaps the fact that the science of archaeology evolved in the materialistic Victorian Era has a lot to answer for!
What could these all have to do with one another? Be patient, and you will find out. History is a continuous process, with each event producing consequences which spread far and wide, over time and space. Again, situations arise over the millennia in nations which produce similar responses and consequences. Human response doesn’t vary from age to age. Nor do the basic problems communities face over time and space change much either.
We have all heard of Tutankhamun, the boy-king whose tomb seems to be better known than the young ruler himself today. No doubt the shortness of his reign accounts to some extent for this. Similarly his father Amenhotep IV has been a shadowy figure with reaction to his rule depriving future generations of historians of a source of interesting material. Sometimes there is a reverse reaction to a ruler’s actions Henry VIII performed similar deeds, provoking a stormy reaction which has given “grist to the historian’s mill”ever since. Which is better – obscurity or notoriety? Perhaps Henry was less lucky because now everybody is an “expert”on his deeds, whereas the students of Akhenaten have had to do some hard work over a century or so. If I may be excused a side-step, both monarchs were followed by “boy-kings” of limited survival periods but this is perhaps purely coincidental! Edward VI, Henry’s son, had a weak chest – Tutankhamun on the other hand is still the subject of debate on the question of “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
In the case of both Amenhotep, or Akhenaten as he is probably better known, it was religion which loomed large in his story. Egypt in the period we are looking at – around 2000 BC – had a religious system with a whole range of national, international, provincial, local deities serviced by priests, administrators, servants, tenants, and possessing wealth, temples, hospitals, educational establishments. Many aspects of this would be familiar to folk in Henry VIII’s day too. It could be said that the Pharaoh, as well as being the titular ruler of the state, had a prime responsibility for the army, defence, law and order, taxation, social and economic issues etc. Christian Europe of the sixteenth century was not all that different. In both periods clashes occurred between the religious establishment and the state as embodied in the Pharaoh/King. In Europe there was only Christianity embodied in two main groups – Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Eastern Church. In Egypt there was a vast range of gods and goddesses ranging from powerful gods like Amun to humble household spirits. The temple set-ups of the great gods provided a challenge to temporal authority. Also it could well be felt that such a multiplicity of expressions of religious feelings could well be condensed into a simple faith headed by one supreme Deity.
Such a religious set-up however, greater even than that of Amun, could have immense influence over the state. Amenhotep tackled the problem by establishing himself as the founder of the new faith, its creator. The new religion was to be centered around the Sun, with the Pharaoh as its manifestation, so to speak. The monarch changed his title to Tutankhaten, in honour of the Sun God Aten. Temples of the old gods were closed – no doubt their immense assets “nationalized” (Wonder why Henry VIII springs to mind)? It is a pity that subsequent Egyptian rulers deprived us of much knowledge of how this was done because it sounds virtually unbelievable. Perhaps the traditional gods were losing their ground with the people – perhaps the combined personality of the Pharaoh and the heat of the Sun were deemed to be insuperable – perhaps taxes to one combined religious establishment were lower than hitherto (or am I being cynical)? Anyway the new system was established and survived the rest of Akhenaten’s reign – and he too survived!
Apparently there was an immense freeing-up of art and culture during this period. Akhenaten established a new capital city – Amarna – and there must have been a great “breath of fresh air” in what had been a stuffy and traditionalist Egypt. Some scholars have suggested that Akhenaten was acquainted with Moses, who was also an exponent of the concept of One God. There is however a lack of evidence to this effect. It could well be that there was an underlying feeling that the multiplicity of deities was becoming too complex generally. Akhenaten was less successful in areas like foreign policy and Egypt’s territories and influence shrank during his reign. His son Tutankhaten on inheriting power changed his title to Tutankhamun – an indication that his counsellors had restored the old religion headed by the great god Amun. Not surprisingly political chaos reigned supreme for years as the old ways were restored. The great new capital Amarna was literally razed to the ground, with the foundations only being discovered in recent years. (It would almost seem that one “modern”king, Louis XIV knew all this. He called himself the Sun King and images of the sun dominated Versailles as they had dominated Amarna all those years earlier).
TO BE CONTINUED———
Humanity sometimes gives the impression of an obsession with age. Newspaper reports of things happening to people invariably seem to include the age of the person concerned. Fashion is dictated by age. In the social side of life age categories dominate. Did Shakespeare create the tendency with his often-quoted “Seven Ages of Man”? (It is perhaps significant that the ladies seem to have raised no objections to the title.) Shakespeare often tended to be a trend-setter.
In the early 19th. century a Danish prehistorian Thomsen carried Shakespeare’s concept a stage further, in looking at not individual Man, but Mankind. If we assume that a main difference between humankind and the animal kingdom was the ability to use tools, then the idea arose that the development of human civilization could be measured by developments in the tools being used. In Thomsen’s time the idea was that the history of mankind’s development could be divided into three areas. These were Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age. Soon however folk came along to make it more complicated – surprise, surprise! It was felt that the use of stone world-wide as a tool source came in three phases. These were Paleolithic (Old Stone), Mesolithic (Middle Stone), Neolithic (New Stone) Ages. In addition it was found that in certain parts of the world people did not use the more sophisticated bronze straight away, with its addition of tin to make it harder, but instead for a period (usually brief) made do with softer pure copper. So for them the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age appears between Neolithic and Bronze.
There are however significant weaknesses in this basically Three Age System. One complaint about learning History is its apparent obsession with Dates. But when it comes to putting dates on these periods of civilization we run into problems. Nowadays we are so used to instant reactions world-wide to change that we have problems with the concept that one part of the world might have adopted bronze while another culture some distance away might go on using stone for many hundreds of years thereafter. There are several reasons for this. Bronze required copper and tin (the latter a comparatively rare ore). The technology of finding and mining both and even more of smelting and processing was daunting. It often meant importing the ores which had to be paid for by goods in exchange. In fact international trade and navigation got a great boost when bronze came into use. Also if stone meets your needs effectively why get into bronze with all its complications – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The Iron Age leaves us with problems. Depending on where you were it could have been said to appear between 1500 BC and 500 BC. But communities in the Pacific Ocean were spared this innovation until the 1800’s AD. Again, it would be interesting to compare the use of iron in Roman times, say, with the use of iron in 1890 , and again in 2016.Between Roman and Victorian times iron was accompanied with timber, bronze, stone etc. But by the 19th.centurt the use of iron increased massively with the coming of steam-driven machinery, iron ships, utensils and items of all kinds. So did the European Iron Age begin around 500 BC or 1800 AD?
Another problem future archaeologists will have to contend with is the impact of new metals and technologies. From the beginning of the 20th. century aluminium and related light alloys have contended massively with iron. From the latter years of Victoria’s reign our tools have been driven by electric power – the Electric Age? If Communication is regarded as more important than the use of tools what about the Electronic or the Digital Age?
A side issue arising from the “Age” system of tracking the movement of culture is the assumption that each age marked an increase in basic human intelligence. If “necessity is the mother of invention” does that mean that as people evolve new methods of doing things they automatically become more intelligent? Humanity’s track record from the time bronze replaced stone doesn’t seem to bear this out. Conversely, did Robinson Crusoe become less intelligent when he had to go back to earlier ways? There seems to have been a Victorian concept that people who got together in cities, used metals, law, writing, political systems were in some way of superior intelligence to other communities still leading a more simple life. We still seem to be stuck in that materialistic groove. Until fairly recently in archaeology societies which produced the megaliths were regarded as inferior to the urban societies of, say, Sumeria and Egypt.
We could ask ourselves what is progress – how do we measure it? Medicine has made enormous advances, but the resulting increase in the world’s population has not been catered for by advances in agriculture and trade. Advances in military technology are not an acceptable answer to the population problem. Did the Bronze – Iron – Digital Ages produce answers?