This is our truth, tell us yours
We blogged a few days ago about the way in which some politicians, deprived of the power to change the lives of ordinary people by their economic and ideological preconceptions, go in search of a legislative legacy to convince themselves it was all worth it. Another day, another entry for the Every Loser Wins Hall of Shame, as along comes Gavin Shuker, who at least has his unusual approach to christianity and entryism as an alibi for his determination to make life worse for sex workers.
OK, so here comes the now traditional digression as I try to connect the apparently entirely separate. In this juicy recipe for a blog, dear reader, I intend to try and combine Nye Bevan Day and bronze age burial rituals in a juicy salad shaped to resemble the pyramids of Egypt.
As a child at school there was a book on the shelves at the back of the room entitled ‘The Great Civilizations’. It was full of badly regurgitated history and archaeology about Greece, Rome and Egypt; the message, barely concealed, was that whatever was happening on these islands in those years was no match for the great and incomparable wonders of the Parthenon or the pyramids. Its other purpose, of course, as a thoroughly Whiggish history, was to reassure us that we were proud bearers of the Protestant British tradition, re-inventing ourselves to conquer the world in a way that the fly by night Romans, Greeks and Egyptians could only have dreamed of – if I tell you that our school bookshelves also included charming tomes on the joys of being one of the New Elizabethans, you can get a better view of the ideological perspective of the school’s book buyer.
That book on the Great Civilizations came back to mind as I watched a Time Team special on Sunday night that heavily featured the rescue archaeology being undertaken at Low Hauxley in Northumberland. Along the way the team visitted Maes Howe and explored the notion of mummification in Bronze Age societies on these islands.
Now, to me mummification had always been what the Egyptians did to their pharaohs; perhaps intended to reassure them that even if they were most likely to be deposed and killed off by a relative or ambitious competitor, their corpse would stay, unchanged, in its huge and impenetrable tomb.
What was striking about the review of the Bronze Age burial practices on the Time Team show were the references to the use of drilling and dowelling of joints on some of the skeletons, as if the corpses had been curated in order to enable them to be moved after death. In my mind’s eye I could picture a family group at special occasions placing their grandfather’s remains in a corner, or consulting him as some kind of oracle at times of need.
That’s a speculative vision, of course, but what was clear was that the people living here, at the time that the ‘great civilizations’ were unfolding elsewhere, had a complex culture, rooted in the abundant natural resources available to them, and a particular affinity for places – hence the number and variety of burials at Low Hauxley. They may not have built great tombs, at great expense, but as Time Team made clear in an all too short review of rock art in Northumberland, they also had, on top of their oral culture, a symbolic vocabulary in art that we have hardly begun to de-cypher, perhaps because we have been too much in awe of great civilizations elsewhere.
Is it so hard to extend that into a vision of a rural agrarian people, co-operative in habits and culture, connected to their ancestors and revering them not as remote figures entombed for ever in monolithic symbols, but living on amongst the community they brought into being? As a socialist, I think the contrast between that way of being and Egypt’s pyramids built by slaves should be almost too obvious for words.
Which brings me, inexorably, to Nye Bevan Day. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nye. But do we honour his memory and achievement by naming a day in his honour, or by asking ourselves, what would Nye have done? For sure, he was a proud and ambitious man, and never shy, despite his stammer, but would he want a day named in his honour, or in the honour of the many, the NHS workers and the service they deliver?