It’s always gratifying when people ask you back to do things. Back in February Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures, and I taught some final year students of Patience Schell, one of the lecturers in Trans-Atlantic History at the University of Manchester. The purpose of the session was to show how ideas about ethnography and archaeology were influenced by the Enlightenment. This may be useful for the Ancient Worlds displays opening in October 2012.
We talked about how prehistoric stone implements that were found in Roman times were not interpreted as the material remains left behind by people who lived long ago but were thought to be fossilised or petrified thunder bolts (ceraunia) or even animals’ tongues or glossopetrae. Such thunder stones were placed in the roofs of buildings to prevent them from being struck by lightening or placed in cattle troughs so that the animals would drink of the supposed magical qualities of these stones and be cured of illnesses caused by sorcery.
When Europeans discovered the Americas at the end of the 15th century they found native peoples still using stone tools and the penny dropped: the stone curiosities previously thought to be thunder stones or fossilised animal tongues were evidence that the ancestors of those Europeans had had a Stone Age too.
This carried with it perhaps the inevitable conclusion that human beings had advanced in a series of chronological, cultural, and economic and political stages and that Europeans had progressed more than other peoples, an idea that would be further reinforced by the misapplication of Darwin’s theory of evolution to societies (social Darwinism) in the 19th century.
This is expressed in John Lubbock’s Prehistoric Times – a Victorian best-seller – where comparisons are drawn between contemporary peoples and earlier cultures known from archaeological work in Europe, e.g. the Inuit and hunter gatherers from the end of the last Ice Age. Looking at how living less technologically advanced peoples used stone tools shed light on what people in the Stone Age were doing with tools like flint scrapers. However Lubbock could not bring himself to identify with the less technologically advanced peoples encountered by the British Empire as potential ancestors of the British. He frequently refers to the Zulus, Australian aborigines and Tasmanians as childlike, feckless and unhygienic, even disgusting. We find these value judgements of entire peoples shocking today but they have to be seen in the context of their time.
From such sweeping judgements and stereotyping it is but a small step to full-blown racism. If we understand the historical origin of such ideas, we can challenge them more easily. It was a fascinating session to teach using objects from both the archaeology and living cultures collections. Some of the characters in the Ancient Worlds galleries were influecned by these ideas and so material like this and the interpretations made of it might be featured in the new displays.