Friday, November 12, 2010

Ancient Worlds on BBC 2

On Wednesday I began watching Ancient Worlds on BBC 2. It is a review of regional "civilisations", focussing upon their urban achievements (literally civitates). Presented by Dr Richard Miles.

On the whole I liked it, although I think Dr Miles laid on the "globalisation" propaganda a bit too thick. Ancient cultures may have been inter-connected, but they thought of their own part of oikoumene as unique and their own particular polis as the centre of the world. And although Dr Miles showed us lots of evidence of ancient travel, the vast majority of the world's population never left their own village.



Above: the Sumerian exhibits in the British Museum.

The part of the programme I most enjoyed was the section on the Sumerians. Often I go to the British Museum to look at the Sumerian room. I'm not sure what it is about this early culture that attracts me so much.



Above: a ram caught in a thicket - Genesis 22, verse 13.



Above: steps of the British Museum (picture taken in the summer).

A recent post by Grant McCracken (http://cultureby.com/2010/11/a-marketing-miracle.html) made me think about the purpose of the great London museums and galleries. Grant had been disappointed by the glass cases of the Victoria & Albert Museum ("everything ranged coldly on shelves" as Dr Aziz would say). Is this a cultural difference between the New World and the United Kingdom?

Why do British people feel satisfied with a purely visual experience? Is there something about the objects being captured and contained in a glass case that adds to the sense of satisfaction? On a sub-conscious level are we seeing a cultural reflex at work?

The big London museums present themselves as international centres of scientific learning, and to a certain extent that is true. But they are also undoubtedly filled with the plundered treasures of imperium. Walking in these galleries must have seemed, to our great-grandparents, as if they had entered the allegorical world of The East offering its riches to Britannia (http://www.flickr.com/photos/22955235@N00/638426578/ ).

In that respect the British Museum is the curiosity cabinet of the nation (like the millions of glass display cabinets in British sitting rooms, filled with knick-knacks, holiday souvenirs and Coronation mugs).

There is also the sense that the Victorians were attempting to dominate and subdue The Past itself, as if all the unknown jumble of history and archaeology could be captured, analysed and explained in a continuous progression of improvement (with the unspoken implication that the United Kingdom was the final and logical expression of that process - "and here we are today...").

What is to be done?

Should we sweep the old museums away and replace them with institutions that more fully represent who we are now? Or do we leave them, accepting that who we are now is more or less who we were then, both good and bad (including a genetic disposition to dominate others). Freudian psychology suggests that if you try to repress aspects of yourself those repressions tend to burst out in unexpected ways - the supposedly socialist government of the last twelve years carried out no less than five neo-imperialist wars.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00w0dqx/Ancient_Worlds_Come_Together/

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

This series is complete crap. I have no idea what he is talking about. He mentions distasters but never explains them. He lists kings and princes I have never heard of and cannot link anything together. I don't have a degree in ancient history from Cambridge so I have no idea what he is talking about. Even the Private Life of Chickens was more interesting than this, and that's saying something. David Howard

jamesIanderson said...

I only caught the last ten minutes of tonight's programme, but within that time, the presenter said that "the Greek alphabet had thirty letters or less" he also stated that something or other was "neither....or....". Surely if he can not know the difference between 'fewer' and 'less', nor the difference between 'nor' and 'or' in modern English, what confidence can we have in his expertise in more arcane tongues?

Anonymous said...

I watched this installement of ancient worlds twice. Rather than purchasing a sensationalised foreign interpretation of historical facts with softcore style reinactments we are actually making our own and getting it right. I cannot comment on the factual accuracy but felt the story unfolded relevant to its breif rather than following the story of a basic chronological event. Totally engaging. Well done... Oliver

annietoy said...

Poor Mr Howard. The Stuff that's coming out now about the Really Early european history, which is mostly East of Istanbul, is exciting and absolutely fascinating. New Stuff! This, coupled with Dr Miles' idiosyncratic, muscular presentation is so refreshing. He Looks like someone who's done time with a paintbrush in a hot, dusty place and prolly did time with the SAS before. I was in Byblos earlier this year, and in Damascus and beside the River Euphrates. So Good to see them again on the telly. The history of civilisation is Not synonymous with that of post-Christian "western" Europe and it's high time the balance was redressed. This series is Well-timed and very welcome.

Anonymous said...

This series is written and presented by someone whose area of expertise clearly lies in Classical Mediterranean history. I do have a degree in ancient history and Egyptology and found Miles's simplistic and outdated conclusions on Mesopotamian and, most especially, Egyptian history to be dreadful. Miles's abrasively pretentious presentation style aside, the lack of up to date research on the birthplaces of civilisation - the sources of everything that created the Classical civilisations about which he is clearly far more enthusiastic - is simply insulting. To hear someone presented as a serious academic attributing the collapse of the Bronze Age international system entirely to the Sea Peoples on national television decades after that theory was thoroughly discredited within academia itself serves only to demonstrate why no really serious academic ever appears on television documentaries.

Anonymous said...

This is just a BBC talking head lecture.

What is the point of a 74 year old developing technology like television, if it just throws up something that could work even better as a radio broadcast?
There are long descriptions complicated by having no reconstructions, no CGI not even one Artists impression. The Chronicle series of 40 years ago did this sort of subject FAR better. Without the presenter constantly walking up to camera, walking away from camera...being beautifuly side lit from a setting sun... just get off the screen...WE DONT NEED TO SEE YOU!!
unless the BBC think it will help flogging the book,,,the DVD ...the tea cup coaster?

Andonis said...

I watched the "Greek Thing" and apart from an interesting point of view which is trying to shade a light over the "dark side" of the Greek civilisation, I found that the approach is oversimplifying and inaccurate. It would take pages to even start a conversation about how anyone may chose a few incidents in history and support whatever point she or he wants to make, but concerning the subject of inaccuracy I’d like to raise just a couple of issues:

A) There were Theban soldiers fighting with the Spartans and the Thespians in Thermopylae? If this is true why then the Thebans were stigmatized for their collaboration with the Persian invaders? The dishonor of Thebes for that matter ended up to the complete destruction of the city by Alexander the Great, who used this particular argument, and many city states advocated for his action based on this issue. As we read in Herodotus, the Theban soldiers were kept as hostages in Thermopylae and in fact they changed sides just before the battle. Moreover it is easy to find further evidence on this debate at the third book of Thucydides, the most prominent example of unbiased historian of the ancient times.

B) Was Sparta the only case of Greek city states which had kings? And what about Macedonia? But near the end of the documentary we are informed by the archaeologist and historian Richard Miles that the Macedonians were the OUTSIDERS who united the fractious Greeks". As an archaeologist he should go to Pela and Vergina to see what the excavations have revealed for these "outsiders", their language, their religion, their art. And as a historian he ought to know that the Macedonians participated in the Olympic Games, a privilege reserved only for the Greeks (there is a record of Alexander, a king of Macedonia prior to the Great one, who won the chariot race in the Olympic games).

I may not be a professional historian but I would expect that someone who claims to be one and is paid to inform other people on historical and cultural issues should be aware of the material that can be found in any decent history book which respects the historical and archaeological evidence (and a good start, apart from the ancient resources, could be Hammond, N. G. L., and G. T. Griffith: A History of Macedonia Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Otherwise BBC could employ just any chap who is interested in history to tell us his own fairytale.

Andonis said...

I watched the "Greek Thing" and apart from an interesting point of view which is trying to shade a light over the "dark side" of the Greek civilisation, I found that the approach is oversimplifying and inaccurate. It would take pages to even start a conversation about how anyone may chose a few incidents in history and support whatever point she or he wants to make, but concerning the subject of inaccuracy I’d like to raise just a couple of issues:

A) There were Theban soldiers fighting with the Spartans and the Thespians in Thermopylae? If this is true why then the Thebans were stigmatized for their collaboration with the Persian invaders? The dishonor of Thebes for that matter ended up to the complete destruction of the city by Alexander the Great, who used this particular argument, and many city states advocated for his action based on this issue. As we read in Herodotus, the Theban soldiers were kept as hostages in Thermopylae and in fact they changed sides just before the battle. Moreover it is easy to find further evidence on this debate at the third book of Thucydides, the most prominent example of unbiased historian of the ancient times.

Andonis said...

B) Was Sparta the only case of Greek city states which had kings? And what about Macedonia? But near the end of the documentary we are informed by the archaeologist and historian Richard Miles that the Macedonians were the OUTSIDERS who united the fractious Greeks". As an archaeologist he should go to Pela and Vergina to see what the excavations have revealed for these "outsiders", their language, their religion, their art. And as a historian he ought to know that the Macedonians participated in the Olympic Games, a privilege reserved only for the Greeks (there is a record of Alexander, a king of Macedonia prior to the Great one, who won the chariot race in the Olympic games).

I may not be a professional historian but I would expect that someone who claims to be one and is paid to inform other people on historical and cultural issues should be aware of the material that can be found in any decent history book which respects the historical and archaeological evidence (and a good start, apart from the ancient resources, could be Hammond, N. G. L., and G. T. Griffith: A History of Macedonia Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). Otherwise BBC could employ just any chap who is interested in history to tell us his own fairytale.

Anonymous said...

Great series. Thoroughly enjoyed.

Marina said...

I have been watching the Ancient world show about the Rome against Carthage.
They incorrectly start Hannibal's military expedition towards Italy from Saguntum. That is completely and utterly wrong. The start is in Qart Hadasht, Carthago Nova under Roman domination and Cartagena nowadays, some 300 km south of Valencia. That is the place where the silver mines were and although there was an earlier iberian settlement there (Mastia), the city was founded by Hannibal's brother-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair around 229-228 BC.
It is embarrasing for any one calling himself historian to make such a big mistake. They showed the image of the fortress of Saguntum, close to Valencia, which was sieged and captured by Hannibal on his way to Italy, because the city was, in fact, allied with Rome. Really pitiful such a mistake above all taking into account that actual Cartagena has one of the most remarkable Roman theatres in Spain and the archaeology in the city is richer and better preserved than in Sagunto, not mentioning that Cartagena's port was one of the best in the Mediterranean in Roman times and it is still one of the best natural ports nowadays. If that is the kind of history they teach in Great Britain I do not expect too much of future generations...

Livia said...

Really found that each programme added on to the next very nicely. Accessible and engaging even to a novice like me. Found his unassuming style just right. More please!

Anonymous said...

Like all such television programmes it is hugely simplistic. Thus Hannibal's march starts in Spain, more precision is not wanted.

For those who have no knowledge does it give any enlightment; to those who do does it really add anything.

I think the answer to both questions is YES and it is therefore A GOOD THING that the BBC commissioned the series.

A hope we will see another one in due course on some historical subject (we get quite enough game shows, current affairs, sport and soaps).

Anonymous said...

Contrary to my learned fellow posters, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. I thought it was very well presented with interesting viewpoints throughout. I like to hear of king's and princes and events that I have never heard
of before, because I think they call that... learning.

I have bought the DVD of the series for my 16 year old son for Christmas.

Excellent !

Brian said...

The historical inaccuracies and sometimes idiosyncratic presentation style did not dent my great enjoyment of Ancient Worlds. It was particularly gratifying to learn about ancient cultures other than the over-worked Egyptian and Roman models.

But I have a small question which I would be grateful of an answer to: In the opening sequence of the last programme in the series (No.6), some splendid Roman ruins featuring a rather stagnant green pool are shown. Where are these ruins located? Thanks.

Odette said...

Hi Brian, that's Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian, it's Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli