S p r in g 2 0 0 6 Volume 29 No. 1 Issue No. 75
0 8 The archaeology of insurrection: St
Stephen's Green, 1916
1 2 a good walk ruined . . .
1 7 Continuity and change on Achill
2 2 Brought to book—the potter and the pot
2 6 Secrets of the bog bodies: the enigma of the Iron Age explained
3 2 Bog butter: dating profile and location
3 5 Know your monuments: Holy wells
3 9 An Alderney axe
0 4 News
0 6 Quote unquote
4 2 Book news
4 9 Hindsight
/Vchqeology Grinding axes T here appears to be a widespread supposition that any old ideas still hanging around are to be viewed w ith suspicion and that contemporary analysis will supplant them w ith a truth of superior quality. Obviously this is not always the case. The prison sentence handed down to David Irving in Austria for his interpretation of the Holocaust, presumably aimed at an audience who wanted to gloss over this most unsavoury episode of world history, shows that misrepresentation of the past can be crim inally offensive.
Author Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code has shown how a work of fiction based on imaginative research can become a proxy version of history for the book-buying public. What underlies the huge popularity of this publication is not exactly clear, but it would appear that the readership had their appetites whetted by a well-lubricated publicity machine. The concept of a conspiratorial corruption involving the Vatican and shadowy secret organisations perhaps proved totally irresistible.
One of the interesting things about the disciplines of archaeology and history is how the interpretation and analysis of the past changes as time moves on. It is usually the views of a few that influence the understanding of the many. Over the last couple of hundred years major advances have been made in understanding the extensive timeline that forms our prehistoric, Early Christian and medieval past. In our assessment of the material evidence over such a vast timespan it is difficult to be accurate in everything that may be deduced.
The Victorian catechetical fashion of teaching us about the past has left this generation w ith many traditional concepts that can be overturned quite easily w ith the application of modern sophisticated and technologically advanced research techniques and narratives. Overturning the colourful and often entertaining explanations of past generations is part and parcel of advancing our study of the past. But what we replace them w ith needs to be carefully scrutinised.
One of the unforgivable things about modern analysis is the projection of contemporary political opinion and precepts into the explanation of events that took place millennia, centuries or merely decades ago. Take, for example, the debates around the causes, the events, the results and the significance of the rebellion that happened in Dublin 90 years ago, or the blood-letting slaughter that took place at the Somme in the summer of the same year. The traditionalists, the revisionists and the anti-revisionists, all grinding axes of various classifications, can create an endless and frustrating cycle of coded argument that masks the evidence and clouds the accuracy of the accounts of the events that are being studied. The past is actually being used to argue present-day issues.
That is not to say, of course, that the past should not be debated and argued over. Debate is an essential and logical consequence. However, it should be made clear what contemporary baggage we are bringing to our appreciation of the past. It would appear that in many instances we are looking fo r explanations that we in the twenty-first century feel comfortable w ith— explanations and accounts that harmonise w ith the image that we have of ourselves, the image that we want others to have of us and the images of the past that we have inherited. It is important to realise that 'w e ' are not any one thing. While we share many similarities in outlook, we can be divided on issues such as religion, belief, social class or economic background. There is an even greater chasm between our worldview and that of past generations. Recognition of this will allow us to understand one another and the past better.