Sunday, 12 July 2015

Why I Like Ancient History

    It would be fair to say that, of all the things in the world, I am most interested in the human lives that were lived before about 500 years ago. I'm not completely uninterested in the modern world, or in the Columbian Exchange, or in the industrial revolution, or the impact of the various European empires on the world since 1492. It's just that I'm significantly more interested in the world before European domination. I'm not uninterested in natural history, either: I'm just a bit more interested in understanding sentient life.

     The books I buy - and I'm drowning in a sea of books at home - are either directly concerned with ancient life in some part of the globe or indirectly informative about it.

    I have several books about ancient Indian Ocean trade and none on the modern trade on the same seas. I have several ethnographic works about people living in New Guinea but none of them deal with the impact of Christianity, because (while that's certainly a fascinating and important topic in modern New Guinea) it's not really helpful in understanding what life may have been like in New Guinea before Europeans and the sweet potato came along. The only books I have on Britain and Europe are on the medieval period and before - anything else would just be a distraction. I'm interested, too, in the entire world before 1492: wherever humans lived, and not just wherever we can look at documentary evidence.

     There are a number of reasons for this. One is that it is much harder to find out about the world before 1492 than it is to find out about human history since then; it's more of a challenge. It requires skills, like language reconstruction and archaeological interpretation, and sometimes comparative ethnography, that I think are inherently interesting and enjoyable to work with. That's a key motivation, and it's one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to Indonesia: it takes time, effort, and skill to learn about it, and that makes the trickle of paydirt so much more rewarding.
These project books are almost entirely devoted to the Indonesian archipelago in the pre-Islamic/pre-colonial period, between Aceh and the eastern tip of New Guinea. Where other topics - mainland Southeast Asia, India, China - are mentioned, it is only as they relate to Indonesia. I have other project books on other topics, but most of them are about Indonesia. It is a very interesting place in its own right, but public ignorance and the challenge of finding out make it my vocation.
    Another (more important and edifying) reason is that I think the lives of the people who lived before 1492 - the vast bulk of humanity - have been unfairly neglected, and the people who lived them have been treated as fundamentally non-human exotic objects. People these days think of medieval people as so different from modern humans that they'll soak up all kinds of idiotic myths - like the one that says that medieval Britons drank ale because the water was too dirty. Partly this is due to sheer distance in time, but it's also to do with relevance: modern folk don't think ancient folk are relevant to their lives. That might be true. But I think it's myopic only to care about the things that directly affect your life. 'Useless' doesn't mean 'worthless'.

    Millions of people lived in the 'Aztec' Triple Alliance, and they lived full and varied lives like those of others humans. Recently, their marital practices were made a prop in a US Supreme Court opinion (wrongly, I think). Crack open a history of the world at the middle: if the narrative hasn't already gone through the whole of the fifteenth century I'll be quite surprised. I don't think this kind of thing is right.

    I believe sentient life is valuable. That's not based on religious reasoning or anything like that: I just value my own experiences and I'm curious to know what it would be like to live someone else's life - to know what foods they tasted, what emotions they were expected to feel, what social pressures, cosmologies, and art forms they were troubled by. I want to know wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, because knowing what it was actually like for people living in other times and at other places strips away the exoticism and puts us in their place. That means I'm interested in a certain kind of ancient history, and it's usually not pure political or military history.

    It is hard to take on board right away - it takes effort, I think - but the people who lived in pre-Columbian Tierra del Fuego had the same ability to experience the world as you do. (I'm sure you'll agree with the statement right away, but it will still take a while to fully consider the implications of this.) They lived human lives - like yours and mine, but with completely different experiences. It would be a sad world if nobody tried to grasp what those experiences were through the limited evidence available to us.

    And it is worth remembering that all of the things we have today came ultimately from the everyday acts of people in widely dispersed places on the planet: it would be wrong to simply ignore that in the focus on later developments. More importantly - I think more importantly - knowing the ancient origins of everyday things enhances our experience of the everyday things.

     Trying to understand the lives of people who lived so long ago is primarily an intellectual task, but it's also an exercise in compassion. And I don't think this compassion needs to be directed towards achieving a particular goal in the present day to be worth something.

12 comments:

  1. 'Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' is fighting words in the academy these days.

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  2. It's probably a bit petty of me to have digressed into a gripe about academic politics, since I think the point you're making is an important one, and one that I think most people with an interest in the human past will actually agree and sympathise with.

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    1. I don't really have a problem with fighting words. But in any case, I'm not using it in the sense of acquiring absolute knowledge of how things were exactly in the ancient past - it's not possible to know the exact position and momentum of every single particle in a Roman community. But we can get some sense of things, and every piece of evidence sheds new light.

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  3. Ranke, Droysen and co. In the 19th century would have agreed; they weren't stupid. People sometimes tilt at this strawman alleging that the only alternative to radical scepticism is some incoherent pretense to perfect objectivity, which no-one professes to posses (except maybe Hegel).

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    1. Lots of strawmen are involved whenever anyone says they think it's possible to know things.

      Anyone who professes solipsism or radical scepticism still has to eat and sleep, and you can't take a sceptical view on a truck hurtling towards you. How can someone who reasons by normal rules in daily life leave those rules behind when discussing academic subjects?

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  4. The Ancient World rocked!

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    1. I actually think it sounds horrible. Any time before smallpox vaccines and liberal democracy sounds a bit rubbish to me.

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  5. I would be very interested in hearing how you organize your project books! Consider doing a post on that.

    Part of the fun of ancient history is that it is very much like a puzzle--in modern history knowing *what* happened in very easy. Much more effort is put towards figuring out the meaning of what happened. Not so in the ancient world! There you must use an odd combination of things people have dug up out of the ground, found as relics in modern languages, taken from their DNA, or read in obscure and barely related texts and make it stick together as something coherent. Its kind of fun.

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    1. Ha, 'organize' my project books. Well, there isn't really much organisation.

      I suppose they tend to be regional - I've got sections on Java, New Guinea, etc - but some are by topic - literature, natural history, etc. I tend to start off with a broad topic and when I've filled the whole section of the project book I narrow it. For example: I started off with a 'natural history of Indonesia' section, with geology, flora, fauna, also human genetics, but now I've completely filled it with notes, so I'll split it up in a new project book - a separate section on geology, one on flora, one on fauna, etc.

      There's very little initial organisation: I just put notes where I think they should go (I've barely put anything in the literature section because so far I've put Javanese literature in the Java section, Malay literature in the Malay Peninsula section...). The process is evolving. It's the common law approach to note-taking.

      And I think it's absolutely fun to find out about these things. One of the reasons I've got so many notes on natural history is that I keep on chasing down notes in the literature about the uses of different plants and animals, which adds a whole extra layer of detail to the understanding of ancient lives.

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    2. What kind of notes do you include? Are these word-for-word excerpts from books, simply a list of references, or what?

      I ask only because I have had challenges recently organizing and recording my own notes on what I study. Looking for a sensible way to conduct research

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    3. Well, the way I do it has evolved over time. But I tend to quote if the information is new, or is really well-phrased, and I tend to paraphrase if I've seen the idea before but want to refresh it (or simply record that an author has mentioned it). These notes are for consulting later, so it's important that I have complete information. I use full sentences, unless I can use a convenient symbol ('=', for example). I always write an & for 'and' because I can write it much more quickly. Speed is definitely a consideration, but so is completeness.

      I use a Lamy fountain pen with black ink for the bulk of my notes. Their ink is long-lasting and I find their pens comfortable in the hand (I'm a leftie). I also use a full range of colours to highlight or to take supplementary notes (e.g., what wikipedia says, what I think about the idea, etc). I want the notes to be legible and memorable, and I think colour helps to do that. It also makes the page less monotonous to look at, so it's easier to go back and read the notes you've written before. My handwriting varies quite a bit but I can always read it and that's the important thing.

      Sometimes I draw artifacts, sketch maps, or diagrams as well, and I find that pretty helpful. It's time-consuming, but it can really help establish the things in your memory.

      I think that's about it, re:note-taking strategy. You just have to divide up your notes into convenient sections and use sturdy project books that won't get warped in your bag when you travel. The pages need to be reasonably solid, too. And then take down whatever information you feel it necessary to for whatever reason.

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  6. When did you start investing your time and resources to this scholarly understanding of ancient history? Like, what were you doing when you were 18 through to your 20s and such when it comes to this?

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You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.