It’s a truth self-evident that history is about questions. Some of them have answers, such as when did so and so live or die. Some are Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns; we know that someone was Jack the Ripper but not who, or that the Princes in the Tower disappeared but not why. And some questions await further evidence, like who actually among the parade claiming the title of first Europeans actually did disturb the equilibrium of North America.
All good so far, you may say. But then there’s ‘interpretation’ masquerading as a question answered. It came up again last night. The talk was on a piece of real estate where once was found a Coptic bowl. The significance of such a piece of religious paraphernalia found thousands of miles from its origin is that the only other site nearby where one was discovered was the Anglo-Saxon treasury at Sutton Hoo. So the question of the evening left hanging was just that; was there another burial site waiting to be discovered?
But in passing almost, we were shown the archaeological report drawings showing that there was previous habitation on the site. They found an extensive ring ditch system of Bronze/Iron Age construction. “For defensive purposes” was the answer to the question.
But hang on a minute. Imagine you, your neighbours, but not aunty Betty because of her leg, were asked to defend your home… I say asked, but probably told was more like it. Just think about how long it would take just to take off the topsoil. The ditch, like so many prehistoric ditches was wide and deep – nearer six feet across and the same to the bottom. And there it was, on the map, trailing on for hundreds of yards, representing years of work.
Those people who dug that ditch had lives. Crops had to be grown or they would die. Animals had to be managed or they would die – and if they died the people would not be far behind.
It’s a common sense question. Thousands of man hours (yes I know, but it’s an expression. If you don’t like it, complain to the chair) were expended digging a hole in the ground. For why?
Picture the scene… It’s a dark day in the bronze age and tribe A notices that a large number of its deadly enemy, tribe B have gathered across the flat field doing things that tribes do before attacking. But, says the chief, we’ve got that ditch you kind folks spent the past 15 years digging. That will save us.
Come on. Anyone that has been in the scouts or played paint ball would laugh that a ditch would provide anything other than temporary shelter against stones, arrows and spears, and a base from whence to mount the final attack. Moreover, internecine warfare likely had honour and religious overtones (all unknowable) so it’s my guess that tribe met tribe on the field outside the village rather than waiting inside the village simply to defend an attack.
Look around the world. Did other primitive subsistence agrarian economies routinely dig ditches to keep out the enemy? Walls yes, ditches no. Ok, so I bet you’re thinking there may have been a palisade as well, but while there were the marks of the post holes for dwellings, there were none for a wall.
I just wish that the know-it-all interpreters would just stop digging when it comes to locating an easy answer to deceptively difficult questions.