Looking at the past

Andrew Selkirk How can we make sense of the past? Let me explain how this book came about. My name is Andrew Selkirk and I am Editor-in-Chief of the magazines Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology.  I launched Current Archaeology with my wife in 1967 and I edited it for forty years.  I have now handed it over to my son and have now more or less retired (“Editor-in-Chief” really means retired).  But this means that I have studied archaeology and history in bits and pieces – Palaeolithic one day, Medieval the next, so I thought that in my retirement I should take an overall view of the past, and try to put it all together and see what it all means.

I began by thinking I would write a history of the world, but I soon realised that this was too ambitious, so being a good editor I edited my ideas down and decided I would concentrate on one big problem: why are Greece and Rome different? I decided I would concentrate on five major societies.  I would begin by concentrating on three of the major older societies – the Minoans, Egypt and China.  These I call ‘palace societies’.  Being essentially an archaeologist I began by analysing the cities to look at the architecture: how far does this reveal how were they ruled and how they worked?  I began by looking at the Minoans, a prime example of a palace-based society.  I then moved on to Egypt, more based around temples,  and I found a society which was very successful and very long lived. And then for something completely different, I decided to investigate China.  This was a bit of a shock and threatened to derail many of my ideas, but here again is a very long lived empire which began in 220 BC when six warring states were moulded into one, which still continues as a palace based empire,  ruled over by an emperor, who in theory at any rate is changed every ten years.  The story still continues.

Then we come to the second half of the story, Greece and Rome.  These are very different societies in that their central place was the market place: the agora in Greece or the forum in Rome.  This difference in architecture marks a very different form of society. Here we look at very different ideas, notably ideas of freedom and democracy.  Today democracy is a much used word, but does it really work?  Democracy was invented in Greece, and was tried, on and off, but it never worked for very long: but it was accompanied by immense changes in politics and the arts, in philosophy and the writing of history, and it is these changes that are perhaps more important than democracy.   

Then we come to Rome, one of the most successful empires the world has ever seen – but one of the most mysterious. It grew slowly – but having won its wars, its big success was in winning the peace afterwards. But having grown into a big empire, the system crashed and it went from being a rather chaotic and sort-of democratic republic into being a very successful empire. These are important questions to ask and difficult ones to answer. But if the rise of Rome is important, its decline and fall in many ways is equally important.

My theme begins with archaeology and the investigation of the archaeological layout of towns, looking at palaces, temples and then market places.  But the theme then turns to the broader aspects of society.  The palace societies may have been totalitarian but they were often very successful.  The Egyptians built the pyramids,  and in what we call the Middle Ages the Chinese society was far in advance of our society here in the West.  What price democracy? And in what way is a society that is based around the market place superior?

I have enjoyed putting together this new view of the past.  In editing and running Current Archaeology I have straddled the two worlds of scholarship and business,  not only following latest ideas of scholarship in writing the articles, but also being a businessman dealing with subscriptions, printers and advertising, and the whole world of business.  I like to think that this has enabled me to take a balanced view of the past — and a richer view too. 

I hope that if you are starting off on your exploration of the past, you will enjoy my account and find it a sound foundation for the study of the past.   And if you are already well versed in the study of the past I hope you find my views stimulating and coherent.  I trust you will not always agree with me – if you believe everything I say, I have failed. But I hope that disagreement will be rare, and that I will have stimulated you and that you will end up knowing how the ancient empires worked, and why Greece and Rome are different.


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1st August 2019