All history is biased. The best way to present an unbiased history is for the author to confess at the outset where he comes from, what ideas and influences he has enjoyed, and where therefore any bias may lie.
My name is Andrew Selkirk, and I am Editor-in-Chief of Current Archaeology and Current World Archaeology, Britain’s two leading archaeological magazines. However, now I have retired – or semi-retired – it is time to branch out, and having spent my career writing about archaeology in bits and pieces, it is time to pull it all together and to present my ideas of how we should interpret what happened in history.
I have always been an archaeologist. I began digging at school and then having done my National service in the Intelligence Corps, learning Russian, I went up to Oxford, where I read Greats (Latin and Greek) and became president of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. For 30 years, digging was my passion till eventually I realised I was better at writing about history than actually digging it up.
After Oxford I became a Chartered Accountant, believing that in order to study the past, one should first study the present; however fate beckoned, and while serving my articles with Smith and Williamson, I also became editor of Contra, the magazine of the Chartered Accountants Student Society of London. Finding that I was better at writing magazines than in doing accounts, I decided to launch a new magazine devoted to archaeology, having acquired a wonderful helpmate, my wife, Wendy.
But as editor of Current Archaeology, I have found myself straddling two worlds. For half of my life, I have been living in the academic world, writing about excavations and learning to make that leap from holes in the ground to history, and following the theories and controversies of the academic archaeological world.
But at the same time, I have also been a businessman, the publisher of Current Archaeology, dealing with printers, advertisers, and mastering the mysteries of postcodes and direct debits. And though I have given up accountancy completely, I have nevertheless kept an interest in accountancy and the world of finance and money.
These pages form an attempt to marry together the two very different worlds, the academic world, which is still far too much influenced by Marx, and the outside world which is all too often ignorant of what is going on in the world of academia. I am in a position to link the two, and these pages are the result of my endeavours.
The biggest change in my beliefs in my lifetime – and indeed the foundation for this book – was my conversion to what I suppose one must call ‘monetarism’. My discovery of monetarism was something of a ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion. I can even date it precisely, to the 6th Sept 1974. It was a time of political crisis: unemployment was raging, inflation was rising, and the Tories in opposition were beginning to have a lot of new ideas as to what should be done. At this juncture, Sir Keith Joseph, the political guru and mentor to Margaret Thatcher, delivered a series of three speeches which outlined the new philosophy. Of these, the most important was that delivered at Preston, on September 5th 1974, saying that inflation was caused by governments. This was quite contrary to the prevailing Keynesian consensus, but it was immediately recognised to be a major statement: the next day, the Times published it in full. I read and reread it, and was immediately converted: I became a monetarist. (It is available on-line in the Margaret Thatcher archive).
Hitherto I had been a Keynesian of sorts. I had read and in places re-read his General Theory, but with considerable suspicion, not quite understanding it, but suspecting it to be too clever by half. Keith Joseph provides the antidote, and thereafter for the next half a dozen or more years, I immersed myself in the works of the two great sources of monetarism – Hayek and Milton Friedman. From Hayek I read The Road to Serfdom, and in particular The Constitution of Liberty, which remains the bible of my beliefs. And I read Milton Friedman, at first his splendid little Capitalism and Freedom, and then I tackled his magnum opus, The Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960, which he wrote with Anna Schwartz. As a historian, this was a book that changed my world, as it showed how money, and economics, underlay much of the history of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the details were beyond me, as they would be beyond anyone not totally immersed in the economic history of the United States in the 19th century. But it showed me how history should, and indeed must, be written – always keeping an eye on what is happening with money.
(delete?) I learnt too of the limits of monetarism. Money does not explain everything in history – not by a long way. It is one of those underlying factors that may be implicated in perhaps a third of the story of our past. For long periods, when money was stable, it played no role. In the rise of Rome for instance, and in the industrial revolution, money only serves as a footnote. But in other periods, in the rise of Greece, and in the decline and fall of the Roman empire, – to say nothing of the French Revolution and the rise of the Nazis in 20th century, money and inflation played a major role: if you fail to understand the importance of money in these periods, the periods do not make sense. The story of money is one of the most important sources to which the historian must pay attention, and is one of the bases of my investigations into Barbarism and Civilisation.
I also began to study anthropology and in particular what is somewhat unhappily called gift exchange, though I think that the medieval word feudalism in many ways a better term. In particular I studied the Polish anthropologist Malinowski and his description of how life was lived in the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific.
Alongside the anthropology I was much influenced by Karl Polanyi, the eccentric but stimulating Austro-Hungarian refugee who assembled a fascinating set of studies of Trade and Market in the Early Empires, distinguishing between ‘trade’ which was carried out in the pre-market economies, and ‘market’ which took place in the market economies. It was then that I began to realize the importance of money that made market economics possible: this is the dark secret of the Greeks.
However little of this had been applied to the great classical civilizations. Moses Finlay pointed out that the world of Homer was a world of gift exchange, but he failed to realise that a revolution took place between Homer and the classical Greek world with the introduction of money and the market economy. He clearly never read Hayek. It has been left to a new generation of classicists to appreciate that the Greek economy was monetized.
Another big inspiration came when I decided to change the title. Originally I called this book Barbarism and Civilization: I still like to think I am talking about civilization for I think that a civilized society is one that allows its citizens to ‘do their own thing’, and doesn’t try to bully them into towing the party line. But the trouble is that barbarism is not exactly a word that fits well with ancient Egypt. So one day I decided on a new title: why not call it, the Dark Secret of Ancient Greece, the dark secret being money, which is what the book is all about.
But more and more, I have come to realise that economists have misunderstood money. The prime point about money is that it gives you choice and choice means freedom and democracy. The great philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek emphasized the importance of markets, and much of this book is based on his ideas. But the trouble is that Hayek, who in most things is my guru, got his history wrong and never realised that primitive societies operated by gift exchange. Indeed I am always surprised that Hayek and Malinowski spent the 1930s teaching at the same university, the LSE, but clearly they never met. This disassociation between anthropologists and economists – which I call the Adam Smith syndrome, for it goes back to Adam Smith – has dire consequences, for politicians fail to recognise that what is called the third world operates extensively by gift exchange economics and that if we wish them to adopt some of the ideas of the Western world, we should encourage them to change their economic basis first, and only when they have moved over to a market economy should they be encouraged to think about democracy.
Indeed elements of the gift exchange still persist in our own society, where prestige is still an important element. We need to realise that some of the aspects of primitive societies, the importance of family, tribe and village provide the glue that holds society together.
Here then are my beliefs – my biases – that provide the framework of my story. But I should not end without mentioning the biggest influence of all, which has been the influence of writing Current Archaeology. Our wonderful readers taught me a lot, how to construct a good story, how to focus on specific examples and explain them in full, and ensure that they are coherent. I hope I have succeeded in telling a good story, and that you will enjoy this account of the ancient empires and the disruption caused by the advent of money – and the advent of the wonderful new worlds of Greece and Rome.
On to the Trobriand Islands