“….so, this year it is Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Court, and next year we’ll be in Sumeria.” Running around getting things organised for the workshops always involves the attempted acquisition of some strange items. I frequently get asked what I’m hoping to use them for and that inevitably leads to questions about what we do, how and why.
“Sumeria?” The face was blank.
“An ancient civilisation, goes back five thousand years and more…” The face brightened with understanding.
“Oh.” There was a weird sort of relief too. “Cave men,” she said, thereby dismissing the great city of Uruk with two words.
“Not exactly…” But where do you start? The great walled city of Uruk, home to around eighty thousand people, was founded six thousand years ago, predating the rise of ancient Egyptian civilisation by a thousand years. The Sumerian culture had been growing for a long time before that too.
Say ‘Egypt’ and everyone thinks of the fabulous art, the gold and the temples that remain. We have no problem accepting that ancient Egypt was civilised, but unless there is a particular interest, most of us don’t have much of an idea about dates. Say, ‘five thousand years ago’ and ‘cave man’ is still the image in many minds. Say ‘prehistoric’ and that conjures dinosaurs, say ‘stone age’ and you are probably thinking Fred Flintstone.
Prehistoric means simply that period before written history… and written language first began, we believe, in Sumeria… over five thousand years ago. Archaeology has revealed the beauty and artistry of the culture, from musical instruments to fabulously worked gold and miniature carved seals. Prior to the beginnings of written history, the prehistoric culture was already exceptionally rich.
The various ‘Ages’, like Stone, Bronze and Iron, refer in brief to a leap in technology. Thus, the basic advance in the Bronze Age was the ability to work with metal. Before that, stone was the prime technology and, while it may have begun with the use of a simple rock or a worked flint arrowhead, it ended with the complexity of the enigmatic monuments that still draw us today.
Stonehenge is perhaps the best known in this country. No mere pile of rocks, but a fantastic feat of engineering by any standards, where mortice and tenon joints allow the stones, weighing tons apiece, to ‘float’ above the circle. The construction of Stonehenge too was begun five thousand years ago. What remains suggests a complex mathematical and geometrical understanding, even though it may not have taken the form we now use. It also implies a knowledge of astronomy as well as an established culture strong enough to build the monument. And Stonehenge is just one of over a thousand known circles in these islands…
But why does it matter? That is another question frequently asked regarding the workshops. What possible benefit can there be to delving into the past for our workshops, be it the few hundred years back to the Elizabethan Court, or a few thousand?
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