According to Simon Schama, women with fat backsides are “symbols of archaic spirituality”. I’ve been called a lot of things in my time, but I’ve never been called a symbol of archaic spirituality before: I rather like that idea. Unfortunately, I think he was only talking in terms of statues of earth mother goddesses from around 35,000 BC. Then he moved on to a later statue, and said that this represented the “dawn of the idea of beauty”. Needless to say, the “idea of beauty” statue did not have a fat bum. Typical. Boo!!
I wasn’t born until several years after the 1969 “Civilisation” series, and have never seen it, but I gather that that was very Eurocentric and that this one is very worthily trying to show art history in terms of worldwide civilisations. Next week’s episode is going to include the Terracotta Warriors, which I was lucky enough to visit last year – when, despite having a first class degree in history, I knew embarrassingly little about Chinese history prior to the Opium Wars, and had to start pretty much from scratch in reading up on it. We do still tend to learn things from a Eurocentric viewpoint, so kudos to the BBC for trying to do this differently. “Worthily” can often be a synonym for “boringly”, but this actually wasn’t bad at all. Simon Schama is great, and Mary Beard and David Olusoga, who’ll be presenting some of the other episodes, are great too: they’re all enthusiastic and knowledgeable without being either patronising or over-bouncy. The one big snag was that, because they are trying to cover so much, it was quite bitty and jumped around a lot. We got bits about lots of things, rather than a lot about anything. But you can only fit so much into an hour-long episode.
It started off extremely movingly, talking about the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the elderly curator of Palmyra, by Islamic State after he refused to tell them where he’d hidden some of the irreplaceable artefacts from the ancient city. That was really emotional, as were the pictures of the destruction of Palmyra. IS are not the first people to carry out horrific cultural vandalism in the name of either politics or religion, and sadly they probably won’t be the last, and the point made was that “When its opposite shows up, we know what civilisation is”.
After that, we got all sorts of different things. Some of the civilisations you would have expected to be mentioned, notably ancient Egypt, never got a look in, but I assume they’re going to feature in later episodes. Even so, there were so may different things that it wasn’t easy to keep up, but they were all very impressive. Ancient paintings on the walls of caves in Spain, Paleolithic statues (with or without fat bottoms), the development of writing in Ur, the development of “social art” by the Minoans, the depiction of Greek warriors in Mycenae, the art of ancient China, the stunning architecture of Petra, and the art and architecture of the Mayans. And the actual pictures, especially of Petra and the Spanish cave paintings, were superb.
It wasn’t just art. We were told about the importance of irrigation in early Middle Eastern cultures, the role of trade in the development and decline of Petra, and we got an interview with a descendant of the Mayans (and I actually understood quite a bit of the Spanish, hooray!), and it was pointed out that the depictions of ancient Greek art predated Homer’s epics by 700 years. There really was a lot of genuinely interesting stuff in it, but it wasn’t particularly coherent – but I don’t know how you can be coherent when you’re trying to cover the whole world, and most of what you’re covering happened at a time when there was no contact between the different civilisations involved. And I like the idea of being a symbol of archaic spirituality. I shall remember that line 🙂 .