17th December 2002: Human Civilization

There’s an exhibition in the Pointe Calliere Museum of History and Archaeology in the Old Port in Montreal, called “Varna”. It’s on tour from a museum in Varna, Bulgaria, and covers the history of Varna back to about eight thousand years ago.

Varna is Roman Odessos, on the Black Sea, in Thrace or Moesia Inferior, for people (like me) who haven’t been keeping up with more recent historical changes to geography. It’s right up by the Danube.

The exhibition goes backwards through time. It begins with two pairs of bracelets, one pair from 1400, the other from -4,700, then it takes you backwards through the Medieval period when Varna was part of the Ottoman Empire and before that the Byzantine, and then into Late Antiquity, when it was over-run with Bulgars and Avars, with their beautiful horse armour and belts with embroidery and carvings. They’re wonderul and mysterious and barbaric, and they followed the Visigoths across the Danube and nothing was the same after.

Then we went back before them, through the Roman period. It was interesting to see all of this, especially to consider how the pots and jugs and lamps of Roman and sub-Roman Varna are the same as the ones from Britain of the same period that I’m really familiar with. Almost all the physical objects in the King’s Peace world are actual real objects from museums somewhere… though I didn’t put the Roman Swiss Army Knife, from the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in, though I was longing to, because I knew nobody would believe it. It had a pair in this exhibition, there were lots of Roman medical tools (which instantly made me homesick for Gillian Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria, for which they were exactly period, and a manicure set, bronze, connected on an ivory ring.

Then came the Greek period, the Greek colony in Thrace, on the edge of civilization. There were some lovely statues of the gods, including the most three-fold Hecate I have ever seen, with six arms like Siva, with three faces, two in silhouette, and holding torches, with her dog at her feet, in bas-relief. There was also black and red figure ware. I still felt I knew where I was, in my comfortable familiar world that centres on the Mediterranean.

Then we went back to Thrace — this section was illustrated with quotations from Herodotus about the Thracians, and heads of ancient goddesses whose names are forgotten, and pots with figures of horses. Goddess figures, big-bellied, with breasts and vaginas and some with no heads — the sign says they’re fertility figures, but I wonder if they’re porn. They’re the shape I am. Rysmiel says they’re beautiful. Pots, more broken pots, not painted now, on backwards through the Iron Age, with some Phoenecian glass, and back into the Bronze Age, they sent people to fight at Troy, and a huge pig of copper, they had native copper, pots that seem amazingly sophisticated for how old they are, four thousand, five thousand years old, made when wheels were new.

After that, you go behind a curtain, and discover Copper Age Varna, before bronze, before wheels, the pots are twisted and pressed, when the native copper at Varna was a treasure that brought them goods up from the Mediterranean. Before the Pyramids were built, they were mining copper and making copper tools and trading them for shells and gold. There was gold here, gold cows with horns that were once sewn on to clothing, gold rings and necklaces of tiny rings, and tiny rings and shells. The tools were stone and copper, and they have found hundreds of graves, the men laid on their backs, the women curled on their sides facing towards the dawn, all richly accompanied with their goods from their life. They have learned so much about early copper working from these graves, and they date from -4,200 back.

Last, around one last corner, there is the oldest grave. In it, all the tools are stone. This is a neolithic burial, but among the stone tools are some shells, from the Mediterranean, trade goods, and beads of copper, used and valued for decoration before it was of any use, and one tiny bracelet worth of tiny gold rings, perhaps a couple of millimetres across each, thirty-five of them. They date from before -4,800 before the walls of Sumer were built, and they are the oldest worked gold in the world.

They were people, trading, making beautiful and useful objects, tending their dead and their living, with a very low life expectancy — 25 years by one calculation, reaching 40 was rare. (Though bone dating is far from an exact science, as was proved recently when they tested the techniques on a C.18 cemetery in London.) There they were, up on the Danube, with native copper, with the desire to adorn themselves, with cows, with mattocks and adzes and axes for work, with lives and deaths that can speak to us only through their artifacts, before history, but after thousands of years of pre-history of which we know, and can know, nothing whatsoever.

If there were a catastrophe now, Zorinth’s dad said, they would excavate this and say that in the late C.21 there was trade between Bulgaria and Quebec, but we don’t know what they traded, apart from archaeological items.

The copper beads were green with oxide. The bones could not speak, except to say there was someone here who lived and breathed and spoke and died beloved. The gold still shone, silent. Only the shells were eloquent of their origin, whispering to us of trade.

Make records. Remember everything and write it down, and tell what’s important to your children. Use as many alphabets as you can. Landfill broken things, never incinerate them. Practice burial, not cremation. There will come a time when we are dust, and people will look at our precious objects in museums and marvel that we lived and loved and touched what we touch and cared for what we care for. Let there be names and poetry to set beside them when that day comes.

Posted in Human culture, Life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face