Monday, December 21, 2015

Military History

I was doing some random searching around for good descriptions on the working of a standard archaeological "unit" (usually a 1 meter by 1 meter pit), and came across a website for the Sand Hill site. Lots of history, good archaeology going on there to uncover the various cultures that passed through. And this dig is where? Fort Bragg.

And it took me several minutes and another web search to recapture memory of my own history. Yes, Fort Bragg. Where I'd spent three years of my life. Odd that I could come that close to forgetting the name.

I've been noticing anew, that even in this age a lot of history still ends up mired in the lists of battles and kings and generals. The coming and going of the Neo-Assyrian Empire is one page of trade routes and early Iron Age technological developments, and nine pages of battles against Nubians and Kushites and their final fall to Babylonians and Medes at Harran.

And I think I know one reason why. History is written, as they say, by the victors. But I don't mean that here in the sense John Harington meant when he said "Treason doth never prosper."* History is the reconstruction of the past through the writings of the past (as archaeology is the reconstruction of the past through the debris left behind). Oversimplified, sure. But who leaves written record? Why, pretty much the same people who wage wars.

Basically kings. Who have the funds to have stela carved, rock faces painted, troubadours hired, painters paid; and really good reasons to want their successes in wars to be prominently displayed (as well as preserved for posterity.)

Yeah, sure...a lot of the writing we find from the past is grocery bills, but those don't make as ready a story. Pulling a thrilling narrative out of the transition to three-field crop rotation is a lot more work. From the point of view of ruling nobility, who married who, who had a grudge against who, and especially who's chariots were tougher than who's is important. Important to the present (to keep conquered peoples cowed, your own taxpayers happily paying, and potential enemies cautious) and important to the future -- at least, the future of one's own line ("Before you think of invading here, remember what my dad did to your last army!") So we get stories. Big, blockbuster production stories full of blood and action. Which get entwined as well with myth, until you can't tell your Yĕshúʿa from your Joshua.

Heck, a variation of this pattern continues when we make the transition across the Industrial Revolution; when instead of a Clovis Point arising seemingly out of a culture as a whole, someone sticks their name in front of a Cotton Gin and has both the need and the funds to make sure people mention them together. Thus we shift just slightly sideways until the surface gloss of history is as much "And in 1856 Henry Bessemer.." as it is "In 720 BC, Sargon and Marduk-apla-iddina met in battle..."

History is also unwritten by the victors; from American Indian Boarding Schools to outright genocide, dominant cultures have worked to erase other languages, religions, cultures -- basically, to erase the losers from history itself. And more than one ancient ruler went around toppling statuary and defacing monuments to make sure that the only story that stuck in people's minds was their own.

This is why I gravitate more towards archaeology and anthropology. Because if you aren't looking primarily at the writing, you tend to organize more about the spread and evolution of cultural trends, the economics of trade, the science of cultivation...and less about which general won a fight on which day.

* "For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason."

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