Strange Brouhaha

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Prehistory vs. Comprehension

I'm reading Norman Davies' "The Isles: A History" right now. Most of the Introduction dealt with the difficulties of nomenclature for anyone wishing to be precisely correct when writing a history of Great Britain, or the United Kingdom, or England--all three of which are distinct political entities. No problem there, really. As long as you establish first principles and a frame of reference, which Davies does, there's really not a problem. Great Britain is x, the U.K. is y, and England is z. We can proceed.

Fairly early in the book, though, when dealing with the prehistory of The Isles (a remarkably clever way, I think, of solving the conundrum of Exactly What To Call The Place), we get this:

Eight thousand years ago is too far back for prehistorians to know anything about the Peninsula's languages or place names. Alphabets were not yet invented. No words or voices were recorded. Not surprisingly, therefore, prehistorians have fallen into the habit of calling the most ancient places by the most modern names....[I]t puts prehistory into a false, totally anachronistic, and frequently nationalistic context. A little historical imagination might reconstruct some more realistic solutions. The somewhat mythological ring of invented names is a small price to pay if one is to avoid the cardinal sin of anachronism.

This is fine, if you already know a bit about British (sorry, Mr. Davies) history and the geography of the British (sorry again) isles. If you don't, though, it's a disaster. I think part of the reason that historians do refer to ancient places by their modern names is so that we know just where they're talking about, and if we're fortunate enough to have seen these places for ourselves, either in photographs or in person, or even just to have heard of them, we have some context. For example, if you're talking about dinosaurs roaming in the area of what is now Butte, Montana, you've just placed the big lizards in context. Sure, the dinos may not have said to each other, "Hey, Montana is nice!" but at least we know where they were.

Davies' insistence on not naming places by their modern names when discussing prehistorical Britain (sorry) is just confusing. It's nice and imaginative, for certain, and I agree that it is "not unreasonable to assume...that prehistoric people would have named the principle features of the landscape after what they saw." But when he calls upon us to imagine generations of hunters camping "atop the high cliff which commands the southern shore of the Southern Straits," that's just going to elicit a big "huh?" from a lot of readers. Later on, when he talks about "undulating white cliffs," I understand he means Dover. But I don't see "Eight Sisters" and "Grey Nose Head" on any map, and it sure would be nice to know what he's talking about.

There are other examples--where the heck is "The Afternoon Country?"--but I think you get the point.

Update: Savannah read this after I posted it and said "Gosh, you'd think that there'd be some kind of key, at the very least." So I looked in the back of the book and, uh...that would be in Appendix 3. But damn it, I think the point still holds. (And it would have been nice to see "See Appendix 3" at least once in there.) By the way, this is a good book.


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