A visit to the Bronze Age Boat gallery today brought home very forcibly the sheer terror I would have felt as one of our early human ancestors.
The picture above is of a bronze age boat, thought to date back 3,600 years. It was found in 1992 in Dover, a busy seaside port on the South East English coastline.
I haven’t been to a museum for years, but happily my son took me along as part of a visit to a young cousin’s pub in Dover. I suppose it was all stuff I was peripherally aware of, but the gap since my childhood education now being rather lengthy, pre-history has become for me just that. Pre-historic. Out of mind and sight.
I was reminded that modern man emerged perhaps half a million years ago, that England once housed woolly mammoths and hippos, saber toothed tigers and lions; and was at various times was covered in ice while at others with tropical vegetation.
What shook me most was the reminder (or was it the first time I had been told?) that aborigines are thought to have traveled to colonize what is now Australia in skin covered coracles 40,000 years ago. They must have been rather like frog spawn or tadpoles: most must have died in the attempt for a very few to survive and prosper. What sheer terror: a coracle floating on a vast and unforgiving ocean, out of site of land, with no idea where or when or if a landfall would be ever be made. Behemoths and krakens their only companions.
Even the bronze age boat (modern by comparison) comes as a shock: it predates Moses and the Pharaohs.
I was spooked, no other word for it. Moved, shocked, taken aback. Horrified by the thought of what these early peoples must have experienced and suffered.
There is a re-construction of a bronze age hut. Thought to consist of tree branches and mud. Early farmers huddled around a central fire dressed in odd looking rags. What strange looking Muppets!
As ever, my mind turned to what these people were thinking. What their beliefs were. Whether they were angry or sad, happy or sheer bloody terrified.
Imagine living in a mud hut in the god forsaken middle of nowhere. With your head stuffed full of madcap ideas about why the world is the way it is. You saw spirits in the trees and rivers, terrifying supernatural enemies or gods who threw hail and rain at you, thunderbolts and lightening, pestilence and plague. And filthy, horrible plundering neighbors intent on kicking the shit out of you and yours and making it theirs. Or dispatching you to whatever heaven or hell such people believed they went to .
Sheer, unadulterated existential terror. The questions “why?”, “how?” “where?” and “WTF?” must surely have loomed large in those ancient minds. What did those people know about their world? Where they had come from and why? Where they were going to?
And then back to modernity and an ice cream on the beach, in the sun. Boats chugging in an out of the harbor. Modern life.
My son hit me with a terrible and profound truth: we are really not much further forward than those ancient savages. In every relevant sense we know as little as they do, except the scale differs. While they did not know what was over the next hill, we now know (or think we know) about the big bang. But not what happened before that. And yes, we have modern medicine thank god. In particular pain killers and antibiotics.
But while we no longer believe in water sprites or Neptune, daemons or gods we still have absolutely no idea about the deepest questions we need answered.
Why are we here? An accident of evolution we assume but we have little idea of how that came about let alone why. Except that there very probably is no “why”. What was there before our universe, if anything? Will it all end in a bang or a whimper? What would there be if our universe did not exist? What else could there be? What caused the Big Bang (assuming it happened)?
And while early man’s horizon was the next hill, ours is not so much further away. We realize the universe is vast, infinite perhaps. But we have no idea whether there is anything out there we would call meaningful. Life? Intelligence? Or just an infinity of cold, cruel ice and devastating fire? Does it even have an end?
The scale of what we can see has changed. But still we have no answers to those questions which are so profound and so deeply important they haunt every one of us at some time or another in our lives. Each and every one of us, then and now, has yearned for, craved those answers.
In some very real sense, we are still living in absolute darkness. What a scary thought.