Parallel Realities

Life in the past was affected by different weather conditions just as we are today.

I’m writing this in a total whiteout. I can’t see anything, and I half expect a shoal of fish to swim past the window.

Although I’ve missed the sun this summer (it has not been a good summer up here in the Northern Isles), I do love days like this. It makes me focus on different senses and reminds me how mechanised and artificial our lives have become. In general, our personal (western twenty-first century) worlds cocoon us from the impact of days like this.

I can sit indoors, snug and dry and live my life without regard to the weather. But, if I stop a minute and focus, I become aware of other senses kicking in. There is a totally different soundscape to a day like this. Everything is somehow muted, as if enveloped in cotton wool. The usual bird song is missing and, somehow, that disorients me. I can’t even hear traffic. But, there is an insistent boom. There is a big vessel out there, and she must be approaching the harbour. Ships are usually a visual feature of my life. Today they have become aural. If I step outside there are other changes. The world is warm and wet. It is weird. I’d not want to be out for long without appropriate clothing. Not a problem in this day and age.

To be honest, I will probably spend most of the day indoors. It is definitely not the day to dry washing on the line outside. I have everything I need to hand, and I can curl up and write that lecture I have just committed to. But, were I living here 7000 years ago, this might not be such an easy option. My shelter would not be quite so all embracing, and it might well be crowded and damp. Warmth becomes an issue. Even keeping fuel dry prior to using it is well-nigh impossible in conditions like this, and that assumes that you have stockpiled enough to see you through times when collecting dry fuel is not an option. There is food to obtain, ablutions to be undertaken, and a host of other small tasks to complete. Any movement outside requires new skills. No matter how well you know a place, finding your way home in conditions like this can become hazardous. You are not going to wander too far away, it is easy to become disoriented.

Days like this force me to consider how much we interpret the past through a rosy filter. We seem to imagine that it all took place in good weather and, moreover, in daylight. Of course, it didn’t. But look at the reconstruction drawings, how often do you see depictions of miserable, soggy groups, huddling together round a smouldering fire? It is not so much the drawings, or even the text. Of course, it is easier to illustrate different aspects of past lives if we avoid the distraction of over-complicated atmosphere. It is more a matter of our mindsets. It is important to remind ourselves that life was no smoother for our ancestors than it is for us. Not everything went to plan. There were grey days, hungry days, cold days and dark days. There were long nights just as there were bright nights. The traces of material culture that we excavate result from mistakes and mishaps just as much as they result from deliberation and success. Sometimes, you would be forgiven for thinking that the people of the past only discarded perfect examples of carefully used artefacts rather than the broken odds and ends that were no longer fit for any purpose. Their middens are no more filled with pristine objects than are our wheelie bins. I’ll bet that most people had forgotten about the fragments we revere within a few moments of getting rid of them.

Similarly, it is worth noting how little we illustrate illness or injury, though we know they occurred. Indeed, it is perhaps odd that physical traces of poor health or damage tend to be the subject of special attention in any excavation report when they are much more likely to have been symptomatic of  widespread conditions.

Outside there is still zero visibility. I’m forced back on myself to a basic, much more physical engagement with the elements.  It would be over romantic to say that I feel at one with my hunter-gatherer predecessors. I can never achieve that, and I’d not appreciate the reality if I did. But I am, slightly, knocked out of my usual habitat and I like it.

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