Taking Notice

by Don Webb

1. Matthew’s report

To: Department Evaluation Committee

Subject: Methods of Historical Field Work, annual report

The students in the Methods of Historical Field Work seminar have performed exemplarily in the application of skills acquired...

Oh, let’s skip the jargon; nobody trusts prose that deliberately puts you to sleep. We’re all too old for that.

Speaking of which, everybody is tired at the end of a semester, students and faculty alike. And any course can be dull. I’ll be the first to say I’m not a natural showboat, and as you know I’ve never liked the idea of treating a class as an exercise in stage performance. If it’s all about the instructor, where do the students fit in? But this semester has not been dull at all.

In lieu of a written report, I’ll submit a recording I made of the last class. It was done with the students’ unanimous consent, of course. And it took place at my home; the University doesn’t allow wine-soaked celebrations in classrooms.

I’ll sum it up in a few words: the students know their stuff, and they’re the most intellectually inquisitive group I’ve ever encountered. Let’s let them speak for themselves.

* * *

The recording opens to show a small but comfortable living room. Twelve students are sitting in a kind of circle on chairs or overstuffed pillows. The professor has reserved two chairs for himself and his wife. She hands him the first bottle of wine.

“Thanks, Hon. Corkscrew?” He takes it and proceeds to open the bottle. “I think we all deserve a treat. It’s been a long haul, and your individual projects have been excellent so far. I’ve invited my wife to sit in on these last three. Her specialty is ancient languages and literatures.” He turns to her. “I’m sure you’ll be interested. Right?”

“To quote a forgotten ancient saying,” she replies with an ironic smile, “bring ’em on.”

The professor chuckles and continues. “Tonight we won’t take the reports in chronological order. I think you’ll see why.

“Matthew, you went back to the Stone Age to view the construction of Stonehenge. You all know the drill: means, motive, and opportunity. Everybody feel free to ask questions as we go.”

Matthew leans forward in his chair, a move everyone knows by now shows his enthusiasm. “Okay; first, means. How do you time-travel to an ancient society without getting noticed? Without causing a serious divergence in the timeline and getting trapped in it? We wouldn’t be able to return and enjoy our professor’s hospitality.”

The students unanimously raise their glasses of wine and salute the professor and his wife.

Someone already has a question: “You seem to’ve gotten away with it, Matt. What’s your technique?”

“Mainly spy in the sky technology. I seeded video drones over the Salisbury Plain beginning in the mid-30th century B.C. at intervals of a hundred years till the mid-17th century.”

“That’s an efficient use of energy,” says John, “but wow, talk about an equipment blitz. Wasn’t it expensive?”

“I didn’t need many drones,” Matthew replies. “All of them were reused many times, and almost all of them were recovered. And you used some of them in your own projects.”

“Which Stonehenge did you concentrate on?” asks the professor. “It started small and finished big. And as you say, that was over a very long span of time.”

“Right. Everybody wants to know how the big stones — the Sarsen stones — were erected.”

“A masterpiece of Stone Age engineering. Any surprises?”

“None, really. The ancient Britons did not have the wheel, and the stones were too heavy to be carted around on soft ground anyway. The builders used logs as rollers, oxen as draft animals, and wooden cradles and braided-vine ropes to step the stones into place.

“I did have a minor surprise. The Stone Age people were a lot better dressed than most people imagine. No shaggy furs except maybe in winter. They were excellent tailors and seamstresses. Some other Stone Age peoples even had what amounted to a sophisticated textile industry.”

Bertholomew interrupts. “How did they raise the crosspieces? I’ve never been able to imagine how they could do that.”

“That was the hardest job,” says Matthew. He turns on a hologram projector, which displays the construction site and workers busy carving stones and building earthworks. “At first I thought the lintel stones might have been put in place first and raised along with the rest somehow, but that didn’t make any sense, because they overlap the uprights.

“No, as you see in the projection, the builders did it the hard way. They used earthen ramps and levered the lintels into place. That construction team would have fit right in with the work force that built the Egyptian pyramids.”

“Okay, why did you undertake this project?”

Matthew leans back in his chair. “I wanted to find out why Stonehenge was built.”


Matthew fidgets uncomfortably. “The best bet is the old theory of an agricultural fertility religion incorporating the Sun and the Earth. And the site was chosen for a peculiar landform that tracks midsummer sunrise over a few hundred meters. It was more visible then than it is now.”

“Okay, opportunity. How did you fit in among the ancient Britons without getting noticed?”

“I didn’t,” Matthew confesses. “The Britons were like the Egyptians: they needed a large and skilled work force but not a huge one. Everybody knew everybody else, even if they weren’t all locals. And I still don’t know the language.”

That is the professor’s wife’s specialty. “I’ve listened to your recordings. It may be related to Basque, but we can’t be sure yet.”

Matthew smiles ruefully. “I skulked about at night, planting recorders. That was a scary job: I nearly got caught several times. And the recordings haven’t helped as much as I hoped. Someone will eventually have to go in as a foreigner and learn the language on the ground. I’ll consider that for a post-doc project.”

“What will you do with what you learn?” asks the professor’s wife.

“I’m not very interested in what the adults say to each other.”

Matthew’s assertion causes a stir of surprise among the students. One of them asks, “What about the social and political structures? People have to be well organized to build on such a scale, even if they do take a long time.”

Matthew nods. “True. But adults will omit what’s common knowledge for them. I want to know what the parents tell their children. If Stonehenge was a kind of Neolithic cathedral, the stories that were passed down from one generation to another will explain their motives, and the rest will fall into place.”

“You’re right about that,” the professor’s wife responds, “but you’ll still have to do a lot of interpreting. The ancients’ vocabulary was almost certainly small. They may not even have a word for ‘religion’; ours is derived from one that originally meant ‘to bind together’.”

“That’s a good thing to keep in mind, Matt,” the professor adds. “We translate from one language to another, and then we interpret within our own language. We’d love to know those stories from prehistory, but we’ll need to know what they meant, how they were understood. Did those people even have a concept of oral literature, let alone symbolism?”

Matthew knows his anthropology: “I expect they believed they were practicing magic, literally helping the Sun mate with the Earth to ensure a good harvest. But how can we know unless they tell us what they were thinking?”

The professor nods in agreement. He adds, “You might have been able to mingle with the population somehow without being marooned in their timeline. But you’d have been taking a big risk. As it is, you’ve provided a model of caution by knowing your limitations and working within them.”

“But I don’t feel we know much more now than we did before,” sighs Matthew.

“It takes a professional to admit that,” says the professor. “But you’ve pointed out exactly what we need to know and how we might learn it. Good job.”

The class applauds. “Glad you didn’t get caught out in the dark, Matt,” says one.

“Be careful when you go back, okay?” says another. “And bring back a Stone-Age wardrobe for us.”

Matthew smiles gratefully.

* * *

Proceed to Mary’s report...

Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb

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