Thursday, February 17, 2011
History is egg-shaped
When I was a boy in Durham I used to go egg collecting. The tallest risk-laden trees for rooks’ eggs, sinking marshy waters for those of the black headed gull and flimsy attic floors for a starling’s ice blue oval. The lure of the colours, shapes and sizes, the art of blowing them, the need for some kind of natural lore to hunt and broaden the collection was time-intensive and obsessive. But all that changed. Even then we knew never to take an egg unless we could leave at least two. Now we protect and take none. Those who do so are rightly prosecuted.
The skull is a little like an eggshell. Indeed, scientists are called eggheads. Recent finds in Cheddar Gorge, England, suggest that Cro–Magnon man used the skull as a drinking vessel, either for religious ceremonies or for more prosaic dietary purposes, around twenty thousand years ago. It seems he did this in a brief warm spell between ice ages when Britain became temporarily accessible. We don’t do it now – unless we have some kind of Hannibal Lector psychosis!
The nearest I came to the skull being used in a less than meritorious way was in my early days of teaching. Students who were engaged in what was called liberal studies, broadening their apprentice shoe-maker curriculum, turned up for class with skulls they found on Dunwich beach in Suffolk. Dunwich was the same size as nearby London in early medieval times but slowly succumbed to an encroaching sea, a monk’s graveyard being among the last vestiges of its existence to fall from the retreating cliffs during the early nineteen seventies. The young would-be cobblers put light bulbs in them. You can imagine the lit eye sockets by your bedside. Strange to think of all those monks seeking illumination during their lives and finding it, perhaps, only after their deaths.
The times they are a changing fast; attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. Each one of us can find epitaphs to them within our own histories. Something Cro–Magnon Man and the Monks of Dunwich may not have been able to ascertain.