Screen capture from ChronoZoom
Portion of the zoomable timeline on the ChronoZoom website

I think about time rather too much. The Mesolithic began 400 generations ago – give or take a dozen or so. You could sit hand-in-hand with your mum on your left, and if the process could be continued, you would get around the perimeter of a running track and have a Mesolithic person within reach on your right. So near, and yet…..

… yet I seem to be among the deluded few who think that chronology is not just a conceptual coat-rack but can stimulate the imagination.

Museums ‘are all doing the same thing; almost every display starts at whatever the beginning is for them and ends at the more recent stuff…. it’s always chronological… and our experience in Edinburgh, when we talk to people in focus groups, is that people don’t care about chronology. Their chronological world was themselves, their children, their parents, their grand-parents, and then there was the past, and all sorts of things floated around in this big, black area called The Past. So, most of the people we had on our focus groups didn’t know whether the Romans came before the Vikings – and, what was interesting was, none of them cared.’

That quote is from David Clarke (former Keeper of Achaeology at the National Museum of Scotland, NMS) and was typical of the attitudes from the panel at the third UCL Institute of Archaeology 75th Anniversary Debate entitled Presenting the Past.

The message from this seemed to be: people today want to connect with people in the past through stories and stuff  (hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, experience). In essence they want to time travel – they want to go to somewhere such as JORVIK, experience an authoritative, authentic ancient world, that is totally alien yet full of people who are ‘just like them’. Then they can have a cup of tea and go home.

This makes no sense. Museums are meant to stimulate the imagination and tweak preconceptions, not neatly capitulate to them. In fact, later in the Presenting the Past session, the panel were asked whether they believed that museums were part of the entertainment industry. It was David Clarke who was first to point out that:

‘while I agree that museums are entertainment… the danger with entertainment is [just] giving people what they want. I think it was Montebello (director of the Metropolitan Museum) who said that if we were really going to maximise our take and the number of people through the door: we would have a permanent, temporary exhibition on Impressionism. But, he had the decency to say (in $100 million funding bids) we aren’t going to do that – we’re going to show them something they don’t know they want to see. So, in that sense we are in the entertainment industry but we’re in that element of the entertainment industry that says “You may not have heard of this but when you come you’re going to love it!”. And that’s quite a difficult trick to pull off, and my guess is most museums don’t pull it off.’

What prevents chronology from being one of these stories? Science museums (and even art galleries) have to contend with chronological connections – sometimes at vast scales – and often lack the luxury of a ‘human interest story’ to fall back on.

Chronology may be seen as processualist, macroscopic, disconnecting, challenging and unpopular but it is a core element of understanding the past and unsettling preconceptions. It’s not just NMS visitors who struggle with the Romans and Vikings: I met someone with a first in Modern History from Oxford who confessed ‘Oh! I always thought the Vikings came first because they were so much more primitive’.

Chronology connects past peoples and events to one another and to us. Without it we are merely window-shopping through a plethora of cultures that are the eternal ethnographic other. Also, through radiocarbon and other tools we can  begin to strip away Euro-centrism and contemplate Grahame Clark’s dream of a ‘World Prehistory’. Further than this, we can connect beyond the narrow horizons of the human world.

The Big History Project is using tools such as ChronoZoom to tell the story of the entire universe in one, interconnected way. While the archaeologist in me wishes they hadn’t hung quite so much on the origins of agriculture as such a simple tipping point in the human story – most of me applauds the project. Here’s there TED talk. What do you think?

One thought on “Unpacking chronology – why time depth matters to archaeology

  1. Thanks Pat, interesting post and I agree that while chronology may not be the ultimate goal of history teaching it is an important frame for linking between stories and so making for challenging experiences beyond diverting ones. Confused to see that ChronoZoom starts its ‘Humanity’ block at 3000BCE with ‘Ancient Egypt’ are they getting any support from Anthropologists or Archaeologists at all?

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