Chapple, R. M. 2012 'Idle thoughts: Edward Carson, the Ulster Covenant, and the Bronze Age' Blogspot post
Idle thoughts: Edward Carson, the Ulster Covenant, and the Bronze Age Originally posted online on September 29th 2012 at rmchapple.blogspot.com (http://rmchapple.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/idle-thoughts-edward-carson- ulster.html)On the 28th of September 1912 Sir Edward Carson became the first person to signthe Ulster Covenant. I’m writing this on the 29th of September 2012 in East Belfast.As the closest Saturday to the anniversary, Ulster’s Loyal Orders and their associatedbands are out in force. Even here, sheltered from the Upper Newtownards Road, Ican still hear the pounding drum beats and the high, tinny sound of the fife. In myback garden you can clearly hear the drone of the police helicopter high above,obscured somewhere in the broken cloud.Personally, I don’t ‘do’ politics. These days, all I’m looking for in my electedrepresentatives is to ensure that I can go on living a quiet, peaceful life and that weare never again dragged into the dark days of sectarian murder and hatred. On theother hand, this is a huge event that’s happening on my doorstep – it would beremiss of me not to go and take a look. With that in mind, I took a walk to the end ofmy street with my family to get a sense of the scale of this huge parade. I have nocomment to make on the rights or wrongs of such large-scale marching, nor on anypoint of modern politics (and I would be grateful if any readers wishing to leave acomment would refrain from the same). However, it did make me think of what thearchaeologists of the future would make of Belfast and our political divide in, say, athousand years. In the year 3012 the Belfast Archaeological Research Project (BARP)would find that all the flags and emblems of both sides had long since rotted awayand that even the paint on the kerbstones and gable walls had not stood the test oftime. The physical remains of the city could tell you stories about the differences
between rich and poor – some sets of house foundations set within larger groundscould be equated as belonging to the better-off end of society as opposed to smaller,more cramped terraces in other parts of town. But what of our political differences?There are rich and poor on both sides, so there will be no discernible differencesbetween the houses of one side and the other. Similarly, our material culture is prettyuniform, so there will be little to differentiate our refuse. Despite jokes about thedistance between eye-sockets, there is no physical difference between our skeletons. Ionce heard that the Catholic church insisted that there be a large underground wall(not visible on the surface) built in the city cemetery to divide their dead from thoseof the Protestants. I have no idea if this is true, but it may cause some head-scratching for the archaeologists at BARP. Similarly, most churches and places ofChristian worship are pretty standard in plan, so there will be little to tell them apart.That said, there may be questions as to why we appeared to require so many‘ritual/ceremonial structures’. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not belittling anyone’s rightto express their culture/religion/politics in any way they like (nor anyone else’s rightto be offended by it) – I simply don’t care. My point is just that, despite our perceivedmodern differences in belief, that archaeologists at BARP would have extremedifficulty in telling us apart – who were the Unionists and the Loyalists? Who werethe Republicans and the Nationalists?Going beyond our modern time, this line of thinking eventually got me derailed intoconsidering what Ireland may have been like in, say, the middle of the Bronze Age.Could it have been similar to today? As archaeologists we look at the material cultureof the period and, to a large extent, perceive homogeneity. The people of the timelived in broadly similar structures, and while there were a variety of ways ofdisposing of the dead, they are essentially ‘Bronze Age’ in character. Similarly, whiletheir material culture – tools, weapons, etc. – show chronological development wewould be hard-pressed to divine subtler divisions relating to political/religious worldviews. In Cleary & Kelleher’s excellent monograph on the Neolithic siteat Tullahedy (I’m working on a review of it for this blog, honest!), Farina Sternkeobserves that the main focus of stone tool production was the creation andrefurbishment of leaf/lozenge-shaped arrowheads. She asks the questions – whatwas the need for such an arsenal? If they were for the defence of the site, then whowere the ‘enemies’? Although it is beyond the scope of her work at Tullahedy, shesuggests that an examination of the site in the context of place and territoriality inNeolithic Ireland as a viable avenue for future research. When it comes to examiningchanges to sites and monuments over time, it is relatively common to invoke changesin polity and ritual as explanations. In my own case, I presented just such a narrativeas a means of explanation of how a presumed central burial at a ring barrow endedup in the ditch at Gortlaunaght, Co. Cavan. The pottery was Early Bronze Age, butthe dates from the charcoal in the ditch were Late Bronze Age. My scenario(presented, I hasten to add, as only one possibility among many) was that changingcultural practices and political upheavals in the Late Bronze Age may have resultedin the deliberate ‘slighting’ of older monuments to demonstrate the wielding ofpower by a newly enfranchised elite. As I say, it’s a commonly enough used device inexplaining and understanding change in archaeology.In the whirl of today’s commemorations, my idle thoughts have led me to a newquestion. What would it have been like several hundred years into this new BronzeAge religious/political sphere? In terms of archaeological visibility, everyone is nowliving a nice, modern, Bronze Age lifestyle in their nice roundhouses, with their
occasional bronze weapons and gold jewellery. But what of the people? Are theyreally that homogenous? Could there not have been societal divisions where part ofthe population still associated themselves with the ‘incoming’ set of ideas, whileanother considered themselves to be ‘native’ in their background. At a remove ofseveral generations from the genesis of such a society all such distinctions are (interms of the physical evidence, at least) unimportant – in today’s terms Unionistsand Nationalists are vastly politically different, but they share a material culture:both sides have flat-screen TVs, broadband internet, and drive VW Polos (etc.) – it’snot like one side are all ‘modern’ and the other lot are grimly living in the 17thcentury, with their muskets, horse-drawn carts, and exciting, woodblock printedmonthly journals. Similarly, in my hypothetical Bronze Age scenario, you canaccommodate multiple traditions with competing/mutually exclusive mental culturalmaps and landscapes, yet sharing a near identical lifestyle.The other idle though of mine today was about the strong cohesive (andsimultaneously divisive) power of such ceremonial activities as marching andparading. I know there are plenty who see it as an oppressive force, deliberately andaggressively flaunting its authority and ascendancy. On the other hand, the scenenear my house was of large numbers of people feeling part of a shared history,culture and community. These views are mutually exclusive, but each has somethingto recommend them. As I say, I have no interest in passing comment on modernpolitical divisions. Initially I was thinking of the fantastic corpus of Irish Bronze AgeHorns and how they could have been used in just such a way – loud droninginstruments to attract attention: invoking positive feelings of inclusion andacceptance in one social group and precisely the opposite in another. The serioussuggestion in all of this that, perhaps, we should attempt to move beyond studies ofmanufacture and deposition of these instruments and begin to look at them in termsof the political/religious power that they may have had – not just to bind a societytogether, but to highlight differences too. I’ve probably already pushed this argumenttoo far, but I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb: in writing all this it has juststruck me how similar the gold lunulae and gorgets are to the sashes worn by themembers of the Orange Order. Both can be seen as demonstrating affiliation withone particular cultural ideology. Perhaps the Bronze Age goldwork too had specificconnotations that evoked differing responses from different groups of spectators. I’mnot sure how one would go about searching for, or drawing out, such threads ofcultural dissonance, but perhaps they are there to be found by the right researchers.In any case, they can’t ever be found unless someone raises the possibility that theymight exist at all. Overall, I am suggesting that we need to develop a more nuancedapproach to past societies, and attempt to see beneath any apparent homogeneityand reflect how different elements within that society regard the outcomes of powershifts and religious/ceremonial changes.In the meantime, I present a small selection of photographs from the parade as itpassed near my house and remind ourselves that, despite whatever political views wehave that may divide us, we have culturally much more that unites us!If you’re planning to do any shopping through Amazon, please go via the portalbelow. It costs you nothing, but it will generate a little bit of advertising revenue forthis site!