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Thursday, October 25, 2012


I hate to admit it but that effete, arrogant, pompous intellectual snobbish Frenchman Marcel Proust was right about two things - first, when he observed that “We learn from history that we do not learn anything from history”, and second that “A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Both of those profound insights struck me again recently when I stumbled upon an article in an archeology magazine (Antiquity), which illuminated a forgotten memory of the work of a quiet rock artist, named Gerald C. Bond. It may seem a complicated train of events, but please bare with me, while I try to explain how my mind works. (Good luck - hope you enjoy the ride.)
Professor Bond collected and cataloged rocks from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. This may have once seemed an esoteric pursuit, (although as a life long rock hound it sounds like heaven to me) but in that seemingly meaningless melange of sediments Professor Bond stumbled upon layers of limestone pebbles which had nothing to do with the ocean floor. With extraordinary perseverance, Professor Bond identified the pebbles as having come from particular cliffs in Eastern Canada. How did they get thousands of miles out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? Professor Bond concluded the only delivery method that made sense was that an ancient glacier had ground against the cliffs, carried the limestone out to sea when it calved icebergs, which then melted and dropped the pebbles into the abyss. When other rocks on the sea floor were identified as coming from the same areas on land, the professor's suspicions were confirmed, and with it a way to measure climate change. More pebbles in a given layer indicated more icebergs, which indicated more melting glacier ice, which hinted at warmer temperatures and rising sea levels world wide.
What Professor Bond was eventually able to describe were eight bursts of cooling (now called Bond Events) since the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago. The bursts come in 1,500 year intervals, giving an almost respiratory aspect to our planet's atmosphere. And like a smoker who develops a cough, the deposits on the sea floor, as well as Greenland and Antarctic ice cores, recorded the increasing impact of burning fossil fuels on our planet's health. But they also record something else, equally as ominous and philosophically troubling.
When the weather cooled for Bond Event Seven, (ten thousand years ago) humans responded with the invention of agriculture. Bond Event Four occurred about six thousand years ago, and humans responded with the domestication of sheep and the invention of bronze. And Bond Event Three, which came four thousand years ago, brought on the collapse of great empires in Asia and Egypt, and, of more interest to this story,  in an act of war at a ford across a slow, meandering river in northern Europe.
The river is the somnambulist Tollense (above). For more than ten thousand years it has followed the same sinuous forty-two mile course across forest and marshland in northeastern Germany, now winding this way, now twisting that as it hesitantly approaches the Baltic Sea. There is no time scale in its current, but in the sediments piled along its course, about the year 1250 BC. the Tollense preserved a desperate fight for survival. And we now know know something about the loser and winner of that battle.
The invaders were from the forests to the south, members of the Unetice culture. They were armed with standardized mass produced bronze daggers and hand axes. They were adorned with engraved bracelets and their robes were held together with bronze pins with perforated round heads. They came mounted on horses, and carried millet, which did not grow this far north. That suggests rations, which suggests an organized raiding party which was crossing the Tollense River in the summer, when the water level was down.
The Frisian villages along the Baltic coast were the likely target. These peoples buried their dead in stone crypts, and prayed to the male earth god Inguz, who drove his chariot across the sky as easily as he dived beneath the sea. The villagers enjoyed probably the best diet in the world, with plenty of surf and turf. They fished from long plank canoes with curved and pointed bows. They raised cattle corralled behind their village palisades. But their weapons were stone axes and wooden clubs like baseball bats. The bronze age was late in coming to the Baltic Sea. Copper and tin had to be heated to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit before they would form bronze, and that takes a lot of dry wood, and a knowledge of ceramics. A culture cannot afford that kind of technology unless it has something to sell. And it was not until recently that these proto-Scandinavian tribes had discovered their “metallum sudaticum”, amber.
Every time the level of the Baltic rose and then fell, with each successive glacier pulse, whole coastal pine forests had been flooded. And with each storm tide more and more fossilized pine tree sap from those now long dead forests washed up on the sandy Baltic beaches. The Frisian villagers who gathered the amber up in hand held nets could not have known where this amber had originated from anymore than the Celts in England knew their Sea Coal had a companion under their feet. But both peoples knew enough to gather the bounty left by the tide. The Frisians fashioned the amber into jewelry and sold and traded it with their inland neighbors. And that made the neighbors envious.
Some time near the mid summer solstice around three thousand eight hundred fifty years ago, some fifty or sixty Unetice raiders were attacked on the banks of the Tollense. It seems likely they were crossing the river, perhaps on their return, when they were attacked by perhaps 150 Frisians. We don't know how long the assault took, or the tactics employed by either side, but we know it was horribly violent.
Of the 100 skeletons uncovered along the river so far, almost all are young male adults (draft age), with many carrying injuries inflicted shortly before death; broken faces, damaged skulls, an arrow head embedded in an arm bone, a thigh bone fracture which mimics that still commonly suffered by horseback riders. The skeletons of the horses were also detritus of this bronze age battle. None of these bodies were buried with funeral goods. They were not buried by family or friends or even enemies. They lay in the river unattended for some time before a flood carried them downstream and stuffed them into a mud bank, like an ancient memento  left between the pages of a forgotten diary. 
The archaeologists who discovered these skeletons want to go back to learn more about this no longer pre-historic life and death struggle. It seems important. It seems to provide proof that four thousand years ago, war had already become a standardized, ritualized young man's game, just as it is today. And in all probability, the leaders of the Uentice and Frisians spoke about the honor and nobility of battle, and the necessary sacrifices of their brave young men who died along the ancient banks of the Tollense.
The archaeologists are going back to the banks of the Tollense, because they think there is more to learn, more skeletons to be uncovered. And the most important question they want an answer to is why in God's name were these young men murdering each other? Was it amber or gold? Was it slavery or freedom? Was it fish or faith?  Four thousand years later the answer seems almost as important as it must have seemed to them.  But we already know the answer.
In truth, we are the answer to all those questions. Those men without names died to create our world. And not a single one of them would have willing made that sacrifice if it had been offered to them, because for our world to be born, theirs had to die. The Unetice and the Frisian languages, art, religion and culture all had to be devoured before our language, art, religion and culture could come into existence. All history is  cannibalism. No one willingly fights for a place at the table just to become the meal, but eventually we all are. The only ray of hope in Msr. Proust's dismal ethos is that it does not explain Professor Bond.
And in that I chose to find hope for humanity. Call me a romantic. Or maybe I'm still just a rock hound.
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