Past versus Present

We, as archaeologists, try not to use our modern-day beliefs and customs to interpret the past as their beliefs and customs and language were different. While I agree with Dave re racism I’m not quite convinced by some of  his arguments, for example  in the language used by Petrie. Is this not a case of using modern-day beliefs and customs, language in interpreting a time when ‘racism’ was only just being recognised as such?

For example –

1.  Barbarian – When the ancient Greeks refer to barbarians (barbaroi) they are talking more about language – the unintelligible speech of foreigners.  By the time we get to Latin (barbari) the meaning has changed slightly to barbarous country, uncivilised.

2.  Gay –  Not so long ago, mid – late 20th century gay had a meaning more along the lines of happy. Now, late 20th early 21st century that meaning has taken on a new meaning – non-heterosexual humans.

3.  Getting away from language examples.  There was a display of our National poet Robert Burns in the Kelvingrove museum a few years ago, I think within the last 5 years, let’s be honest by modern standards he was no great catch, but by the standards of his time he was just that.  I read a few of the comments left by visitors (using their modern-day standards to interpret), a lot of whom were women, needless to say they were not impressed by the alcoholism or the womanising.

It is easy to slip in to judging the past by todays standards, what we have to remember is the people who lived back then, even 50 – 100 years ago, were not living by the same standards, they had different languages, different cultures, different beliefs and their knowledge of life/cultures and how we should treat one another was also different and normal by their standards.

We today might not think that these standards should have been correct but we only know that from learning from their mistakes.



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