Something occurred to me as I was driving to work today.   In many conversations in the Armitage fandom I find myself using qualifiers like, “it seems” or “it appears” to describe various things about Richard Armitage.  I do this deliberately to make clear that I am aware that I don’t know anything about the man apart from what appears in public sources, and any inference beyond that is supposition or speculation.  I realized today that the some of language I use when talking about Richard Armitage is very similar to that which I use to describe aspects of the ancient cultures I study, especially prehistoric cultures.

There is a basic line that can be drawn in the study of human activity between history (by definition, the study of the written record of human activity) and prehistory (the study of human activity prior to the advent of writing).  Much of my own work falls within the prehistoric time period.  In the absence of writing to tell us what was going on, we rely heavily on archaeology to show us.  Archaeology can bring to light an enormous amount of information about prehistoric culture, but without written descriptions, some things remain elusive.  I realized a long time ago, that when we (prehistorians/archaeologists) encounter something undefined in the archaeological record, some unusual practice that we can find no practical or utilitarian purpose for, we often identify it as ritual or religious behavior to try to understand why prehistoric peoples would do some of the things they seem to have done.  I’ll elaborate by using a very famous fresco painting from Minoan Crete.

"Bull Leaping Fresco" from the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete

“Bull Leaping Fresco” from the Palace of Minos at Knossos, Crete

We only need to have eyes to see that this fresco painting depicts a bull, shown as running, and three human figures who appear to be interacting directly with it.  Artistry aside, WTF are these people doing, and why are they doing it?!  Not to put too fine a point on it, but bulls are not the most pleasant creatures in the animal kingdom.  They essentially have one function:  to impregnate cows, and they don’t get to do it often enough for their liking.  Consequently, they are often irritable and unpredictable.  Add that to being large and having horns and you’ve got a formidable animal.

I can personally attest to the irascibility of bulls…my great uncle had a dairy farm, and my parents took me there often when I was young (evidently, real recreational activities were in short supply).  So far so good…I would be happily running about “stalking” kittens when one or more of my five male cousins would snatch me up and drag me into the barn.  I don’t like cattle barns…too many cows.  In any case, in the rear of the barn was the  “bull pen”  where the farm’s single bull was kept.  (In retrospect, I can appreciate why the bull was so miserable…constantly in close proximity to all those cows and unable to do anything about it!)  While two cousins held me by my feet upside down over the pen, another would go to the end and grab the bull by the ring in his nose and give it a twist.  This really got him going…so there I am helplessly suspended over a ton of kicking, snorting, incensed Holstein bull….to this day, I have a healthy respect for the bull and his capabilities.

Which brings me back to my original question…What are these people doing, and why are they doing it?  It would be nice if the fresco was labeled for us:

minoan rodeo poster

Understanding the scene would certainly be easier if there was a written record of this activity, but there isn’t, so we have to infer meaning from what we can see.  Many scholars understand it as stages of one event:  1.  Grab the running bull by the horns.  2.  Vault over his back.  3.  Land on your feet behind him.  It is doubtful that this scene is depicting an activity that was purely recreational.  What is going on here is excessively dangerous, and the ancients generally don’t engage in dangerous activities purely for sport – every day ancient life was full of dangerous activities, no need to seek out an adrenaline rush.   Since there is really no rational or practical reason to be engaging in this, and since bulls seem to have religious connections elsewhere in the culture of Minoan Crete, it is generally believed that what we are looking at here is a ritual activity of some sort.

It seems, it is believed, maybe, possibly, are all qualifiers we use to describe these interpretations because we just don’t know for sure.  We are trying to rebuild the original context of the image without all of the information…we can make some observations, but it is all a bit shaky.  It strikes me as quite similar to our understanding of who Richard Armitage is…we have bits and pieces of the puzzle, but the exact nature of it remains largely a mystery, and probably always will….

Photo by Robert Ashcroft courtesy of richardarmitagecentral.co.uk

Photo by Robert Ascroft courtesy of richardarmitagecentral.co.uk

19 comments on “RArchaeology

  1. Leigh says:

    Lovely discussion and very apt. Sometimes what we think we “know” is actually seeming, believing, supposition based on what we perceive. It is often our interpretation based on cultural cues that we identify in context, but we cannot be certain that our context is valid or the same as others’.

  2. bechep says:

    it is very easy to put our own interpretation of things on to something when we dont have all the facts. We do it with history (even written history can be interpreted a number of ways) and we do it with Richard. Im often ‘filling in the Richard blanks’ in my head, I feel like I know him that way -I guess it brings me closer to him, I get to experience him. Just like with history – to experience it we need to fill in the blanks to make it more real.

    • obscura says:

      I don’t think there’s any harm in doing it, as long as we’re willing to accept the fact that new information might require us to change our interpretation. I always wonder if we might ever crack the code of Minoan writing and find out exactly what some of this stuff actually means…were we even close to getting it right?

      • bechep says:

        I think thats one of the reasons I love history so much, social history in particular. Its not about dates, times, names its about people, places and ideas and it is always changing! It would be quite amusing I think to find out what it all really means – I bet we are waaay off with some things!

        • obscura says:

          No doubt! Sometimes I read stuff and think, “C’mon, you’re just making that sh*t up!” But in the absence of evidence to the contrary, one educated guess is as good as another.

  3. Servetus says:

    Yes. Excellent. And then there’s confirmation bias, which is a real problem for fans. On what basis would we agree to believe new information about Armitage that conflicts with something we already feel we “know.”

    This is part of why I tend to get frustrated with certain kinds of controversies (even though I have some tendency to fall into them myself) — because we really don’t know. And we don’t even know anyone who’s in a position to know. And everything’s commodified for our benefit. So “appears” is often the best we can do. Then again, that’s true even with people who are in the same room with us …

    • obscura says:

      In a lot of ways, despite an undeciphered language and 2-1/2 millennia of elapsed time, I wonder if the ancient material isn’t more accessible in the long run…for all the reasons you mention and more. Like I said at your house earlier in the week, the ancient material isn’t deliberately enigmatic 🙂

      • Servetus says:

        Maybe we’re more conscious w/ancient material, precisely because its foreignness is more apparent, about exactly what we can’t know or even extrapolate, than with contemporary material, which fits (and is designed to fit) so seamlessly into our world?

        • obscura says:

          That’s true, the information we are fed (that is how it feels to me a lot of the time…here’s some crumbs, just a taste though – we wouldn’t want to fill you up.) is designed to be believable. For me, I’m conditioned to question everything about a “new” discovery, but my first impulse with new Armitage data is to gobble it up.

  4. katie70 says:

    Here I go with something from that class I am taking again ( at first I thought it was not going to be that good but I am learning something from it…. oral/interpersonal communication ). That we don’t know the whole of anyone including ourselves, because we are changing.
    History is one person or sides view of the event or events that has happened. I would love to take one event and compare two different sides views to see how each side see’s it.

    • obscura says:

      You are absolutely right…it is rare to have one, much less multiple accounts of events. Another problem is that without something for comparison, we have to be very careful about taking what could be biased in some way, completely at face value. This is a caution that is applicable both to historical and Armitage interpretation I think. 🙂

  5. katie70 says:

    I would love to get my hands on a British history book and compare it with an US history book. I think it would interesting to see the different views to the early days of the US.
    I think that as life changes, we change. We can’t stay the same. I look how much I have changed since high school.
    But I think my views on snow are still the same, I don’t like it and really over 3+ inches in the past 48 hours is to much for April. I just had to bring that up.

    • Obscura says:

      Snow? I’m right there with you…totally over it!

      • katie70 says:

        Have you gotten any this round? The kids where hoping for a snow day, but no such luck. I am happy, snow day = no work, no pay. As long as we don’t get freezing rain again this year.

        • obscura says:

          Just a dusting…but sleet an a lovely coating of ice Wednesday morning. I’m ready to start crabbing about heat anytime now 🙂

          • katie70 says:

            Where is our spring? Flowers, grass maybe I don’t think I am asking to much. Last year for Easter I got pansy’s and primrose’s and planted them in planters, they stayed until October looking good. The ice most likely will not be off the lakes for the fishing opener if this keeps up. I don’t even want to think about the heat.

  6. […] Very thoughtful post on one of my favorite topics: what we can know about Richard Armitage. […]

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