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