Temple to progress

Before we were so rudely interrupted by riots, I had the French Musée national de Préhistoire on my mind, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. If you’re in the Dordogne, it’s a must visit. And don’t mind crowds: when we were there a couple of weeks back it was half empty.

Set in the cliffs above the Vézère valley, there are so many caves round about that you feel sure another major archeological discovery can only be a stone’s throw away. The artefacts are laid out chronologically, in smart glass cases that take you back half a million years and bring you to the bronze age. You can walk over entire dig sites, protected under glass, and peer at the contents of graves displaying very beautiful ‘hand art’ depictions of bison and deer. For a Time Team fan, it’s very satisfying. But it set me thinking too, not just about the ancestors but about the museum and the nature of the culture that has produced that ‘artefact’.

The chronological layout is informative, except that when you go into deep prehistory, nothing much happens for tens of thousands of years – nothing much if flint and bone technology is your main interest. And technology is the main interest of the museum: archeology is a material science, and worked flints and bones comprise the bulk of what survives. But it poses a problem: what to do about the long, slow periods? The solution the curators deploy is to compress the ’empty’ millennia and give more space to periods of speedier advance.

I suppose it’s inevitable. You’ve got to keep historians and visitors alike interested. But the net result is that this is the history of humankind very clearly told from the perspective of modernity – a blip of time in the grand scheme of things. It’s the story of Baconian progress, the struggle to control and exploit the environment.

As was pointed out to me the other day, Bacon’s philosophy is the most successful of all time. Is there a single state on the planet today that is not organised according to its principles? But deployed in a museum, it offers a view of history that conceals as much as it reveals. Have most humans, for most of history, thought of the goal of life like that at all? Is the fact that technology remained static for tens of thousands of years a reflection not of inefficiency or near-failure, but simply of a different philosophy of life? What would that be?

That struck me as a fascinating question, and I wondered what a museum of prehistory that tried to portray the stone age from the perspective of the stone age would be like. Anyone know one?