The history of place is the storyline of power. Karl Marx did not get everything right, but he came pretty close. The bi-polarity of inner-cities and small rural places is a long-term struggle of numbers, and this co-proximity is causing new problems due to the pandemic, which will undoubtedly have unexpected knock-on effects. More people mean the ability to apply more influence, by force if need be, and a greater ability to impose your own values and views of the world, but also highlights some of the absurdities of cities. The initial process of ‘settling down’ on the landscape and commoditising agriculture, produced surpluses, and these excess goods not only enabled trade (or barter) but also led to the stratification of society. Numberless divisions of labour evolved, from those who undertook the tasks that nobody else would do, through the massed ranks of the common labourers, to the artisans with specialist skills, to the organisers, at the top of the pyramid, who managed the process of production and took their overhead fees.
Cities accommodated this stratification in different ways, from the establishment of craft guilds to the partition of districts that condensed these various skills and led to fish markets, and grassmarkets, and financial districts or artists quarters, where common interests prevailed. In the rural areas, in contrast, while social stratification was certainly not absent, a different dynamic prevailed. Almost by default, the economic history of rural places has been dominated by exploitation. Whether it is the produce of farmland that is harvested and sent to the greater populations in urban areas, or simply the provision of space, biodiversity, and scenery for urban visitors to appreciate, the rural economy has largely been an extractive economy.
Of course, the surplus usually produces waste, but not all waste is useless. I am continuing my journey through the wonderful series of podcasts on ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’, (and its accompanying book) and some of the tangential speculations on ancient history that it suggests to me are quite revealing. A few hundred metres from my house is the remains of an Iron Age midden- a prehistoric rubbish dump. There are some adjacent graves and dwelling structures, and lots of broken pottery shards. The earliest pieces, perhaps 3-4 thousand years old, are more elaborately decorated than the later pieces. I have shards with an eloquently simple vvvvvvv motif, and others with even simpler marks caused by a ring pressed into wet clay, or more basically, by a trail of fingernail indentations around the lip of a bowl. Some pieces have perfectly preserved the finger marks of the potter, and I picture a young girl (for the pottery makers were usually female) learning the skills of this new technology from the older women in her extended family. Were these finger marks a proud proprietorial stamp or an accident by an inexperienced learner? What is the hidden story behind this remnant of place?
From the same site, I have a couple of hand axes. Beautiful, simple, and immensely practical, they both fit comfortably into a modern hand with an ergonomic dexterity that Apple would be proud of. In the sand at this midden, layers of shells define the ancient soil surface where used shells were cast after the seafood had been eaten. We still occasionally see people gathering Winkles on the shore here, perpetuating a harvest that spans more than four millennia. The waste at this place tells a fascinating and complex story. This was not a city, but neither was it an unstructured, unsophisticated society, struggling in a wilderness. I try to imagine the excitement of experimenting with this new technology, novel in both its artistic and functional merits. The social media of its time, as groups clustered together to share ideas, and to create a story of this place that I would rediscover, and wonder about.