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Digging Up the Origins of Civilization

Geologist and historian Roger Osborne wants to know just what people mean when they use the ‘C’ word.

Confession time. Courteous and affable in public, I am, in the privacy of my own home, a serial shouter. Bellowing in the morning (‘Wrong question, Naughtie!’), yelling in the evening (‘Read some history, Paxman/Blair/ Rumsfeld/Bush!’); berating television historical dramas (‘Ancient Romans were not modern Europeans in funny outfits – they were different!’) and abusing yet another history documentary about ‘a stunning breakthrough’ (‘Get to the point and we can all go to bed!’).

I suppose the British society of secret shouters has a few million members, all enjoying a good rant without right of reply. But a few years ago I began to notice that my ‘verbals’ had become more systematic. These were not just the symptoms of early onset senile grumpiness, but signs of a deep dissatisfaction with the way that both the present and past are portrayed to us. There is, I began to feel, a received and false wisdom about our past that, for all the history that is thrown at us, is rarely called into question. And this view of the past is the false foundation on which we build our understanding of the present.

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