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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.

This misunderstanding of history might seem of purely theoretical interest, but the events of September 11th, 2001, and their aftermath brought the understanding of the past, and in particular the concept of civilization, roaring into the present. Suddenly everyone from George Bush to Tony Blair to Gerhard Schroeder to Donald Rumsfeld was talking about it. Civilization was under attack by terrorists, our choice lay between civilization and chaos, civilization was our gift to the world, civilization needed defending and so on and so on. Political leaders and newspaper commentators talked and wrote about civilization as if they knew exactly what it was, but it was clear that they had only the slipperiest notion of what civilization might be. Civilization, it seemed, was a convenient concept precisely because it was so vague.

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