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The aesthetic prejudice towards white classical statues

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

Past Mistakes: How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters David Mountain

Icon Books,, pp.400, 16.99

In the 1930s curators at the British Museum, under orders from Lord Duveen, a generous donor, scoured and hacked at the friezes and statues of their Parthenon collection. They were trying to remove the smudges and stains thought to be discolouration, to restore the marbles to their original colour — white. But it wasn’t discolouration; it was paint. Though the idea was rejected for years, an arsenal of new technologies — infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and chemical analysis — has since established that classical sculpture was slathered with the stuff.

Though polychromy — the art of painting statues and architecture — was finally accepted in the 1970s, it was proposed over a century before Duveen’s men picked up their chisels. More than just unknowing, David Mountain explains, it was the rejection by academics of fact and an aesthetic objection to the ‘savagery of colour’ in favour of the ‘more beautiful’ white body. This ignorance of polychromy, wilful or otherwise, combined with racialised politics, saw anatomists and phrenologists describe classical sculpture as the ‘holotype of the white race in the 19th century’. Even now the American Identity Movement (which wants to keep American identity white and European) uses the Apollo Belvedere on pamphlets.

History is the means by which we justify the present. Societies use it to assert their identity and to show the extent of their progress. The ignorance of past historians and writers allowed the proliferation of mythologised historical assumptions — in Mountain’s study Eurocentric, national, Great Man histories (and he throws in crystal skulls for good measure). With the use of new technologies and the application of a scientific, evidence-based methodology to history, Mountain asserts, ideological bias can be removed from our interpretation of the past and show history to be the ‘glorious mess’ that it really is.

His compelling account of the unearthing of Göbekli Tepe, courtesy of some careful observation by a German archaeologist, bears out the hypothesis. The vast temple complex in Turkey was built by hunter gatherers, a feat previously thought unimaginable. The ramifications of the discovery undo the theory that religion and politics began with settled society and that progress is linear — that settlement was a natural progression from hunter gathering, rather than just one of many alternatives.

But Mountain’s ‘debunking’ of minor misconceptions frequently goes awry. He asserts, for instance, that the expression ‘Dutch courage’ is simple racism, when it derives from the 17th-century English soldiers who, having seen the effect it had on the Dutch, would drink Jenever (Dutch gin) to steel their nerves before battle. It’s not an accusation of cowardice but admiration of booze-soaked bravery. A few pages later Mountain argues that goods found in Viking boat burials similar to that at Sutton Hoo were not for the afterlife. Ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller and the only eyewitness of a Viking boat burial, has it otherwise. During part of a funeral ritual, he describes how a young woman is put into a trance, says she sees her master in Paradise and that he asks her to go to him — after which she is burned on the boat, along with her master’s body. Notable, too, is that Mountain is strikingly more certain than the source he quotes. He finds evidence for his points — but when he gets the answer he wants, he looks no further.

And he introduces some ideological anachronisms himself. When he critiques the Roman maligning of barbarians he correctly, but eccentrically, describes them as never having shown any sign of ‘pan-barbarian solidarity or identity’.

In an entertaining chapter about crystal skulls, Mountain touches on why we are so susceptible to crank theories and myths. It’s inextricably linked with humanity’s search for meaning in life. The rise of religions such as Theosophy and conspiracy theories about Atlantis coincided with therapid technological advances of the late 19th century.

More recently, digs at the ‘34,000-year-old pyramid of the Sun’ outside Sarajevo (in fact just an ordinary hill) were bankrolled by the Bosnian government, who see it as a source of great national pride in spite of the European Association of Archaeologists’ repeated condemnation of it as hoax. The fear of something lost and the need for something greater animate their obstinate rejection of historians and archaeologists. And, as Mountain says, the stronger the professional denunciation, the more ardent their belief.

He may be right about history being a ‘glorious mess’, but by his own admission there is little sign that science will see off our appetite for myth.

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