What Makes Civilization? An Archaeologist’s Reflections on the Hay Festival
By David Wengrow, on 7 June 2011
I am just back from the Hay Festival, where I presented my new book What Makes Civilization: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West (OUP, 2010) to a friendly and inquisitive audience. The book title had been suggested to me in a pub conversation by my colleague at UCL Anthropology, Danny Miller, who by coincidence was talking at the offshoot festival of music and philosophy down the road.
I have never spoken at anything like the Hay Festival before, but I had visited as a spectator, and remembered the buzz. So when the invitation to speak arrived I was delighted, and nervous. It is not your ordinary academic line up. On arrival I was ushered to the Green Room, where the likes of Simon Schama, Bob Geldof, Melvyn Bragg, and Rosie Boycott glide in and out. My own presentation was to take place at 8:30pm on Saturday evening, and clashed with a dramatisation of interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay starring Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes (the latter, I suspect, being the prime motivation for my wife, Rinat, and her friend Kate tagging along).
By lunchtime I was wrongly convinced that among that sort of company nobody (except possibly my wife) would be coming to hear about the origins of civilization in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and that my book signing would be a lonely experience. I consoled myself by going along to some of the fascinating talks on offer, which had a significant Middle East focus: Mohamed ElBaradei gave the Rotblat Lecture, and young novelists from Tunisia and Egypt discussed the Arab Spring. Much of what I heard made me rethink the content of my own work, which explores the beginnings of urban life, dynastic states and literacy in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), and considers their implications for our modern understanding of the concept of civilization.
Earlier in the Festival the Barclays Wealth Lecture had been given by Niall Ferguson on Civilization: the West and the Rest, about as different a take on that concept from my own as one could imagine. In the event, I had underestimated the curiosity and diversity of the Hay audience. Most are attracted, not by celebrity, but by ideas. Around 250 came to my talk, in which I presented an archaeologist’s response to the resurgence, in history and the social sciences, of a pessimistic notion of ‘civilization’ as tribalism writ large, and offered a counter-vision of early Middle Eastern civilizations as the outcome of cross-cultural connections and borrowings.
I was confronted with questions that ranged from the responsibilities of archaeologists towards local communities to my thoughts on Ferguson’s “killer apps” explanation of the rise of Western civilization. I come back to UCL from Hay invigorated, and reminded of the fact – so easily forgotten in the current climate – that the world beyond our universities is still looking to evidence of the deep past for an understanding of the fundamental issues of our time, and hoping that our academic institutions will rise, against all odds, to the challenge.