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Mary Beard: Why a new understanding of 'civilisation' matters

28 February 2018

Presenter of epic new series Civilisations PROFESSOR MARY BEARD discusses expanding the programme to 31 countries, bold debates about the nature of civilisation, and the significance of a face-to-face encounter with some ancient Egyptian cake.

In 1960 aged just five, and almost a decade before I watched Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation on a black and white Radio Rentals television, I visited the British Museum for the first time, to discover the ancient Egyptians.

In making the new BBC Civilisations, I have enjoyed looking at some extraordinary survivals from the ancient world.

In those days the museum was not child friendly and cases were not designed with children in mind. So in order to get a good look at what I was desperate to see - a wonderfully intriguing piece of Egyptian cake, preserved over thousands of years - my mother had to lift me up.

It was an awkward operation. But at that precise moment a curator happened to pass, saw the struggle that was going on, got out his keys to open the case, and put that bit of ancient cake right in front of me. I shall forever be grateful to him, whoever he was. He opened my eyes to the possibility of a face-to-face encounter with the distant past.

Fifty years on, in making the new BBC Civilisations, I have enjoyed - and been able to share on television - more encounters of that kind, looking at some extraordinary survivals from the ancient world, close-up and in the eye.

These have ranged from the amazing Olmec heads of prehistoric Mexico to the Terracotta Warriors of the first emperor of China: a world away from anything I could have imagined in 1960 (the Terracottas were not even unearthed then).

A 3,000-year-old stone Olmec head from central America, unearthed in 1939
Mary Beard examines a Terracotta Warrior
Discovered In China in 1974, the Terracotta Army of more than 8,000 soldiers depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. They were buried with him in 209 BCE.

That cultural range, over 31 countries, sets the new series apart from the famous original version. Clark’s Civilisation concentrated almost exclusively on Europe, and even then didn’t quite make it to Spain. But it did hint at wider debates and discussions about the nature of civilisation more generally. That was clear in his famous disclaimer that he could not define 'civilisation' - though he thought he could recognise it when he saw it.

Putting an 's' on the end of 'civilisation' is only the first step in wondering how we can make the very idea of civilisation less exclusively white, European and male.

We have been bolder than Clark in pushing those debates to the foreground, and less confident than he was in 'recognising it when we see it'! Putting an 's' on the end of 'civilisation' is only the first, and easiest, step in wondering how we can make the very idea of civilisation less exclusively white, European and male.

One way to do that is to go beyond the simple plural (Civilisations), and even to think beyond the artist, the inspired, genius creator in a long line of (usually) 'great men' - to focus also on the people who looked at, interpreted and contested the works of art that have come down to us.

The history of art is not just the history of artists; it is also the history of the people who viewed art. And that wider perspective can help us see some of the reasons why the art of the ancient world should still matter to us.

Get up close with artefacts

A statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Menes
Phrasikleia Kore: a memorial statue from ancient Greece

In the West, even now, we remain influenced by one particular version of the human body established in Greek sculpture around 500 BCE, that we see in the marble statues that line the galleries of our great museums.

We have come to take their lithe and supple poses, their apparently realistic flesh and muscle, so much for granted.

We have come to take their lithe and supple poses, their apparently realistic flesh and muscle, and their claims to be 'natural' so much for granted that we often barely notice them. But there is, and was, a lot more edge to it than that, as I show in my first programme, How Do We look.

For a start, ancient viewers did not take this sort of realism for granted. And their anxieties show in a shocking story they told about the very first life-sized sculpture of the naked female, rather than male, body. This statue was said to have been raped by a young man, who had fallen in love with its lifelike flesh, and later in his madness threw himself off a cliff. It is a story, true or not, that anticipates by thousands of years modern concerns about the erotic dimensions of the nude in art.

The first naked statue of a woman depicted the Greek goddess Aphrodite

But it wasn’t just about sex. Ancient writers also wondered, just as we do, about whether it was possible to capture the image of god or gods in this classical human form. In fact almost all the western debates on the subject go back to ancient Greece.

One smart philosopher of the sixth century BCE puzzled about the conventional representation of the gods, and concluded that if horses and cattle made images of the gods, they would make them in the form of horses and cattle. Debates such as these, running through all religions ancient and modern, are one subject of my second programme, The Eye of Faith.

I have been very lucky that Civilisations has given me the opportunity to explore these big questions, and to see at close quarters where, in Europe, many of them began.

It all came together for me on the Greek island of Naxos, where - in a disused ancient quarry - you can still visit a colossal male statue of the late seventh/early sixth century BCE, lying where it had been hacked out of the rock, but for some reason never finished.

It is a wonderful example of the hard work and communal enterprise that lay behind early Greek sculpture (each hack mark, still visible in the marble, being the mark of one man’s chisel among a multitude). I had enormous fun sitting on the unfinished statue’s feet, where countless people must have sat in the two and a half thousand years since it was abandoned.

It was a feeling of connection and immediacy that took me straight back to that first encounter with the Egyptian cake and to the man who opened the case for me - and I guess changed my life.

The first episode of Civilisations is on BBC Two on Thursday 1 March at 9pm. The full series is then available to view as a box set on BBC iPlayer.

Mary Beard joins David Olusoga and Simon Schama for a special event streamed live from the National Gallery in London to debate the series. Watch Civilisations: The Inside Story from 18:30 on Friday 2 March. The programme will be available on BBC iPlayer from 5 March.

Mary Beard sits on a statue's feet
A statue of the Virgin Mary, with glass tears and real human hair. The statue is carried on a throne at Easter through Seville during The Festival of Our Lady.

Watch the Civilisations trailer

Civilisations: Extended series trailer

Looking forward to BBC Two's global history of art.

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