Is our perception of the past always mediated by nostalgia? What fuels my work with the Neolithic period? I desire authenticity; a wish to make meaningful work that is deeply enmeshed in a universal past that is absolutely the foundation of our culture, the origin of civilization.
Archaeologists spend their time trying to understand what people did in the past, offering answers to contemporary questions about where we came from and how we got to the present.
We cannot imagine what it was like to live in the Neolithic or any period. We are too absorbed into our own culture, the Society of the Spectacle, as Guy DuBord described it. A society mediated through television, magazines, movies advertising and so on.
I took one of my students to Melrose, a very fashionable area in Los Angeles. We visited several clothing stores, where punky style-conscious people sold extraordinary costumes. To me there was a nostalgic element to the expedition, as I revisited places that I had not seen for ten years. This was not the same experience as that which Zack had, to whom the stores were places that he would not ordinarily visit, and which he found intimidating and beyond the range of his upbringing. Familiarity appears to affect our attitude to ritual; we are very familiar with Christian ritual and have become contemptuous of it. We may find the idea of an ancient pre-Christian religion attractive because it is a nostalgic exploration into areas that in Christian terms are transgressive and exciting. As the Church has lost spiritual control, many enjoy the rebellious nature of pagan exploration.
When we do study ancient ritual it is helpful to remember that what seems very strange to us was normal behaviour to those concerned with their religious practice. For example, removing the flesh and using the bones of the dead in ritual seems horrible to us, but may have been accepted practice in the Neolithic. Eating rotten milk (cheese) is perfectly acceptable to us Westerners, but disgusting to other cultures.