In November, I had the opportunity to do something I have wanted to do for almost as long as I can remember: visit Greece. I spent a week there with my dad and it was as amazing as I expected it to be. In one week, we managed to see all the most well-known sights (the Parthenon, Delphi, Mycenae, Epidaurus) as well as some less well-known places (a classical Greek temple and a monastery on the island of Aegina, the Temple of Poseiden at Cape Sounion). It was really neat to finally see these places that I had read and heard about in many history classes, novels, and mythology stories. In some ways, the archeological sites were rather different from what I expected. For example, at all of the sites, the grounds are strewn with large and small pieces of marble, that once formed part of the temple or building, but have long since fallen down. In some places, someone at one time put in the effort to line up all of the pieces on the ground in neat rows; for example stacking all of the ionic column capitals together. I am not sure why I didn’t expect the sites to look so much like ruins, but they fact that they did made it more real. It is also the case that many of these sites are still active acheologically. They are still uncovering new things. We surmised that just about anywhere you dig in Athens, you would probably quickly encounter signs of an ancient civilizations. Overall, seeing these structures, foundations, and ruins that were built 2500 (and, in the case of Mycenae, 3500) years ago was awe-inspiring but at the same time difficult to comprehend. At one point I started feeling like I was just going around seeing these places because that’s what you are supposed to do, so I stopped to think and to try to inject some meaning into what I was seeing.
One way in which I make seeing historical sites more meaningful to me is to imagine the everyday life of the people who lived there. In history classes and books, you mostly learn about the religious practices and the wars, but I try to remind myself that these were humans with the same needs, feelings, and failings as people today. For example, while at Delphi (which is famous for the Oracle, who people came from all over to consult), I imagined two priests getting into an argument over something trivial in the back room, behind where the Oracle sat. Maybe they raised their voices too much and it carried through to the Oracle, who was momentarily distracted from the prophecy she was giving. Another example that really brought to life these ancient people was one I did not need to use my imagination for: 3500-year-old safety pins, that I saw in the National Acheological Museum in Athens. They were much larger than today’s factory-made safety pins, but they were essentially the exact same design. This was incredible to me; I had no idea people 3500 years ago had safety pins! I think these two examples explain why I enjoy reading historical fiction: it is the small details that make history meaningful to me.
Reading the descriptions of the archeological sites in the guidebook got me thinking about another aspect of history: how do we know these “facts” that are in the guidebook and the history textbooks? I know there is a multitude of answers to this question. This is in fact what archeologists and anthropologists are trying to do: to determine what these people’s lives were like, what happened at all of these ancient sites. I know also that they have many different techniques, including analysing any writing that is found, any artwork that is found, and all other various objects (pottery, etc) that are found. However, I know also that it is very much a work of interpretation. Everything that is found and analysed today is going to be interpreted through a 21st century lens, because that is the era in which we currently live. I know that anthropologists are not always in agreement over interpretations. And I have no doubt that throughout much of the history of archeology and anthropology, things have been interpreted through a patriarchal lens. So where does this leave us with regards to understanding history?
For one thing, I feel that the way in which history is taught in the K-12 schools is shameful. It is taught entirely as facts: here is what happened, here is the way things were. However, the watered-down version of history found in these textbooks is far from the conclusive “truth” of history. Rather, they are one person’s (the textbook author’s) interpretation of the historians’ intrepretations, and that one person’s opinion on what is important. For example, I remember my high school US History textbook contained all of one page about the 19th century women’s movement. Given that there are entire books about this movement, clearly the author of the textbook just didn’t think it was important. Rather than a bunch of facts to memorize, history should instead be taught as a fluid, dynamic process. Students should be introduced to the way in which people figure out what happened in history, and the way in which it is an ongoing dialog and process. Multiple sources and interpretations about the same topic should be read. Archeological sites should be visited when possible. Most importantly, students should be taught that we can never know for sure and conclusively what happened in the past. For example, we might be able to say that the Mycenaeans had safety pins, since we have found such objects dating to their era. However, we do not know for sure how such objects were used, although we can probably make educated guesses based on how they are used today. But just because we do NOT find any examples of a certain object (such as scissors) does not mean that the Mycenaeans did not have that object. It just means we haven’t found any evidence that they did. In addition, even when we have a historical text to use as a source, it is still only that one person’s view of what happened. If we were able to ask another person (who was perhaps illiterate and could not write anything down) from the same time period what happened, we might get a very different answer. This approach towards history in school would help teach students to be critical thinkers, which I think is very important. In addition, I think students would enjoy history more with such an approach!
As a final note, visiting these Greek archeological sites made me want to reread some of the Classical Greek plays and texts such as the Odyssey. In addition, I would like to find some good books that discuss Greek history in the way I proposed it should be taught. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!