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Saturday 22 September 2018
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What your dinner plates say about you

The lack of evidence of Tobago’s “First Peoples” has put archaeology and museums in the spotlight – and it’s a fascinating subject that struggles with being an inexact science.

Everywhere in the world there are museums showing what life was like in their particular corner of it. They do this by showing us bits of broken soup bowls and pipes for smoking who-knows-what, mostly in that classic earthenware material that never goes out of fashion. They are often housed in historic locations, such as the one in Tobago at Fort King George, which was built in the late 1700s and has been out of commission for a long time, made redundant by technological advances.

The museum is the perfect way to use a space that was built for military purposes, particularly when much of what it contains was used for belligerent purposes. Thus, along with the remnants of prehistoric washing-up we have guns which are either primitive or sophisticated, depending on where in history you look from.

On the first of many visits to the fort and its thought-provoking contents I was given the huge privilege of being shown around by a friendly, knowledgeable and visually striking young woman who was anything but a relic. It’s amazing what doors can be opened when you turn up with a notebook and a camera, and although the guided tour is not something offered routinely here or in most other such establishments, it does help considerably. It elevates the experience above a simple observation of how the armament makers progressed from sharp bits of flint which were somehow attached to sticks and used to penetrate human flesh as the business end of arrows.

Is it to mankind’s credit that such rudimentary instruments gave way to ever more effective ways of hurting people? We look at a rifle which, in its day, was at the cutting edge of military technology and even as we admire the craftsmanship we don’t know how many unfortunate servicemen were blown away by it, necessitating sorrowful letters to wives and families thousands of miles away.

But that’s life in the human world – it’s a long, contentious tale of woe if you choose to look only on the dark side. The happy side of our existence isn’t so easy to demonstrate through artefacts, because flowers wilt and die, paintings and leather footballs rot and become compost and wedding rings disappear into the soil. Happy hearts are less vocal than broken ones, and their memories less durable.

The archaeologists piece together theories along with the jigsaw puzzles of broken pottery to give us some idea of how people lived in the days before photographs and when preserving information for posterity was not something that concerned a population with more immediate ambitions, such as staying alive.

But that’s us: posterity. And that will be our distant descendants in centuries and millennia to come. The chief difference in 3017 will be that, barring some currently unimaginable information meltdown, there will be plenty of recorded evidence for the posteritans to look at. Assuming they have retrograde technology that can handle our best efforts in terms of digital material for viewing on bulky, folding “computers” that were called laptops, or even plastic tapes from earlier attempts at storing information, they will piece together a rough idea of our worthy, if rather comical, inventions.

From the soil they will retrieve pistols and knives and other implements of violence that contradict the sophisticated image we would like to think we portray.

“Yes, these people had personal communication devices,” they will inform their audience, “But to use them, they had to bounce signals off satellites – the space garbage that, even today, drifts around the sky, gradually disintegrating and contributing to the debris that threatens to block out the sun. And even as they talked to each other in this farcical way, a criminal element among them would be taking the law into its own hands with weapons not unlike those used in the 18th century.”

As for what we ate and how we ate it, they will point out the absence of animal carcasses, except in concentrated areas that appear to be processing plants, suggesting that food was generally bought semi-prepared, sparing these squeamish sophisticates the blood and gore and the stenches that faced the cooks of previous eras.

“And, although they had developed durable and handsomely styled crockery and cutlery,” the 31st century observers will note, “There is widespread and disturbing evidence of long-discredited materials such as polystyrene and simple, cheap plastics.

It would be uncharitable to suggest such things were used because the people were too lazy to wash and reuse better quality items. But, perhaps, what we are looking at, is generations of people who were not as clever as they thought they were.”

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