Amid the Christmas hubbub, what joy to tether up the dog, and have a solitary walk in the forest.
Macaulay and I make our way onto a monumental earthwork which has been standing there for 3,200 years. It has never been formally excavated but its ramparts tell a vast undulating tale which echoes back to the iron age.
This afternoon, the dog and I chose the path past the ancient entrance, which faces the East. There was not a soul around: it was a mild day overcast by sombre blankets of grey cloud. There was something profound about the solitary silence.
We still stand in awe at these old places, where man has gone about his business for so long. I stopped and looked at the great track which leads up to what must have been a seat of power once, back in an age where men clustered together in high places to live and farm and defend their homesteads.
It has always amazed me that no-one has dug the surface of that tabletop hill. What treasures must lie beneath! A whole village sleeps there, cradling its secrets.The very least one might expect is a bit of iron age pottery.
I think I’d know it if I saw it: red-rough clay shards, with a tell-tale curve. And some of it would have some decoration: incision with bird bones, cord marks, raised strips in the clay or even burnishing.
The Derbyshire hill fort of Fin Cop gave up such secrets in 2009, when a series of test pits was dug by Longstone Local History Group with the help of local schoolchildren. They found pottery typical of the age. And it was decorated by the potter.
It was the details of decoration which astounded the volunteers. For someone had used a thumb to imprint a pattern on the rim of the clay. And in the grooves, the nail marks of the iron age potter were there for all to see.
One of the organisers reported: “Suddenly, we realised that we could place our fingers into the decoration and feel the action of our distant ancestor as this long forgotten artisan added their own personal mark to this pot. We felt a special link with the long forgotten people who lived and died in the fort.”
Decoration. Not a necessity: a sign that our forebears felt comfortable enough to create. A link to the urge to decorate that we feel today.
And now a breathtaking leap in culture, in civilisation, and in space: but not time. We stay at around 1200BC but move 5000 miles, to Anyang in the Henan province of China.
An ancient Chinese dynasty was in full swing by the time our English potter made his thumb prints. But for millennia none has acknowledge it even existed. Writings of the time spoke of the Shang Dynasty; but many scholars dismissed it. It was as mythical, they said, as Atlantis.
This went on until, it is fabled, a Chinese academic called Wang Yirong’s relative came down with a nasty case of malaria.
A common treatment was ground up turtle shells and Wang Yirong ordered them sent immediately.
When they arrived he looked at them to check their quality: and noticed the strangest thing.
Tiny, intricate writing.
These days these are known as Oracle Bones: shards with script on them. They were from a place where dragon bones could be had, on the black market, a tiny village called Xiaotun.
Serious excavation began there in the 1920s and 20,000 fragments were unearthed. They proved the Shan Dynasty’s existence.
This was decoration for ritual purposes.Made of the underside of turtle shells or ox shoulder bones, the Shang king would make a prediction and list options. Then someone would heat a fine rod and make marks which could be ‘read’ in the same manner as we do, today, with tea leaves. Answers from the ‘diviner’ would be engraved on the bone.
Since then the art and technology of the dynasty have come to light.
In Shanghai Museum sits a tripod cauldron called a ding (above). Its decoration is as far away from those English thumbprints as anything could be: intricate, sophisticated filigree patterns interwoven with such mathematical symmetry that it almost beggars belief.
It is little short of splendid: a breathtaking piece of decoration which even today graces its surroundings.
Two pieces of decoration, broadly contemporary, yet totally different. Each is priceless and represents a lost brick in the early stages of a civilisation. Each is a unique decoration.
Since our earliest times we have loved to makes things not only utilitarian, but beautiful. It is an instinct in our bones: to create grace, and pattern, and pleasing form.
And each time we decorate, we use a well of experience from an ancient past.
Written for Side View’s weekend theme ‘Decoration’ (but running late). You can find her here
Picture source here