Unlived lives: what pre-history can tell us about ourselves

‘History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened.’

This thought-provoking quote, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, is an epigraph to Adam Phillips’s Missing Out (2012), a work of psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It is a flawed and frustrating book in many respects, but its prologue speaks to anyone interested in the stories we tell about pre-historic people.

According to Phillips, much of our mental life is taken up by the many lives we are not living. The things we are missing out on, the things we envy and covet, the things we have lost or no longer carry. We learn to live double lives: between the lives we actually live and those we would like. The latter can become all-encompassing, eclipsing all else. In Philips’s words, our lives can ‘become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed…The myth of potential makes mourning and complaining feel like the realest thing we ever do…’ (2012, xiii). Invoking Freud, Phillips argues that the frustrations that these unlived lives bring us are critical to desire and to human life. They create a feedback loop: ‘wanting is what we do to survive, and we only want what isn’t there…’ (2012, xiv).

Phillips’s writing has relevance for how we think about the study of what we call ‘pre-history’. It also has bearing on our interpretations of pre-historic objects, especially those that were valuable and yet deposited on purpose.

The cover of Phillips’s (2012) book, ‘Missing Out’

The study of pre-history has long been appreciated as an interpretive and imaginative exercise. Not for us Plutarch’s Roman Lives or Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Our interpretations are, therefore, always likely to be short of accounting for lived lives, even if scientific techniques are taking us closer. What do we do then? I would argue that pre-historian’s interpretations are meditations on the lived and unlived lives of past people. I would also argue that in the course of a century of thought, many pre-historians have become increasingly adept at reading the multiple narratives within the archaeological record. Of course, that is not to say that these are past people’s own ‘parallel lives’. There are, however, several occasions when the two may have overlapped in important – and sometimes unappreciated – ways.

One such occasion concerns the funerary context. Here what we see and read is not necessarily (or even likely to be) the identity of a unique individual, but, rather, the expression of ideal and potential identities and multiple social relations and ‘lives’ lived and unlived. Much has been written on the complexity of pre-historic funerary practices, but much is still conflated and under-explored in terms of the multiplicity of and the frustration expressed through funerary practices and grave goods.

A Beaker burial from Nether Criggie, Aberdeenshire, reimagined by British Museum artist Craig Williams (copyright: Craig Williams)

Another occasion concerns valuable objects intentionally deposited. Take, for instance, the Middle Bronze Age hoard from Hollingbury Hill in Sussex from the British Museum’s collections. This assemblage is made up of objects that signal widespread connections (including the widespread use of torsion twisted bronze torcs across Continental Europe) as well as super-localised identities: the four Sussex Loop bracelets, are, as their name suggests, near exclusive to the county.

The Hollingbury Hill hoard, Sussex, arranged as it was found in 1825 (Trustees of the British Museum)

There are many similar ornament hoards from southern England, very few have ever been found with the burial of a body. They do not fix on a single ‘self’. But they were often deposited in a formal fashion: each object is carefully located in relation to others. They speak of journeys made, short and long, of possibilities and potential identities. They are careful expressions of something. But what?

In Phillips’s view, the things we fantasise about are the things and people – the parallel selves and others – that are absent in our lives. To keep these appetites in check requires a way of expressing – or venting – our frustrations. That redressive action also sharpens our appreciation for what remains. The deposition of valuables during pre-history can be seen as sophisticated expressions of this difficult but essential balancing act.

It is a cliché that pre-historians ‘make things up’, because they’ll ‘never know’ what past people’s lives were really like. That’s only a problem if you fail to grasp the importance of the many unlived lives that inform every thought and action.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Craig Williams for permission to reproduce his illustration of the Nether Criggie Beaker burial.

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