I like digging, into mud, history and people’s minds – not dissimilar substances when you think about it. And, fortunately, now I have the time to turn the soil, mull things over, research deeply, let in the air.
I owe my mental freedom, I reluctantly admit, to that ghastly aberration of socialism called New Labour. I once asked the redoubtable leader of Glasgow City Council, Pat Lally, what the ‘new’ in New Labour meant. He said he had no idea. All he knew was that it didn’t stand for anything he’d been fighting for all his life.
When the grinning, happy-clappy philistines of New Labour in Glasgow abolished my job as Director of Glasgow Museums, and introduced a leisure management system, I took my pension early and found I had time to dig, not just in my garden but into all that I’d been thinking about in my 30 year long career in museums.
What had fascinated me since I’d started work was what was going on in the minds of the people who made the exquisite things in my care. What were the craftsmen of Ancient Egypt and China and Medieval Europe thinking about when they carved a statue of the Pharaoh, modeled a Tang horse or stained a glass window for a church? And I couldn’t help thinking how different their thoughts were from those of the people looking at my museum displays today.
My ambition was to try to bridge this gap, to enable my visitors to make imaginative leaps into the minds of artists in the past so that they could appreciate more fully the beauty of their work. I only ever, of course, partially succeeded in this task.
I wanted to dig deeper and get closer, to bring the past more vividly to life, because it seemed to me that the past was, if not the last, then certainly a lost frontier. And now, post-New Labour shafting, I had the time to explore what was really going on in our ancestors’ minds.
Long experience in museums had taught me that reading books gives one only partial sightings of the past. There’s no substitute for seeing the surviving evidence for oneself. So I travelled to all the major historic sights I hadn’t been to in the world, from South America to China, India to Australia. Over a decade I went everywhere, though a few places still elude me in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Slowly, but surely, a picture grew in my mind of the emergence of human culture as a whole, up to and including modern times. I realised that our societies and the monuments we’d built reflected our world views, and that these views had changed, logically and sensibly over time, as we increased in numbers and spread, at first across the flat earth and then around it, when, very late in the day, we came to realise that the earth was a sphere.
I was standing on the Circular Mound Altar, part of the Temple of Heaven complex in Beijing, when I suddenly thought I’d got it wrong about Stonehenge. Though only 500 years old (in comparison with Stonehenge, which dates from about 2000 years earlier), this altar was almost certainly based on a much older construction. The religious ceremonies and sacrifices were performed on top of it, not on the ground around it.
Of course this made sense, because being high up the supplicants were nearer to the heavens. No sacred ceremonies in early times, when we thought the world was flat, were performed on the lowly earth. Chinese Emperors, like Egyptian Pharaohs, were carried everywhere so that their half-holy feet didn’t touch the ground, as the Pope still is in his bizarre, high-chaired pope-mobile.
So I developed the radical notion that Stonehenge was a vast raised platform, a Mecca on stilts – one of many totally fresh re-interpretation of the past in my book Realisation. The stones were sacred in themselves, hewn from the pillars that held up the Western sky in the Welsh Mountains, but they were there to support the weight of masses of pilgrims, not to be looked at from the side, as we see them today.Why had no archeologists thought of this before?
Being used to digging, they were looking in the wrong direction, down, not up. The same thing happened to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola when he discovered the Altamira cave in 1879. He was excavating the floor, looking for evidence of early man. It never occurred to him to raise his head. It was his daughter who exclaimed, pointing to the ceiling, ‘Look, Papa. Oxen!’
I’ve kept digging, since my time in Glasgow, without, I hope, forgetting that people once believed in heaven.
Julian Spalding’s new book Realisation – From Seeing to Understanding – The Origins of Art is published this week, Willington Square Press £8.99.