Drunk on history

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The Independent Online
This week, one of my more adventurous colleagues, as reported in this paper, volunteered to drink genuine ancient Egyptian beer, as sunk by Pharaoh himself. Archaeobotanists (as they are called) had discovered and analysed the sediment at the bottom of a couple of long-buried jugs, linked this sludge with a few grains of emmer wheat found on a tomb floor - and some enterprising archaeobrewers (as they are not called) had done the rest. The bottles were retailing at 50 quid a throw.

The process of beer-making could be seen on several extant wall-paintings and deduced from hieroglyphics, apparently. According to one of the brewers, the ancient Egyptians had had several different types of beers - beers, he explained, "for high days, feast days, one for toothache and one injected as an enema if you had piles".

This worried me. As a visitor to the temples of Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, I have seen representations of feasts and holidays. But I must have missed the panels depicting Thutmose IV being administered a beer enema. And what would the hieroglyphs for such an activity consist of?

"I see what you're saying, Professor, the three vertical lines represent a fountain, or flow." "Correct, Doctor! And the rounded W clearly suggests a pair of slightly parted buttocks. I think we can deduce..."

And do we know that the ancient Nile-dwellers had piles because they have been discovered (albeit in rather desiccated form) under the bandages of mummies? Or is there a papyrus in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities telling us that Amenophis I would have given the Nubians a damn good smiting had it not been for his appalling piles?

I do not mean to impugn the value of the research involved - although one suspects that, as with opinion polling, there is a distinct moment when science gives way to artistic licence. Certainly this is true in the fashionable business of facial reconstruction. Recently, the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, where a whole Norse village has become a major attraction, spent large sums on having the faces of several 10th century rapers and pillagers constructed from skulls found in the area. Tucked away, however, in an article about this process was the revelation that "Facial Image Technique cannot accurately reproduce ears, nose, lips, or, of course, skin tones". Which doesn't really leave very much.

Jorvik also pioneered another form of reliving the past - smelling it. Having discovered - and put on display - a Viking latrine (complete with 1,000-year-old stools), Jorvik is said to have employed a Mr Dale of Dale Air Products to recreate the authentic odour of the place. This presumably had to be done by examining the diet of Ragnar the Raddled et al, and deducing what would have happened as these foodstuffs made their peristaltic way from one orifice to another, and beyond. Mr Dale has also recreated a "Roman soldier's armpit", as well as a mixture of horse, sweat and bourbon for the Wild West part of Disneyland Paris.

But to what purpose is this mania for authenticity? It cannot help us in any way to understand the past. Real history is about the conditions of labourers, the construction of nations, of wealth amassed and power lost, of motions passed in legislatures, not latrines.

Of what use is it to us to "know" what a Dark Ages dung heap smelled like, or to be able to purchase the beverage that made Akhenaten the success he was? After all, in any real sense, we cannot experience these things as they were once experienced, even if we reproduce them faithfully. You would have to live your life smeared in beaver fat, wear a partly cured elk pelt and possess a mouth full of blackened abscessed stumps, before really being able to "contextualise" the aroma of a Jorvik latrine. If your eyes were covered in kohl, your hair in henna, your mouth still watering from a meal of dates, the room reeking of myrrh, then perhaps you might be able to taste the Amarna beer as Pharaoh did. All else is equivalent to those cutesy catalogues full of Celtic trivets and plaster cherubs - the tamed past substituting for the threatening present.