Simon Schama looks at the formative role art and the creative imagination have played in the forging of humanity itself.
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I've always felt at home in the past.
For after all, what is the present except an endless chain of memories?
Some of them are translated into stone.
We are all the inheritors of those memories,
and we look after them as best we can.
All this so we can pass on their revelation to the future.
But every so often something comes along
to shake them from our grip.
In Mosul, in a matter of hours,
the forces of Isis destroyed the work of centuries.
And when they took the ancient trading city of Palmyra
where the cultures of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and Jews
have mixed and merged,
it was feared that exactly the same would happen.
Here in Geneva, a few Palmyrene artefacts have been saved -
stolen before the violence began,
arrested at customs as black marketeers tried to sell them.
Like this bust of a priest.
His eyes wide open, he seems not dead at all,
just translated to a life elsewhere.
These lovingly carved likenesses of the dead looted from their tombs
ended up in exile, but safe for posterity.
Saving the art that remained in Palmyra, however,
could come at a terrible price.
Khaled al-Asaad, the chief curator of Palmyra,
was 81 when Isis took the town.
And when their soldiers demanded he tell them
where the city's artworks had been hidden, he refused.
They beheaded him in the Roman theatre,
suspended his mutilated body from a traffic light,
placed his head between his feet...
..and attached a placard identifying him as director of idolatry.
Or we might say protector of what needs to be saved,
cherished, passed on as the work of civilisation.
A lot of us spend our days talking about art.
I doubt very many of us are prepared to lay down our lives for it,
but for Khaled al-Asaad, the stones and statues and columns of Palmyra
were more than simply an ensemble of antiquity.
He didn't need a Unesco certificate to tell him
that the significance of Palmyra was at once both local and universal.
It's there for believers and unbelievers, for East and West,
and somehow it had fallen to him
to be the guardian of that inheritance.
We can spend a lot of time debating what civilisation is or isn't,
but when it's opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty
and intolerance and lust for destruction,
we know what civilisation is.
We know it from the shock of its imminent loss
as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.
The record of human history brims over with the rage to destroy.
But it's also imprinted with the opposite instinct -
to make things that go beyond the demands of food and shelter,
things that make us see the world and our place in it
in a different light.
We are the art-making animal,
and this is what we have made.
When did it begin,
that second moment of creation,
the dawning of human creativity?
Where did it begin?
It must have started in Africa
where Homo sapiens first evolved about 200,000 years ago.
On South Africa's Cape Coast,
archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation
stretching back around 100,000 years.
In one of those caves, this was discovered.
77,000 years old,
a piece of red ochre, a mineral naturally rich in iron,
etched in a diamond pattern.
The oldest deliberately decorative marks ever discovered.
The pattern may have been a kind of language
or a kind of number scoring,
but it's hard to see them as serving any functional need
connected with shelter or sustenance.
They are a design,
and design announces the beginning of culture.
Another 40,000 years pass and in northern Spain
within a hill so uncannily conical it seems man-made
that mineral, that red ochre, has become paint.
Deep inside a cave,
rudimentary marks have bloomed and multiplied, red circles.
There are no brushes, no sticks to lay on this paint,
they are all applied orally -
colour swilled in the mouth with saliva
and blown directly onto the rock.
And then these,
an eruption of design not blown onto the surface, but painted.
Contours, outlines, flowing streams of dots.
There's a meaning here, but we don't know what it is.
The signs of a biological compulsion to pattern,
it's what we humans do,
what we want to do,
what we can't stop ourselves doing.
And then you come across this.
And in an instant, vast millennia of time just collapse
and you're in the midst of fellow humans.
Their hands doing what hands do,
signalling from a very long way off,
37,000 years distant, in fact.
But this long-distance greeting somehow makes us bond
with the makers of this because they establish a presence
that is palpably alive.
Astonishingly, hand stencils like these have been found in caves
as far apart as Indonesia and Patagonia.
Wherever we went, it seems the urge to signal a presence went with us.
And, undeniably, these hand stencils do
what nearly all art that would follow would aspire to.
First, they want to be seen by others,
and then they want to endure beyond the life of the maker.
Like the earliest photographs,
the images here are faded, indistinct,
but something tantalising is happening -
the realisation that we can, however crudely, represent.
In another cave further west in Asturias,
20 minutes walk away from any daylight,
are images that are anything but crude.
This was a doubling of the world, a life copy,
and executed with startling precision of drawing technique.
They even understood modelling,
anatomical features following the rock wall surface of the cave.
And there were many colours,
not just the ubiquitous red ochre, but violets and blacks.
And all those techniques seem to have been there from the beginning,
tens of thousands of years ago.
When you think about this technique, your head just spins
because it has to have been, above all, a memory exercise.
They would have had to fix in their mind exact anatomical details
and then transpose them here on the surface of the cave.
And, yet, when all that was done,
they managed to preserve miraculously this animal vitality.
This is truly one of the great marvels
of the suddenly expanded human mind.
It was in the later years of the 19th century
that images like these began to be discovered.
The first, and for many years the most famous,
were in the caves of Altamira, also in northern Spain.
Extraordinary paintings of bison, herds of them,
sleeping, lying, standing.
But as the number of painted caves discovered grew,
it became clear that art and music came into the world together,
for musical instruments were found.
..flutes made from bones of vultures,
and even more hauntingly, bullroarers,
a piece of wood tied to a rope spun round the head
that makes this strange whooping sound.
Recent experiments with these instruments have suggested
that the proximity of painting and music was not accidental,
that they were connected elements in sacred rituals.
I'm using software to test the acoustics in the space.
So we generate this swept sine wave
and we use that to capture the acoustic of the cave.
And we can look for relationships between sound and paintings.
So the earliest paintings seem to be in these small little side areas
where maybe one person might be there alone.
And then the later paintings seem to be in more grand places,
a venue where a few people would have gathered,
somewhere more dramatic that sounds more dramatic.
You can compare these spaces to a cathedral or a temple.
They're places where people came for sacred moments
which were full of imagery and ritual and music.
And it's like going into a place that's kind of underground,
where you can stop time,
where you can pause and have that special moment
where you're out of time, where you're somewhere else.
Painting is the sound.
The sound making, the music-making,
whatever was happening in this sacred ritual,
that is the painting.
The painting is what's left of that activity.
Anthropologists and archaeologists tell us
that almost all of ice-age painting
had some sort of otherworldly ritual function,
and that, therefore, it ought not to be seen as art.
Though, of course, religion has been a primary purpose of art
for thousands of years.
In Africa, the animals that dominate European cave paintings
are accompanied by humans.
They appear as stylised, elongated figures.
Sometimes they're shown while becoming transformed into beasts.
Men with the heads of antelopes,
creatures that could never have been observed from life,
but which arose from the trance-struck imagination of the shamans.
In the rock art of Africa, these hybrids were painted.
In Europe, where there were far fewer of them,
they went three-dimensional.
In 1939, the fragments of this lion-man,
carved from mammoth ivory, were found in a German cave.
They remained an unsolved puzzle for 30 years
before archaeologists realised that they formed a single figure
made between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago.
This may be a shaman in the middle of a transformation.
It may be the very first of the beast gods,
around which Pagan religions would build their mythologies.
Perhaps the making of such things was itself a sacred calling.
To see how much work was needed to make a lion-man,
archaeologist Wulf Hein embarked on an experiment to carve a replica
using authentic tools and materials.
Without a mammoth tusk,
he used a piece of legally sourced elephant ivory.
I started working from the whole tusk
and then I took a big stone and hammered away this piece,
and I was sweating like hell
because if I would have ruined it, it would be a disaster.
And the most time-consuming part of the work
was setting free the arms
because I had to take a very tiny tool
and make grooves like this underneath, into the ivory,
and just scratch and scratch and days and days
and working and working.
I had blisters on my hands, and every finger was aching.
It was very heavy work.
I started in April
and I stopped working in the middle of July.
I worked about four, five hours a day.
In the end, it was about 400 hours, then I stopped counting.
I guess it was a real artist who made this.
And he was set free by his community only to do this piece of artwork.
If you do this a whole summer or a whole winter through,
you can't go hunting, you can't go fishing, you can't do nothing
because you work all day on it.
It must have had incredible meaning for the people who made it.
And these must have been charged with meaning too.
Small figurines embodying the primal life events
of birth and procreation.
Gravid earth mothers weighty with fertility,
enormous distended breasts and buttocks.
So powerfully elemental they seemed to speak directly
to modern artists when they first saw them.
The most self-consciously modern of them all, Picasso,
told a friend that no sculptor had ever bettered
the Palaeolithic carvers.
He bought a copy of this one, Venus of Lespugue,
and kept it in his studio all his life.
Was he touched by its archaic spirituality?
He was earthly and worldly,
but he felt a deep communion with the makers of a physical art.
And there were traces of that communion elsewhere in his work.
Despite rumours, there's no direct evidence
that Picasso ever visited the painted caves of Altamira
or saw in person the extraordinary painted bison
that those caves contained.
But he was obsessed with animals,
one animal in particular,
not the bison, but it's cousin, the bull,
an animal to which he returned again and again.
Do we think this is mere coincidence?
He liked to call himself a modern primitive,
and in those images, glimmering images in the caves,
he found, he thought, a fountainhead
of everything that was truly creative
about the artistic instinct.
So he paid cave art the ultimate compliment
by doing something very similar.
He looked at a bull
and then he produced this beautiful, dashing, impulsive picture of a bull
so close to the original in Altamira,
it could even have been a studious copy.
But then he produced another ten prints,
bulls drawn from his own enormous range of styles,
from meaty naturalism
through classical Cubism
to a lightly delineated bull that's really just a pair of horns
and then that other thing that bulls always need.
The entire sequence expresses his admiration
for the genius of the cave painters,
his belief that ancient or modern,
the hand of the painter, the hand of the artist, never really changes.
And I have to say, I agree with Picasso.
We can walk into rooms like this one
which preserve the 19th century style of museum presentation -
And as we wander through case after case,
not just of minute fashioning tools, but ivory and bone,
decorated with startling images of birds and horses,
we can't avoid pushing back instinctively
against the received wisdom of the scholars
that none of these things should ever be thought of as art.
For me, the last word in this entire debate
belongs to one tiny ancient piece in particular...
..La Dame de Brassempouy.
The lady of Brassempouy,
found in a cave in south-west France in 1892.
She's between 22,000 and 25,000 years old.
With this intensively carved female head,
we have, for the first time,
something immensely and movingly momentous.
We have the revelation of the human face.
It's a tiny thing, it can just go in the palm of your hand.
This is exquisite.
There are downward strokes and sideward strokes
there is carving and gouging and polishing and scraping.
Every kind of extraordinary craft is applied
to give this face what we have to say is its personality.
One example, a dig is made below the forehead
to suggest the presence of eyes.
Those eyes are hauntingly vivid.
They only become eyes when a shadow falls
over that passage in the head.
So this little piece would have been turned into the light
and as it was turned into the light, the shadow would have fallen
and suddenly we have eyes as well as that beautiful nose
and this extraordinary hair falling down the nape of the neck.
Now we are not supposed to say, us amateurs in this field,
we're not supposed to talk about art,
we're not supposed to talk about things like
the birth of a refined sensibility.
I'm going to do that nonetheless.
I don't care how anachronistic it is.
With this tiny piece from Brassempouy,
it seems to me that we have, right in front of us,
the dawn of the idea of beauty.
But beauty is hard to eat.
The slow growth of civilisations depended, at first,
on practicalities -
the domestication of animals and cereal crops.
The most ancient wheats were harvested
on sites near the River Jordan about 10,000 years ago.
Civilisations started small,
it depended on the invention of needful things -
pottery vessels for cooking, eating and storage.
Excavations in Iraq in the 1920s and '30s
began to reveal how intensive irrigation of the planes
between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates had allowed
the world's first true cities to arise.
By about 5,000 years ago,
cities with tens of thousands of inhabitants, such as Ur and Uruk,
were producing art that reflected the self-image of the powerful.
Here is the Standard of Ur
where mosaic inlaid in bitumen
showed the scenes that mattered most.
war wagons roll,
and on the reverse, a court convenes
with the king depicted larger than his priests and courtiers,
ranged below the catering classes, the toilers and hewers.
It's a complete social world,
and it came with writing.
These scripts usually recorded administrative matters,
but sometimes told the stories of heroes and deities.
And animals continue to provide the models for gods and monsters.
This gorgeous goat, also from Ur, drew materials from far and wide.
White shells were from the Red Sea,
the blue lapis lazuli from far Afghanistan,
and the gold leaf was the work of local goldsmiths.
Around 4,500 years ago,
in the islands of the Eastern Mediterranean,
migrants from Western Asia seeded Europe's first great civilisation,
the culture of the Minoans.
Its ruins are everywhere on Crete and on the islands of the Aegean.
This must have been a fishing village.
You can almost hear the bustle.
Protected by the sea on two sides, but closely packed.
So even here people will have had to learn the skills
that any fixed settlement requires -
how to be neighbourly.
But there's more to civilisation than keeping neighbours happy.
On Crete itself, we find the ruins of large towns
where the streets still thread their way,
opening onto grandiose plazas,
spaces for ceremony and pomp,
for ritual and for politics.
Minoan cultural style spread across the Aegean Sea
to islands like Santorini.
A volcanic eruption destroyed the port city of Akrotiri
in around 1627 BCE,
but the ash preserved the murals found here
in all their vivid realism.
They raised the ghost of a seagoing civilisation,
a clear ancestor of our own
with its clamour and glamour, its commercial pulse.
These passengers aren't going to the afterlife,
they're on ferries and festive excursions.
And on the land behind them, there are streets
with multistorey houses,
and in the richer of them, decorative paintings
of the kind consumers would want for ever after.
This is the first truly social art the world had seen.
Here are beautiful youths duking it out.
Here are saffron gatherers.
Here are swallows.
A perpetual springtime brought into the living room.
One contact sport dominated Minoan culture - bull leaping.
Young men, possibly women too, back flipping over charging bulls.
It's long been argued that this was too dangerous
to have actually happened,
that the art captures a myth, a fantasy.
And yet in the British Museum,
there's a little bronze sculpture
that's pulsing with a natural energy that feels absolutely true to life.
What strikes me as being physically real
is the fact that this is not a stylised piece of work at all.
It has physical immediacy.
Even though our jumper has lost his legs,
his back is braced, his head is flung back.
And the bull, the bull is indeed a bull in full charge -
front and back legs tensed.
The eyes, and you can actually see the eyes, are blazing,
and the muzzle is snorting with dangerous foam.
Around the 15th century BCE,
Minoan culture was producing myriad tiny masterpieces.
Seal stones to be pressed into soft wax
or worn as micro art.
Gold rings, sometimes decorated with goddesses or their priestesses,
bare-breasted, wasp-waisted with flaring skirts.
Minoan art was irresistibly attractive to a raw rising power
on the Greek mainland.
Here was a culture that wanted to clothe its belligerence
in sophistication that would play a vital role in European history -
In 2015, American archaeologists were digging in western Greece,
and here, far from Crete, they made the most significant discovery
of Minoan artefacts for many, many years.
They found the grave of a warrior buried around the year 1450 BCE.
Here we are in the grave to look at our body today.
It was the body of a Mycenaean.
Yet almost all the objects found with the body were clearly Minoan.
This is our third gold ring.
Four solid gold rings were eventually found in the grave.
They're just exquisite, actually.
The craftsmanship on all of them is stunning.
And they all have their own story to tell.
They're very much like the iconography
that you find in Minoan Crete.
I think that's a really important lesson to learn
-about how civilisations evolve.
That civilisations are constantly borrowing and receiving inspirations
from their predecessors
and from those that surround them as they evolve.
In total, the grave contained over 1,500 separate objects.
There was a corroded bronze mirror and ivory combs.
Vanity was part of the warrior's job description.
Hair was ritually combed before battle.
And, of course, there were swords.
The grave of the Griffin Warrior has all of the artefacts
that you would expect a warrior to have accumulated in his lifetime.
And this is the first time that we can really understand
what the complete warrior kit looked like.
One of the objects found in the grave -
tiny, not quite 1.5 inches long -
was crusted in mud and minerals.
Once cleaned, it forces us to rethink everything
we thought we knew about this moment in history.
High resolution photographs show the extraordinary achievement.
We see the long hair flowing free
that would have been combed before battle.
We see a sword lying on the ground
exactly like the swords discovered in the grave.
But that is just the beginning.
This is the first fight scene in all of European art,
for all I know, in all of world art.
Yes, there are occasional moments of combat and battle in other cultures,
but they're flat, they're very stylised,
they don't feel like the smash of bone and bronze
and metal and the spout of blood, this does.
This goes straight from 1450 BC to action movies.
Look at those rippling biceps.
Look at those muscles.
Look at those tense bodies.
This cross of locked-together fighters.
A spear that's about to try and impale the body of his enemy
before it's too late.
The sword that's about to plunge down.
It's 3-D, folks. It's coming at you.
And, inevitably, there is already a dead body,
perfectly modelled, an arm bent back.
Homer speaks of such bodies
with a hand or a face writhing in the dust.
But, people, Homer is 700 years later.
700 years later, the time between Chaucer and us.
Somebody out there with incredible hawklike eyesight is drawing on
a body of combat literature
that goes all the way down to those beautiful Homeric inventions.
It sets something running in European culture.
This Mycenaean love of guts and glory
and the Mycenaeans themselves, along with the Minoans,
will pass into history.
But this doesn't pass into history,
it passes into poetry.
It passes for ever into the world.
Sometimes there are discoveries that radically transform
But then there are other discoveries
that reveal a culture so far outside the river of history
that we may never truly understand them.
As Mycenae rose about 3,000 years ago,
an extraordinary culture grew in west central China -
Its remains were unearthed in 1986 on a building site.
The revealed pits contained hundreds of elephant tusks,
the remains of sacrificed animals,
and a vast and startling abundance of masks.
There were scores of masks,
There were giant masks
which probably stood in some sort of temple.
There were little itty-bitty masks,
There were masks that were user-friendly,
that almost certainly could be worn on the face.
They all have huge eyes.
This one, you can still see a few traces of black paint.
They were painted black.
Nothing in the rest of ancient China has ever been discovered
remotely like these faces, like these heads.
The bronze is the same, the figures and faces are not.
Nothing that can tell us anything about the people
who made these objects has survived.
There are no writings, no other histories to tell us who they were.
It's been suggested that some of the masks
might have been used in rituals by impersonators of the dead -
those enormous eyes which see beyond the world,
the ears which might hear what the departed say.
But this is all pure speculation.
The civilisation of Sanxingdui came, it flourished,
and then it disappeared off the face of the earth.
But civilisation is always a balancing act.
There may be enemies at the gates,
there may be enemies within the walls,
and sometimes the very landscape and climate
in which a culture grows must be conquered.
It may be too rocky, too arid,
but here canyons and gullies became the streets and thoroughfares
for one of the most spectacular civilisations
in all of human history.
This is Petra where the sheer improbability of its location
was also the secret of its spectacular flourishing.
The reason why this tomb endured and survived armies and earthquakes
is that the Nabateans who built it
cut it into the sandstone surface of the mountain,
rather than build some freestanding marble monument.
The mountains shook with earthquakes,
but these buildings stood intact.
The Nabateans had what you might call
an instinct for cultural ecology.
They worked with the rock of their desert home.
The columns are graceful.
The capitals are heavily decorated.
It's all part of an international Hellenistic style,
and, yet, it seems to me this place is very local,
This is Petra and only Petra,
these great palatial buildings seem to say.
More amazing still, this place was built by people who were nomads
when they first arrived here in the fourth century before Christ.
The Nabataeans were goat herders, camel riders, dwellers in tents.
But flocks and herds weren't going to produce this.
Petra was built on trade in incense.
2,000 years ago,
aromatic frankincense and myrrh were essential
for the ceremonies and rituals which punctuated daily life.
The nondescript little chunks and granules of dried tree resin
produced these clouds of fragrant incense smoke,
and they became the hottest trade between Africa and Persia.
And here's the thing, the trees that produce the resin
only grow in a particular part of Arabia,
and who knew that desert mile by stony mile,
oasis by oasis, better than the Nabataeans?
So the Nabataeans started as navigators and pilots, if you like,
for this precious cargo,
went on to be full-service providers,
and then thought, "Well, why don't we trade it ourselves directly?"
Pretty soon they were monopolists of the incense trade,
the emperors of aromatics.
But a civilisation here was inconceivable
without the one thing more precious than frankincense -
The Nabataeans engineered systems to trap the rains which came in winter
and their desert hydraulics made this place not so much rose red,
as bright green.
A garden city of fountains, swimming pools,
groves and orchards.
And the water which made all that possible
also made it possible to feed a city of 30,000 people,
many of whom were immigrants from all over the region.
There were Egyptians and Syrians and Judeans and Greeks and Romans,
and they were all coming to Petra
to enjoy what the Persians called a pairi daiza,
a pleasure resort, a little bit of heaven on Earth.
And they all brought a flourish of their own cultural styles with them.
Most of the art discovered here has been taken to museums,
but what survives tells the story of a cosmopolitan playground.
There are curious abstract representations
of a Nabataean goddess...
..carved heads from the wine soaked Hellenistic cult of Dionysus.
Recent excavations have brought to light ritzy villas
carved into the living rock.
Inside them, "here's to happiness" murals
from that same Dionysian cult,
cherubs, vine leaves,
the inevitable bunches of grapes.
And from the later years of Petra's life, Byzantine mosaics
found beneath the sand and rubble of a ruined church.
Petra had its day, or rather its centuries, and then it ended.
Not because of conquest,
but because new trade routes simply made Petra commercially irrelevant.
And without that commercial lifeblood,
there was no longer any reason to struggle against the desert.
The people left,
the systems for capturing water fell into disrepair,
and the desert reclaimed the city.
On the other side of the world in Central America,
another culture would face a set of ecological conditions
that seemed far more hospitable.
The Mayans lived amidst tropical forests.
It looks almost absurdly fertile.
And these great ruins are proof that when the delicate balance
between prospering habitat and vaulting ambition is maintained,
civilisations can bind rulers and the ruled,
and a culture can burst into riotously prolific bloom.
If you take away all this magnificent vegetation
that's sprung up naturally from the space,
you realise this is an extraordinary plaza,
it's the centre of a city.
Wherever you look, there are these huge stone staircases,
some temples, some tombs,
all the more amazing because there are no draft animals,
there are no wheels,
so human labour only is responsible for these great things.
This is a spectacular space.
The kind of space you would really expect to see in Rome or Greece,
these great pyramids with platforms for performances
because this, as much as anywhere in the Western world of antiquity,
is essentially an urban theatre.
It's a theatre of political and religious power.
A structure like this looks down upon the citizens
and forces them to look back up.
And what they looked up to was often gruesomely violent,
the mass sacrifice of captives.
And one God in particular had a special thirst...
..the rain god, Chaac.
The power of the Mayan kings rested on the promise
that every year they would persuade Chaac to bring the rains
on which all life depended.
Mayan art and architecture was a prayer
and appealed to the weather -
"Let us live, let every year be fruitful."
Only the most damaged of the art
that used to adorn Calakmul remains on-site.
In Mexico's anthropology museum,
we can see some of that art and how Mayan society worked.
There were kings made of flesh and blood
and kings made of stone,
and you had to obey both kinds.
But Mayan art wasn't all enormous and formal, far from it.
It was hugely varied.
One of the most spectacular flourishings of creativity
in human history.
Every human type got his or her figurine,
like action characters and heroes from a comic book or a play.
There were ceramic vessels and there were murals too.
And out of the Mayan delight in making pictures
developed a fully-fledged script.
Writing made up of glyphs or word pictures.
They were brushed onto paper made from wild fig tree bark,
painted onto beautiful ceramic pottery
or, like this one, carved into limestone.
They were everywhere in Maya city states.
The Maya were the wordiest of all ancient cultures.
So that this,
which looks like something purely decorative, ornamental,
a bestiary with all these animals,
there's a monkey,
there's a magnificently complacent frog,
there in the middle is an extremely scary killer rabbit,
in fact, all these are words which make a text.
Each glyph is not a single word, but it's a syllable, in fact,
and you put them together and you have a sentence, a paragraph.
But in this case, it makes up a date.
We know exactly what that date was.
This is the 11th of February, 526.
In 526, Mayan civilisation was at its height.
It's art and culture flourished
and many believe that the finest Mayan art of all is to be found
in the city of Copan.
The city was home to a dynasty
that lasted from the fifth to the ninth centuries,
16 successive kings ruled here.
An archaeological team, led by Bill and Barbara Fash,
have been studying Copan for over 30 years.
And they've found that for most of its life,
the art of Copan is elegant, refined, astonishing.
Single carved steles announce the accession of new kings.
It's the work of a society where that balance between habitat
and ambition is still in good order.
It's certainly hard to imagine a more vivid realisation
of the rain god Chaac than this.
Complete with the bubbling streams of water that his blessings brought.
In the seventh century, the 12th ruler of Copan
commissioned a new grand structure.
This is the hieroglyphic stairway of Copan.
It was built, originally, in honour of ruler 12
who is portrayed here,
and then was finished by ruler 15
who added on the uppermost section of it.
And it has 64 steps in total
and they told the history of the dynasty
and the succession of the different rulers.
The stairway itself is a monumental statement.
Certainly ruler 15 was trying to impress the population
so he was really trying to cement in stone
what the history of Copan was and what the dynasty was
and to make sure that it stayed for the future.
The hieroglyphic stairway sought to impress the people
and to persuade the gods to continue to bring rain.
But by tunnelling beneath it, the archaeologists have discovered
that this grand structure was, in fact, badly built.
You can see all these gaps in the fill itself
indicate that it was just loose rubble.
This is a terrible way to build a pyramid.
What this tells us is that, at this point in time,
people were no longer as enthusiastic
about supporting the rulers.
Even though a gorgeous and very explicit hieroglyphic stairway was built here,
it was built on poor fills,
so it was a castle built on sand,
and with time, eventually, it did decay
and the stairway itself collapsed in a heap at the bottom of the pyramid.
The stairway we see today has been reconstructed,
but around it, we can see the chaos of the collapse.
The stairway was built as the Mayans were suffering a drought
that would last decades,
and the promise of rain had been a central plank of royal authority.
Shortly afterwards, the kingdom of Copan itself collapsed completely.
All across the Mayan territories,
art and authority were out of step with reality.
There was nothing grand or stately about starvation.
And the ordinary people of the Maya saw that their civilisation
had become a death trap and walked away,
left kings and cities and art behind.
They went back to simpler lives in the surrounding forest.
And their descendants are still very much alive.
The Maya and their language lived on
but far away from the stone monuments of their ancestors.
All that remained to say that beneath the forest canopy
there was the civilisation,
were the summits of the platform pyramids,
but only the wheeling birds
and the howler monkeys scrambling to the tops of trees
would have seen that.
All civilisations want what they can't have -
the conquest of time.
They build higher and grander to escape mortality.
It never works.
There's always an ending.
Cities with their markets, temples, palaces and tombs
are simply abandoned
and that great leveller, Mother Nature, closes in,
strangling the place with vegetation,
covering it with desert sand.
It might seem, then, that it's all for nothing,
but that's entirely wrong.
All these ruins, all these remains are monuments
to human creativity,
Monuments to shaping hands and shaping minds.
Monuments to humanity itself.
The Open University has produced a free poster
that explores the history of different civilisations
To order your free copy, please call...
Or go to the address on-screen
and follow the links for the Open University.
The first film by Simon Schama looks at the formative role art and the creative imagination have played in the forging of humanity itself.
The film opens with Simon's passionate endorsement of the creative spirit in humanity and the way in which art can help to forge the civilised life. Civilisation may be impossible to define, but its opposite - evidenced throughout history in the human urge to destroy - is all too evident whenever and wherever it erupts. Simon Schama explores the remote origins of human creativity with the first known marks made some 80,000 years ago in South African caves - marks which were not dictated merely by humanity's physical needs. He marvels at the later cave works - shapes of hands, in red stencils on the walls of caves, and at the paintings of bison and bulls, and Stone Age carvings.
As time passes, the elements of civilisation are assembled - written language, codes of law, and expressions of warrior power forged in metals. And humanity begins to produce art not just for ritual, as Simon discovers in Minoan civilisation. But how do such cultures arise and how do they fall? Simon travels to the civilisations of Petra in the Middle East and the Maya in Central America to explore those questions. He finds that ultimately civilisations depend on humanity's relationship with the environment for their survival, and while all believe in their own continuity, all are doomed to fall.