I met a man the other day who made history. Or at least extended its boundaries.
Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum was one of the team who identified small indentations in slab of sedimentary rock as footprints and in doing so set a new marker on this country’s ancient history.
They are the oldest footprints outside Africa and push the story of British occupation by humans back from 600,000 years to round about a million.
(“A few small steps for man…” I hoped he’d say when I asked him of their significance – but he didn’t.)
These footprints in Happisburgh are our Rosetta Stone, our Holy Grail, our Tutankhamun. So I asked him what had happened since this monumental discovery – now a highlight of Britain: One Million Years Of The Human Story a major new exhibition at the Natural History Museum.
Were they protected from the rampaging seas? Lifted out the ground for further analysis like in CSI? Stuck in the visitor’s centre at Stonehenge to put that whipper-snapper monument (c5,000 years old) into perspective?
“It was there for two weeks. The ideal situation was to seal it off, to lift it but the sediments had lots of laminations so it’s quite difficult.”
All options were impractical and time was limited. What the sea yielded, it just as rapidly took away – and this was in the relatively balmy conditions of May 2013. Think what has come and gone since.
I thought of The Monuments Men, the George Clooney film that sends a platoon of art experts into war-torn Europe to salvage art treasures from the Nazis.
They can wipe away our homes and our people for they will return – was the message – but to destroy the treasures of civilisation is to erase something more profound.
Yet impermanence is our most permanent condition. There must be some psychological phrase for it, but we strive to assume our default status is same-yesterday-same-tomorrow. Which holds for yesterday and tomorrow (usually), but not for much longer.
Take the outline of the country that we all copied out in our geography workbooks and study with jaundiced familiarity on the weather forecasts. It’s not the same as it was even one month ago let alone one million.
Indeed, since that family of Homo antecessor sauntered the mudbanks looking for a decent 4G signal we have been connected to Europe by land bridge, frozen and warmed, isolated, and driven off our land altogether, surrendering Trafalgar Square to the hippos and the lions.
The shape of our islands is a momentary snapshot of what the earth allowed us to be for this blink of an eye, not a politically mandated, tax-funded guarantee by a here-today-gone-tomorrow conglomerate of bunkered apparatchiks, however well meaning.