Simon Schama in ‘Civilisations’: History has found its hype man

Sometimes, I suspect, he throws in academic jokes to check if his class is paying attention

David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama. Photograph: BBC

David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama. Photograph: BBC

 

Perhaps it is because it seems so primitive that a red outline of a human hand from 40,000 years ago inspires such an immediate tingle of connection. There it is, splayed fingers pressed on the wall of the Cueva de El Castillo, as though saying hello.

“It’s what we want to do as humans,” the animated historian Simon Schama says of such creations. “They establish a presence that is palpably alive. They want to be seen by others and then they want to endure longer than the maker.” No one could ever call it primitive, but the red hand print before Civilisations (BBC 2, Thursday, 9pm) was Kenneth Clarke’s seminal 1969 programme Civilisation, a ground-breaking documentary, seen by many others which has endured longer than its maker.

This programme feels like both an update and a criticism, presented by a relay of three successive historians: after Schama come Mary Beard and David Olusoga.

Extending their scope far beyond Europe, it is a fuller account of civilisations, with a plurality of both subjects and presenters. That seems necessary. Civilisations can change a lot in just 50 years.

Schama, whose grey mane and cerebral vigour recall Ian McKellan at his most animated, marvels at a succession of artefacts, from “the oldest deliberatively decorative marks ever made” on a 77,000-year-old etched piece of red ochre, to the tiny 25,000-year-old ivory Venus of Brassempouy, a face that announces “the dawn of the idea of beauty”.

Sometimes, though, I suspect Schama is throwing in professorial jokes to check if his class is paying attention. Of a Mayan etching he points out “a monkey, a magnificently complacent frog and, in the middle, an extremely scary killer rabbit.” Sorry, what?

Nothing gets him going quite like the Pylos Combat Agate, though, a recently discovered etching in a Bronze Age warrior’s gemstone. Of its staggeringly detailed fight scene, Schama says in an husky growl, “Look at those rippling biceps, those muscles, those locked-together bodies… It’s 3D, folks. It’s coming at you.” History has found its hype man.

Such raptures are entertaining, but Schama’s enthusiasm for freewheeling interpretation isn’t quite as informative as some more prosaic discoveries.

Take the hieroglyphic steps of Copán in Honduras, built towards the end of the Mayan empire: its carvings told one story, of proud dynastic succession, but its construction told another, built on shoddy foundations during a crippling drought.

It’s a sobering thought; that civilisations are defined, finally, as much by their collapse as their achievements. This is where we have come from, the show proclaims, inviting another question. How far do we have left to go?