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“We were trying to find stories that tell us about resilience – history as a kind of therapy”: Bettany Hughes on finding hidden treasures during Covid

Historian and classicist Bettany Hughes tells us about her series Bettany Hughes’ Treasures Of The World and, in particular, some of the remarkable sights she saw on Gibraltar…

Historian Bettany Hughes in front of the Rock of Gibraltar
Published: September 10, 2021 at 2:47 pm
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Q: The series was made when much of the world was in lockdown. What was it like filming in these circumstances?

Bettany Hughes: We formed a very tight filming bubble, and we didn’t have a single positive Covid test. We thought, “What can we do, in a small way, when people seem to be really missing seeing other places?” More than that, it’s been a time when people are asking, “Who are we as humans? As a society, how do we work? And how do we survive?” We were genuinely trying to find stories that tell us about resilience – almost history as a kind of therapy.

What were some of the highlights when you visited Gibraltar?

I was blown away by the incredible Neanderthal remains. Specialists know about them, but I think the whole world needs to know. We saw two sites: Gorham’s Cave and Vanguard Cave, sea caves. A couple of years before we arrived, a Neanderthal footprint had been discovered, a footprint in the sand, which was baked by the sun. Remarkable.

Then there’s so-called ‘Neanderthal art’, which is abstract. There are really incredible scourings in the rock face, and they’re definitely 100% consciously done, taking hours of work. Professor Clive Finlayson [director of the Gibraltar Museum] shared with us the idea that amazing art could well be an exact replica of the lines of the palm of the hand. They were creatures who imagined a world.

And turning to Covid again, it’s our imaginations that have really got us through this crisis. whether it’s imagining a life beyond Covid, or scientists imagining solutions to the crisis.

Professor Finlayson makes the point that many of us carry Neanderthal DNA in our genes. So in some ways, Neanderthals haven’t gone extinct, they’re living with us.

What was their world like? Presumably, the sea level was lower and it was colder.

Not that cold. At the caves we visited, they would have been looking out over a kind of savannah plain and hunting big animals. There’s a hyenas’ lair in one of the caves, and they discovered the remains of a Neanderthal child that had been taken. We were short-circuited into their lives.

What else did you see? Gibraltar is associated with conflict.

After the battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was brought to Gibraltar and his death was first reported in the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper. I saw the original copy. This is where Nelson’s death becomes history and it’s set down in this report, very detailed. It made us reflect on how we need heroes. We invest a lot in the idea that people are on the frontline, fighting in whatever way it is, to save others.

Bettany Hughes looks at a copy of the Gibraltar Chronicle
Nelson's death was first reported in the 'Gibraltar Chronicle'. (Image by Tim Knight)

Also, a number of the war dead are buried in the Trafalgar Cemetery on Gibraltar. It’s all a reminder that Gibraltar has often been right on the front line of history. At another point, I nearly rendered myself completely immobile by crawling through the interior wall at the so-called Moorish Castle. I get claustrophobia, but it was a way to look at some of the missiles that had been lobbed into the castle during one of the sieges by Frankish and Christian soldiers. Yet this is also a reminder Gibraltar was a place that realised its potential in the Islamic period [711–1462]. We were trying to make the point that Islamic dynasties are integral to Gibraltar’s history.

Historian Bettany Hughes explores a tunnel while holding a torch
Bettany Hughes explores the Moorish Castle on Gibraltar. (Image by Tim Knight)

Are there highlights you would flag up in other shows?

Briefly, in the show on treasures of the Mediterranean, I got invited to stay overnight on the sacred island of Delos [the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis] on the night of a ‘super moon’, a privilege because nobody is usually allowed to stay there.

In Istanbul, we were there when they drained the huge Basilica Cistern, built by Emperor Justinian, for restoration and to make the structure earthquake proof. I walked on the original sixth-century tiles, which will be covered with water as soon as the restoration is finished – a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The episode of Bettany Hughes’ Treasures of the World on Gibraltar will be broadcast on Saturday 11 September on Channel 4. Catch up on previous episodes via All4

Bettany Hughes was talking to Jonathan Wright


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