December 2009 Castaway: Bettany Hughes

Historian Writer, Broadcaster and opener of The New Ashmolean

The five year old Bettany Hughes was one of 1,694,117 people, who saw the golden mask, from the head of the mummy of King Tutankhamen, on display at the landmark British Museum exhibition, in 1972. It inspired a career researching the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, which will be celebrated by More 4, in the coming months. Move on thirty seven years and Bettany Hughes is now an acclaimed presenter of historical documentary on our television screens but is not accused, like some, of ‘dumbing down’. She enjoys the respect of the academic world for the quality of the research behind her books, TV and radio programmes. But watching ‘Helen of Troy’, and ‘When the Moors ruled Europe’, it is her ability to communicate her enthusiasm for the ancient world, that viewers respond to.

That trip to the British Museum, in 1972, was a revelation; the boy king was not a prince in a fairy tale; this golden youth had actually lived and breathed. She described her first sight of his image,

‘I still remember the frisson, the heart in the mouth moment when I realised that the stories I’d heard; of boy-kings dripping in gold; of hidden burial chambers and court intrigue could, sometimes, be true. It inspired me, to watch the BBC documentary on Tutankhamen and to write my first illustrated book .

Her love of history, having started so young, she has seen the remaining wonders of the ancient world, not only in those countries, but also in the great museums of the world, including one right here in Oxford, The Ashmolean, where she has recently being filming, with the purpose of making the connections between the six series that we can watch on More4, culminating in a new one on ‘Alexandria’. So from those evocative works of art and architecture, I wondered which she will choose to be washed up on the beach when marooned on our desert island. Bettany’s choice was inspired by her time in Oxford.

‘When I was a student in Oxford at St. Hilda’s, I worked in the Ashmolean Library so I visited a different gallery in the Ashmolean, almost every day, feeling privileged to be so close to other worlds and cultures. A friend told me about a dog- eared notice on a board in the museum, publicising a travelling scholarship. I immediately dashed there on my bike, forgetting I was wearing a long skirt. I was in such a hurry, it became tangled in the wheels but I did find that wonderful little piece of paper and l applied and won it. It allowed me to travel to Turkey and into Iran to study Hellenistic and Bronze Age Asia Minor. Seeing the remains of these civilisations in the landscape made me feel that it is arrogant to think I could sit in Oxford writing about their societies and really understand their lives without travelling to see exactly where epic events took place. That trip not only taught me a respect for the past and for the importance of landscape in history but also to value friendship. If my friend had not made the effort to tell me, I would never have had that opportunity. ‘

‘It also makes me feel very loyal to The Ashmolean. If I wanted to take something to remind me of that special time, in the flush of youth and enthusiasm, seeing places few have the chance to see, I think I would choose something from Hattusa in North Central Anatolia, which was the centre of Hittite Civilisation(1400-1200BC). The Egypto-Hittite Peace Treaty (c. 1258 BC) between Hattusili III and Ramesses II is probably the earliest written peace treaty. If I took that and some other diplomatic tablets to the island, they could occupy my mind. Reading Hittite cuneiform is a challenge and there are not enough scholars in the world to translate the 7000 fragments of tablets, which remain un-translated.’

Bettany had obviously acquired the travel bug, because she embarked on an inter- railing tour of Europe, in her student summer break, in 1986.

‘I wanted to study figurative sculpture from the prehistoric to modern times. My aim was to record and understand the importance of the human body in art. I took a sketch book with me on my travels through Greece and Italy and my drawings were my journal. If I took my sketch book onto the island, it would be nostalgic and I could look back to those carefree days.’

I wondered whether those memories might make her feel particularly home sick for Europe. Like my castaways, I assume our island is a Pacific paradise rather than the cool Hebredean variety. Bettany agreed it would suit a sentimental or maudlin interlude. She recalled a particular location on her Grand Tour.

‘My particular academic interest is in Helen and Spartan women. The Hill of Therapne, above the Eurotas Valley, is a hauntingly beautiful place; from the river bluff you can look up into the mountains. Standing there, I knew that this exquisite location was special and could have been chosen to worship Zeus or any number of Greek heroes but, they chose to make a shrine in honour of ‘OREA ELENI’ Helen of Troy. I knew there must be more to this woman that the boring placid blond of later mythology. I began to study her in depth and discovered that in 2700 years, there has never been a time when she was not talked about but the opinions are nearly always prejudiced and misogynistic. Following those images is like holding up a mirror to the world, reflecting the idea of what woman should be. If I took the painting of ‘The Abduction of Helen’ c. 1450 by Zanobi Strozzi , which hangs in the National Gallery , it would not only remind me of Helen and the years I have spent studying her, wondering why the idea of her is so potent but there is a detail in the framing that would make me feel close to my family. Scenes from Helen’s life were used as decoration on objects in the home in Renaissance Italy. This painting was in fact a decorated tray and its purpose was to carry treats and a first drink to women after giving birth. Like any mother I can remember that first cup of tea after labour.’

‘At the moment, my mind and imagination is focused on a philosopher and mathematician called Hypatia. I am using her story to unpick the world of Alexandria, where she lived, for a new series on Channel 4. She even ran her own school of philosophy but a faction dominated by Bishop Cyril encouraged a mob to flay her alive. Rachel Weiss is going to play the role of Hypatia in the new blockbuster film based on the story of her life. Raphael’s portrait of Hypatia would be an inspiration but I think if I can only take one thing, it has to be from the Ashmolean: one of those iconic objects that connected me with the ancient world, when I was a student in Oxford .’

Bettany was reunited with that object on November 4, when she opened the new Ashmolean.

‘This particular artefact is just under two inches long. As soon as I saw it I wanted to cradle it in my hand – because it is a tiny, beautifully made representation of a crawling baby. The baby has a wonderfully pudgy bottom and is lifting its head up enquiringly – you can imagine it just having made those first, vital moves to start to explore the world around about. This was probably a votive offering – it is 3,500 years old and was discovered by Arthur Evans in the Psychro Cave near Lasithi in Crete. The sad truth of the baby is that its real life equivalent may well have been sick, and its parents were desperately pleading to the gods for help – Modern Greeks still leave these gifts for sublime powers – ‘tamata’ –when they are ill. Or there is a happier interpretation, that the parents were giving thanks for the successful survival of their precious child through birth and infancy – a flesh and blood token of the future. Either way, that little child, short circuits me back into the lives of men and women from the very distant past – and has always reminded me that, as Wordsworth said, although humanity has many faces, across time as well as space, we all share one human heart.

Bettany Hughes’ Journey to our Desert Island

Bettany was born and raised in London, before coming to St Hilda’s to read Ancient and Modern History. She went on to be a research fellow of Kings College, London and author of many ground breaking books. Her ‘Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore’ – the first full account of the impact of Helen over 28 centuries, has now been translated into ten languages and has sold over 100 000 copies worldwide. It was selected as a ‘Book of the Year’ in 5 of the UK national papers and by USA Today .She is currently writing a book on Socrates. Her first TV shows were ‘Breaking the Seal’ for BBC 2 and the Open University and ‘The Spartans’ for Channel 4/PBS. Her next series, soon to be broadcast on More 4 is ‘Ancient World Season’ plus a survey of the women of the bible for Channel 4, and for BBC 2, The Story of Atlantis. Banishing Eve, the history of women in religion will be broadcast on Radio 4. In 2010, she will produce and present a 13 part series on the ‘History of Civilisation’ starting in the East and working West. Bettany was recently appointed President of JACT (following Boris Johnson) and honoured by the Greek state for her ‘Services to Hellenic Culture and Heritage’. She also sits on the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, which studies and promotes the relationship between East and West from the 4th century AD onwards.

She is married with two children.

In November 2009 she opened the Rick Mather extension to the Ashmolean.