Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation made back in 1969 is still considered one of the greatest documentary series ever made, albeit somewhat flawed by its lack of coverage of civilisations outside Europe and not covering women in much detail.
This sequel, Civilisations (plural), covers a lot more history and a lot more of the world. This opening episode, presented by Simon Schama, looks at the earliest civilisations of all and the birth of art, but begins with the opposite of civilisation – the modern day brutality of historical artefacts being destroyed by ISIS, in particular the destruction of Palmyra and the execution of the people protecting it.
Schama describes humans as the “art-making animal” and takes us into the earliest cave paintings in South Africa and Spain, some dating back 77,000 years ago, and how cave painting of bulls influenced modern artists like Picasso. Then there was the ancient city of Ur; the early civilisation of the Minoans and their love of bull leaping; and the Mycenaeans who were the first to illustrate war. There is also the little-known mask-making culture of Sanxingdui, China; Petra in Jordan with its buildings carved into cliffs; and the Mayans with their pyramids and hieroglyphic language.
Schama is clearly enthused by his love of the subject. This most clearly comes through when he is talking about the Mycenaean war art, which he mentions was created 700 years before Homer who describe similar scenes in writing, which in context is the same length of time between Chaucer and today.
It is the Sanxingdui masks however that interested me most. These giant, wonderfully made masks are beautiful to behold, yet we know nothing about the people who made them. The masks are the only significant evidence of their civilisation, and we probably know nothing else about them. It shows just how much of history remains a mystery.
If the quality of the other episodes is up with this one, Civilisations we make for a wonderful watch.
Civilisations is on BBC Two at 21.00.