Exploring myth and legend with Janina Ramirez

Historian Janina Ramirez tells Diana Bentley about her latest work delving into stories of celebrated archaeological discoveries and the people behind them, and of the medieval women all-too-often overlooked by history.

Janina Ramirez is a cultural historian, author, and broadcaster. With a degree in Old and Medieval English from Oxford and a doctorate from the Centre of Medieval Studies at the University of York, her starting point and first love has always been the Middle Ages, yet her work has spanned an impressive scope of topics. Teaching posts at the universities of Winchester, Warwick, and Oxford have helped hone her sharp sense of narrative and a love of communicating her love of history to others, demonstrated through her television documentaries and books for different audiences.

The past provides a rich and varied terrain for Janina Ramirez to explore. Nina – as she is known – says her approach is to embrace many aspects of the lives and traditions of her subjects. She is familiar to television viewers with her most recent series for the BBC, Raiders of the Lost Past, which encompasses subjects from the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete to the settlement at Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Another series being planned will examine some more of the great achievements of archaeology and the people behind them. Nina’s broad interests are again being demonstrated with her two new books, one on goddesses and the other on some remarkable medieval women, which introduce us to a variety of female figures from an array of different cultures.

How do you select the areas of history you’d like to study? Has your work on these various eras enhanced your perspective on history?

My specialism is Early Medieval, but I believe that you cannot understand the period you’re focusing on if you don’t have the context of what comes before and after. As a result, I’ve always ranged pretty widely, taking in broader chronological and geographical evidence. I’m also cross-disciplinary, so I don’t work exclusively within one field, but draw in evidence from the sciences and humanities, alongside art, literature, music, archaeology, theology, and history.

As I’ve started to work on more unfamiliar topics, like world religion and ancient civilisations, I’ve found points of connectivity back to my first love of medieval history, but also fascinating points of divergence. Going into deep history has been the most revelatory experience, as I’ve discovered that many essential aspects of being human bind us together across tens of thousands of years.

above One of the griffins in the reconstructed ‘throne room’ at the Minoan palace complex of Knossos, Crete.
One of the griffins in the reconstructed ‘throne room’ at the Minoan palace complex of Knossos, Crete. Image: Dreamstime.

Your work displays a deep interest in the religious. What do you find most compelling about this aspect of the human experience?

Yes, this is a point of disagreement with my more scientifically minded friends, who feel that the realm of ritual and religion can be a distraction from fact-based approaches to studying the past. But I’ve always found the belief structures and ritualised behaviours of groups and societies a gateway to understanding people from a specific time and place. Mythology, tradition, religion – these areas can act as a ‘world in miniature’ for understanding broader social concerns, like attitudes towards war, death, survival, the landscape, family, and morality.

It’s in collective ritualised or traditional acts that history and archaeology record group behaviour. Studying religion and belief also allows us to tap into the ways that individuals expressed difference and divergence. I also think that we ignore religion at our peril. The majority of people across the globe still hold to religious belief systems, and to impose relatively recent notions of secularisation on other parts of the world ignores something that is still of fundamental importance to so many.

The second series of Raiders of the Lost Past included an episode on the palace of Knossos in Crete. What were the most distinctive features of Minoan culture unearthed there by Sir Arthur Evans? Has our understanding advanced much since his time?

I’ve been so lucky to discover areas of archaeology in my television work that were largely unfamiliar to me through my research. The Minoans are the perfect example. I’d always wanted to follow the myth of the Minotaur and explore more about King Minos’ palace at Knossos, but my focus on medieval history meant I had to abandon that particular childhood dream. Yet as we’ve developed Raiders of the Lost Past across two series, the idea was that I would be discovering facts and approaches along with the viewers. And this has led to so many other avenues of investigation in my own work.

The Minoans were a game-changer for me. Not only did the beauty, freedom, and modernity of their art strike a chord, but the remnants of their society that we can construct from what they’ve left behind paint a picture of a singularly advanced and unique civilisation. The role of women was particularly surprising since Minoan Crete is one of the few places where you find that the images of women in positions of power and authority greatly outnumber those of men.

The north entrance of the palace of Knossos, restored by archaeologist Arthur Evans. Image: Dreamstime.

The series has three aims: to introduce viewers to an ancient civilisation (Olmecs, Vikings, Minoans), to record major archaeological discoveries in the past (like those of Arthur Evans), and show how the field has progressed since. Minoan archaeology is developing in fascinating new directions, particularly in terms of trying to find the ‘everyman/woman’ of the past, rather than simply the rich and privileged few. New discoveries are being recorded daily, largely thanks to technological advances such as DNA analysis, ground-penetrating radar, and non-invasive excavation. There has never been a more exciting time to study the past!

The efficacy of some of Evans’ work at Knossos and his interpretation of some aspects of life there is now debated. What is your attitude towards it?

With every archaeological dig I investigate, I’m struck by the same thoughts: how lucky we are that these individuals did this work and made these discoveries so that we’ve been able to build on them. Archaeology can also be very subjective. No matter how scientific and analytical the tools we apply to an excavation, there’ll always come a point when individual imagination puts the finds into a version of the past constructed in the mind of the archaeologist.

This was particularly clear with the work done by Arthur Evans, who was searching for a Minoan civilisation that was more 1920s than the Late Bronze Age. But it still happens today. My job as a cultural historian is to use all the evidence at my disposal – whether it’s a poem, a drawing, a cauldron of soup, or a religious tract – to think my way as accurately and carefully as possible back to the period I’m investigating. And just like trying to make definitive statements on the present, there is never one single viewpoint.

How did the work at Çatalhöyük revolutionise our understanding of European history? What are some of the most surprising aspects of what was uncovered there?

The discovery of Çatalhöyük transformed our understanding of where and when the practice of humans living together in cities began. It pushed our notions of the fertile crescent out into the plains of Turkey and stretched the chronology back to more than 7,000 years BC.

I was blown away by the order of the place. The houses were kept meticulously clean, with communal rubbish pits for disposing of waste, and regular paint jobs inside the rooms to keep them looking immaculate. The relationship with the dead was strangely moving, as they buried their ancestors beneath the floor so they could live, eat, and sleep near them. I was also surprised by the apparently egalitarian nature of their society. No state buildings or religious complexes have been discovered. The houses were all of similar size, and analysis of the many bones reveals that everyone ate roughly the same and performed the same tasks, regardless of sex or social background.

The Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, where excavations have shed light on the earliest practices and social organisation of people living together in cities. Image: Dreamstime.

The next series of Raiders of the Lost Past will include a programme on Howard Carter. How would you describe his character and his approach? What have you enjoyed learning about them?

In working on Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun, I’ve discovered many aspects of this famous man that are little known. For a start, he was not highly educated and did not set out to become one of the world’s most famous archaeologists. He was artistically talented, and it was his drawing skills that took him to Egypt in the first place. He worked for decades making a name for himself and learned alongside some of the greatest archaeologists of the last century, but his experience was gained on the ground, rather than in university lecture halls or from volumes of books. Carter was often lonely, made enemies easily and had a fiery temper. But he was also thoughtful of the Egyptian people he worked alongside and had an intuitive approach to uncovering ancient finds. As with each of the ‘super-star’ archaeologists I’ve investigated, Howard Carter’s story is as fascinating as the civilisation he unearthed.

What part has myth and legend played in spurring archaeological discoveries?

That’s a very good question! Would Evans have looked for Knossos if the myth of the Minotaur hadn’t existed? Would Schliemann have searched for Troy if ancient texts had not recorded it? The answer is ‘no’. There are many examples of archaeology following the trail of breadcrumbs left in texts, and often they result in unexpected discoveries. Myth and legend have their roots in the geography, climate, social structure, and history of places, so using them as a way of thinking our way back into the past can be helpful. But often the reality is more surprising – history really is the best repository for all storytellers!

You have a new book for young readers on goddesses. What led you to study the worship of goddesses? What range of deities do you examine?

In writing Goddess I discovered that there really are as many permutations of divine women across time as there are real women across the globe. There are virtually no unifying factors, even down to gender, as many shapeshift into birds, animals, or elements, and can take male or female forms. I wanted to explore the world across time through the ways different groups worshipped women, but instead of uniformity, I found a staggering amount of variety! The world never felt as thrilling and varied as when I was comparing a Greek or Roman goddess like Venus, with a Nat spirit from Myanmar and an African deity like Mami Wata. It was the most exciting journey of discovery and I hope the readers get a flavour of that from the book.

left An Igbo figure of Mami Wata, one of the deities featured in Goddess.
An Igbo figure of Mami Wata, one of the deities featured in Goddess. Image: Minneapolis Institute of Art (CC PDM).

In your other new book, Femina, you consider outstanding women of the Middle Ages. Why did you choose this field to study? What did you find most inspiring or surprising?

Femina has taken years of research, but it was only in the writing of the book that I myself discovered what I was searching for. At the end of the book, I write that I had never expected to uncover some of what I did in the process and how I have developed a different view of the period I most love – the Middle Ages. The most surprising thing was how many women have been hidden in plain sight, overwritten by later authors or studied by a select few. Hildegard of Bingen, for example, has been known about in her homeland of the Rhineland since the 12th century. But only now are we able to collect her work together and scrutinise her huge outpouring of creativity in a way that brings her to life. I was struck by how recent developments, particularly in archaeology, are finding women that were entirely lost to the historical record. Their bones or the artefacts they have left behind show us a range of extraordinary women that reveal we have not always been the ‘second sex’, but have performed all the roles traditionally thought of as ‘male’.

An illumination of a choir of angels, one of the visions transcribed by medieval abbess, writer, and composer Hildegard of Bingen in her work Scivias. Image: Obelisk Art History / Public Domain.

I was also surprised by how much of our attitude towards gender differentiation is a modern invention. We’ve been given a version of women from the past, filtered through more recent Victorian, colonial, and post-industrial attitudes. So with this book I’m not only trying to introduce readers to a range of fascinating individuals from the past; I’m also attempting to change our perception of where we have come from, so we can shape where we are going. This is a bold claim, I know, but how we see the past can shape how we build the future.

Femina: a new history of the Middle Ages, through the women written out of it by Janina Ramirez was published in July by W H Allen (ISBN 978-0753558256; £22).

Goddess: 50 goddesses, spirits, saints and other female figures who have shaped belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh, was published in February by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the British Museum (ISBN 978-1788009959; £16.99).