Raiders of the Lost Past review – glorious TV to see you through the End Times

More gobsmacking at every turn, this documentary tells the incredible story of Nazis, archaeologists, and the oldest artwork ever unearthed. It’s almost enough to make you less cynical

The Lion-Man, the oldest known piece of figurative art. Photograph: Alleycats TV/BBC

As I gaze out at the throbbing hellscape in which we live, it is hard not to feel that a programme hymning the painstaking piecing together from ivory fragments of a figure that pushed back the estimated birth of human culture by 10,000 years is – very sophisticatedly – trolling us. Especially when last week’s episode dwelt on the seventh-century Sutton Hoo hoard, which showed that Britain emerged from the dark ages much earlier than previously thought – and revelled in its mastery of exquisite craftsmanship and carefully nurtured international communications and relationships.

But it probably wasn’t the intention of Raiders of the Lost Past (BBC Four), especially given its ebullient presenter, Dr Janina Ramirez, an art and cultural historian who fills the screen with passion and expertise, and who seems likely to be the last uncynical person left standing when the End Times – I wanna say, Friday? – get here.

This middle episode examining archaeological finds that changed our understanding of the origins of civilisation gave us the story – more gloriously incredible at every turn – of the Lion-Man.

In the summer of 1939, in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in southern Germany, on the last day of a three-year dig in the last moments of peace before the second world war began, its supervisor, Robert Wetzel, found three shards of ivory. He salted them away in a cigar box and never mentioned them again. Too busy, perhaps, pressing his knowledge ever more firmly into the service of the Nazi party as they began their planned takeover of the world.

His Stadel excavations, among many others, had been funded by the SS. Himmler was keen to prove his belief that human culture had its origins in ice-age Germany and thus demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race. The six caves of the Swabian Jura, of which Wetzel’s site was one, were a popular and fruitful spot. Much like others in Europe and doubtless the rest of the world – if, as one of the archaeologists in conversation with Ramirez pointed out, they had had the time and resources spent on them that this one has.

The fragments languished in the storerooms of Ulm museum until 1969, when Dr Joachim Hahn was doing inventory and noticed that they were pieces worked by hand. He fitted them together, along with 200 other fragments, to make the beginnings of the Lion-Man. It caused a public sensation, which led a woman to bring in a bagful of little white bits her child had been playing with since he collected them on a day out near the Stadel cave. One of them was – no, honestly – the Lion-Man’s mouth. I always enjoy stories that show a use for children.

Further investigations, reconstructions and explorations of the cave over the next 40 years yielded pretty much all of the 40,000-year-old figure, still the oldest piece of figurative art ever discovered. Its age and form exploded assumptions about what humans were capable of and when. Some 10,000 years earlier than anyone had thought, we had made that extraordinary leap of imagination beyond mere representation, we had a belief system that involved shamanistic figures and (presumably) rituals, and we had a community that could support someone taking an estimated 400 hours off subsistence tasks to make it. Weren’t we amazing? Though a shout-out is in order, I feel, to modern man, too. Or at least a modern man: Hahn, who looked at those 203 disparate ice-age fragments and thought: “Hang on, I think we’ve got something here … Bring me some tweezers and Gorilla glue and nobody jog my arm.”

Like the good doctor, Raiders of the Lost Past does a terrific job of bringing disparate parts together into a coherent whole, and detonating larger questions as a result. The story of the Lion-Man took in European prehistory, how new ideologies become embedded in social strata, excavation techniques, the role of chance in progress, ideas about the importance – or otherwise – of purity of intent and motivation, the difference between theory, belief and expert inference, the meaning of art and the testament of history. My knowledge of the world is still missing many, many parts, but it is a little less fragmentary than it was.

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