I spent one of the happiest summers of my life hunched down inside a single metre squared. I was volunteering on an archaeological site in southwest France and passed the days trowelling the dusty, ochre-coloured earth in my tiny, 500,000-year-old section.
I have yet to find the words to describe the feeling of unearthing an early stone tool so perfectly proportioned that it might have come from the pages of a textbook. Hundreds of thousands of years had passed since it was last used, yet I instantly saw how it might have been held in the palm of the hand to chop wood or hack through an animal hide to get food or fur.
The last prehistoric being to hold it predated even the Neanderthals and yet there was a connection across millennia that linked me to one of a small band of hunters who once sought shelter here, in a limestone cave, La Caune de L’Arago, in Tautavel in the French Pyrenees.
Everything leaves a trace. I have always been fascinated by the truth of that and wanted, as a school-leaver, to learn how to read the imprints of the past, so numerous in our landscape. In the mid-Eighties, though, archaeology wasn’t considered a job-giving career option. Not in my school at least.
I didn’t get the opportunity to study the subject at University College Dublin until I was in my early thirties. But then, there is something entirely appropriate about taking an unhurried route to archaeology, a discipline that unearths the past slowly and methodically.
Being a mature student deepened my appreciation for the subject, I think, but it didn’t prepare me for what happened next. I had expected the hairs on the back of my head to stand to attention when I heard archaeologists talk of the sites they had excavated – the Céide Fields, Tara, Newgrange, to mention a few.
What was revelatory, however, was the unexpected journey of discovery offered by my other rather haphazardly chosen subjects: French, and Greek and Roman Civilisation.
It was a singular joy to sit in a classroom and see the Greek and Roman worlds unfold before you. It's a magical journey that will introduce you to the beginnings of democracy, the origins of architectural styles that live on in various forms around us, as well as drama, literature and poetry which might have been written yesterday. What it is to be human changes so very little over time.
You’ll also find the beginnings of misogyny, or at least one of the earliest recorded versions of it, to quote one of my favourite classicists, Mary Beard.
She recalled how Penelope, wife of the wandering Odysseus, was silenced by her son Telemachus when she asked the bards to sing a happier song. He ordered her back to her women’s work at the loom with these immortal lines: “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”
How useful it is to see just how old the silencing of women’s voices is. Dig a little deeper and you will nearly always hit a version of that story, persisting through the layers of history like a seam in a stick of rock. The humanities helped me to see why that it.
They also helped me to understand that learning a language, in my case French, was about much more than verbs and nouns and sentences. It was about understanding a culture and developing a different way of seeing.
That, in essence, sums up what the humanities mean to me. They invite us to look at the world with new eyes.