Stop trying to make #celtic happen. It’s not going to happen

This week it was announced that celts were not a single genetic group. Total shocker. The results suggested that most of England was historically inhabited by a single (possibly Anglo-Saxon) genetic group. However, the fringe populations (in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) seemed much less related. Celts were not a people.

BBC's genetic map of the UK
Genetic map of the UK, displaying the results of the study.

If anything, ‘celtic’ culture is a catch-all term, used to refer to groups who never saw themselves as united. Hell, the term was coined by the Ancient Greeks, who probably weren’t aficionados on culture on the other side of Europe. It has since been used by people who nostalgise for a time that never was.

So please, can we stop it with all the ‘celtic’ stuff now?

The Dark Ages of Film

This afternoon, apart from watching a very enjoyable Game of Thrones episode, I have been attempting to compile a reasonably thorough list of all the historical films. This is a hard thing to do. My list was compiled from two Wikipedia pages; its list of historical drama films and (because this has to be separate for some reason) its list of Asian historical drama films. What I was trying to do, was establish whether there were any periods that cinema actively avoids. I found out a lot more than that.

Dark Ages of Film

This graph shows the 600-odd films that I included in my data, stacked cumulatively so that you can get a general impression of when these films are set. Get your head round that while I delve into the boring stuff. If boring stuff isn’t your thing, feel free to skip right to ‘Dear film industry’.


I feel slightly obliged to go into this for anyone who might want to use this data for more serious uses. I should say up front that there was a fair bit of fudging. Wikipedia is not the foremost resource for serious number-bashers, even if it is very useful for a mildly-interested blogger. I could find no better resource in the short amount of time I wanted to dedicate to this project.

I copied the data directly from Wikipedia, and edited it so that the dates the films were set in would display as data points. This meant that any film that took place over a number of years had to be cut down to one year. I went for the earliest year, because this is usually the year that gets a subtitle at the start of the film. I also used negative figures to indicate dates BCE.

I did the same thing for the dates the films were produced in, and tinkered with the titles a wee bit. There are still a lot of inconsistencies in there, but for my purposes it works. I then formatted the two numerical columns with colour scales so that a casual observer could draw some easy conclusions.

Dear film industry

One of the immediate conclusions I drew was that when historical films started popping up in about 1903, you weren’t making many films about the Watergate scandal. This is perhaps obvious; the film industry has been trying to predict the future almost since it’s foundation, but it hasn’t nailed it just yet.  I didn’t want this to interfere with my conclusions too much, so I decided to make 1903 the cut-off date for ‘history’. Sorry late-modern fans.

Trying to find out whether there was a ‘dark ages’ of film kind-of reminded me of the following scene from The Invention of Lying. Essentially, Ricky Gervais’s character exists in a world where people can’t lie, and no-one has an imagination. He works at Lecture Films, which produces films about historical periods, read from a manuscript by a lecturer. Gervais has been covering a ‘boring’ century, so his scripts suck.

The reality of the situation is very different. Film makers aren’t historians, so they don’t know about the cool stuff that is going on in each century. More often than not, they are remaking films that they already have the rights to, or are covering stories that have been famous from antiquity, possibly just from a different angle.

On the curve of my cumulative graph, there is a clear decrease in the number of films from about the turn of BCE-CE. It increases  from about 600-1300CE, and again from 1700 onwards. Draw your own conclusions, but to me, this suggests that historical films tend to follow the source material. This may or may not be a bad thing. On the one hand, film makers are sticking to what is attested, and relying on primary source material. On the other, it means that a great story-telling medium such as film – which can be used to invent stories which fit into what we know about an era – is neglecting history. Please let me know what you think.

If you are interested in having a look at my data for yourself, please check out my Dark Ages of Film spreadsheet.

Edit 12/06/2014 Randall Munroe’s ‘What If’ blog has answered the amusing question of whether any wars were shorter than the combined film filmography about them. It is worth checking out.

Heartache by the number

This week I’ve been having a think about numbers. The particular numbers I’ve been thinking about are population figures. I have beef with the sheer number of people I see in games and films set in historical and fantasy – or, hell, even post-apocalyptic – settings. The tragedy of the antiquarian is that they will notice factual errors in someone else’s storytelling, even though stories are what they love most. I’ll go into more detail about that theory at a later date, but for now I want to go back to my conundrum.

The following chart has been hurriedly cobbled together from half a dozen Wikipedia pages. In no way does it constitute serious academic figures. I did look for studies reflecting population growth Vs technological innovation, but oddly academics don’t really go in for meta-history like that.

Year McEvedy & Jones population estimate Developments Setbacks
−10,000 4,000,000 Mesolithic
−8000 5,000,000* Agriculture
−5000 5,000,000 Neolithic
−4000 7,000,000
−3000 14,000,000 Bronze Age Writing
−2000 27,000,000
−1000 50,000,000 Iron Age
−500 100,000,000
−200 150,000,000
0 170,000,000
200 190,000,000
400 190,000,000
500 190,000,000
600 200,000,000 Middle Ages
700 210,000,000
800 220,000,000
900 240,000,000
1000 265,000,000
1100 320,000,000
1200 360,000,000
1300 360,000,000 Black Death
1400 350,000,000 Printing press developed
1500 425,000,000 Industrial revolution
1600 545,000,000 Modern History
1650 545,000,000 Innoculation adopted
1700 610,000,000
1750 720,000,000
1800 900,000,000
1850 1,200,000,000
1875 1,325,000,000
1900 1,625,000,000 Spanish Flu
1925 2,000,000,000 Penicillin invented
1950 2,500,000,000 Nuclear Cold War
1975 3,900,000,000 Growth in computing
2000 5,750,000,000

* McEvedy & Jones don’t provide an estimate. This comes from the Population Reference Bureau

I’ll be honest, I was hoping to show that technological advancements were responsible for major population growth around the world, and if your game is set in the iron age, it should be reflected in the population figures. This is probably the appropriate place to give a nod to Jeff Mummert’s ‘Modding Skyrim’ piece on Play the Past which provided at least the starting point for the chain of ideas which led to this particular post.

For those who are wondering, I haven’t included your favorite war/catastrophe/disease because it didn’t actually do that much damage. At most, the entries in my ‘setbacks’ column amount to single digit percentage eradication of the human race. For real threats to human existence you have to go back 70,000 years to the Toba event. But we don’t have time for that.

I’m not sure I really achieved my aim of demonstrating a causal link between technological innovation and population growth. I tried to construct a population density column, but couldn’t get it to produce numbers which looked even vaguely realistic (15 people per square meter?). If a decent example does exist, I heartily recommend games and film studios make use of it. I’d certainly like to hear about it in the comments.

The bottom line is this; your fictional world has to be able to support your fictional population. Don’t give me any of that ‘the food is produced elsewhere and shipped in’ crap. If it’s practical to live off your surroundings, that’s what a population will do. Human beings don’t just sit around in taverns waiting for adventurers to come along so that they can dish out quests. Film and game studios have a tendency to ramp up scales for the sake of drama, but just once it would be nice to experience a game where the character is truly alone.

And replacing people with aliens and zombies doesn’t count.

Edit 03/02/2014 over the weekend my partner pointed out that there does seem to be a pretty significant population drop following the Black Death (10 million people less than the previous century). It is worth pointing out that this was also the time when then mongols were on the rampage. It was not a happy century.