Iain Murray: At dawn of the marketing age the caveman cometh

A recently unearthed jar of relish may not provide the first evidence of marketing man. Iain Murray traces the origin of the species to a cave in prehistoric Britain

It is natural for any profession to wish to look back with pride on a long and distinguished past. Marketing is no exception. So it was with great excitement that news broke of “one of the earliest examples of the marketing man’s craft ever unearthed in Britain”. A fragment of a first century earthenware jar found in an archaeological dig in Cumbria had attached the remains of clay labels reading “tunny fish relish from Tangiers, old”, “for the larder”, “excellent” and “top quality” written in sooty ink.

Martin Allfrey, of English Heritage, said: “This was imported specially and would have belonged to someone of quite high rank. This is incredibly rare for Britain.” The relish was made from chopped fish, which were salted and fermented in their own juices. They were mixed with wine and herbs and used as the basis of many dishes. The label was attached to part of a large storage jar found outside the commanding officer’s house at the Roman fort in Carlisle. The writing was well preserved because the ground was waterlogged.

So we now know that marketing was an accepted part of life 2,000 years ago. There are, however, reasons to believe its influence goes back much further, as the following fragment of unrecorded history suggests.

Picture, if you will, a blighted hillside in Cumbria. The rain sweeps across horizontally. The sky, the hills and the rocks blend in a spectrum from grey to black. A mud-caked sheep gazes balefully on. A caveman drags himself home from the hunt, empty-handed. He is, however, pleased. Newly emblazoned across his chest is what looks like a mystic rune. Ash-flecked smoke seeps from within the rocky crevice. It bears the familiar aroma of stewed mastodon.

Inside, looking out, is the caveman’s mate. Or, as we would now call her, partner. Startled, she breaks off in mid-pluck from de-lousing the tangled hair of her navel, peers through the miasma with her good eye, softly blows her nose on the back of her hand and speaks. “What’s that?” she says. “That thing on your front, in between your dugs.”

“Oh, that,” he says with a sheepish grin that might pass for winsome were it to comprise more than one tooth. “That’s woad.”

“I know it’s woad,” she says testily. “But what’s it for? And what’s it doing all over where your vest should be? That vest took some catching, I can tell you, never mind skinning. Tricky things, tom cats.”

“It’s writing. It’s the coming thing. Where it’s at.” He adds: “With writing you can draw a bison on the sitting room wall in the style of Matisse, and – listen to this – autograph it, adding millions to its value.”

“Millions of what?”

His narrow brow furrows, and, owing to the haphazard workings of evolution yet to kick in, takes some time to un-furrow. “Never you mind what. Just millions.”

“OK, so what does it say? The writing. Where you’re vest formerly was.”

A triumphant smile plays across his prognathous face. “It says F U C K.”

She stares at him for a long time. “Charming,” she says, looking down her nose and distractedly flicking a flea from her thigh.

“It’s a logo,” he says patiently. “It’s all the rage. It gives you street cred. It’s cool.”

She stares at him for a longer time. “We haven’t got any streets.”

“Listen,” he says, “10,000 years from now everyone will want a logo. You won’t be able to throw an ass’s jaw without hitting a dude with a logo on his dugs.”

“Don’t be so bloody silly, ” she says. “And another thing. What’s Matisse?”

So marketing predates the Roman age. The techniques, however, are remarkably un-changed. Take the consignment of tunny fish.

Picture, if you will, old Tangiers circa 1AD. The sun beats down from a pitiless sky. A fetid haze rises from the rotting wicker baskets on the baking quayside. Catching the smell, a passing cat freezes, sniffs, starts, arches its back, and flees.

Sitting cross-legged by the baskets is the export merchant Ali Mukhtari. Beside him is his young assistant Yousef. Cautiously, Ali bends forward and sniffs the contents of the assignment. He turns away, eyes watering, windpipe blocked. Regaining the power of speech he wheezes: “Mature, with a good nose, an intriguing depth of flavour, and a charming piquancy.”

“That lot’s off,” says Yousef. “I told you that catfish offal wouldn’t keep. Not in this weather. Just look at those bluebottles.”

“Capers,” corrects Ali. “They’re a kind of spice.”

“I know bluebottles when I see them. Especially asphyxiated ones. I reckon the stench did for them.”

“Nonsense. Fetch me those earthenware jugs, clay labels and sooty ink.”

He dips in the pen and begins to write. “Tunny fish relish from Tangiers, old…”

So now, if he’s interested, English Heritage’s Allfrey knows why the jug was found in waterlogged ground outside the commanding officer’s house at the Roman fort in Carlisle. And why the Romans left Britain in a hurry.

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