TV review: Delphi: The Bellybutton of the Ancient World

'Know thyself', says Gary Day, of an examination of Delphi, and finds that applies equally to old rockers

July 21, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Archaeologists dig up a man. They are instantly able to identify him as Adam, he of the Garden of Eden. How do they know? Because he doesn't have a bellybutton. The world does, or did. It's called Delphi, and our guides to the place were Michael Scott of the University of Cambridge and his amazing scarf (Delphi: The Bellybutton of the Ancient World, BBC Four, Monday 11 July, 8pm)

Zeus didn't know where the centre of the Earth was, probably because he spent more time trying to impress women by shape-shifting than he did studying geography. So busy was he with his seductions that he couldn't even find a window to invent geometry. Instead he had to rely on two eagles to determine the midpoint of the mortal realm. One started from the east, the other from the west, and where they met must be the middle, mustn't it?

The great and good of the ancient world came to Delphi to consult the Oracle, who resided in the Temple of Apollo. Known as the Pythia after the python that Apollo slew for no apparent reason, the priestess dwelled in the inner sanctum in the hope that Zeus would never find her. She sat on a tripod placed over a fissure and got high on ethylene, which explains why no one could understand her prophecies.

Here, you try: "The smell has come to my sense of a hard-shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb's flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid." My guess is that she had left the dinner on the gas and was worried it would burn.

One of the many interesting facts that Michael (or maybe his scarf) mouthed was that Delphi wasn't excavated until the 1890s. The French convinced the Greek government that they would do a better job than the Germans. This slight on Teutonic efficiency was almost certainly yet another cause of the First World War.

The French were pretty ruthless, removing villagers who lived over the site and promising them compensation, which, like the full stop in a Derrida sentence, was either very slow to arrive or didn't arrive at all. A photo showed armed guards protecting the archaeologists as they unearthed such treasures as the statue of the Charioteer, preserved almost intact, and the Serpent Column, built to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea (479 BC).

But Michael didn't just give us a history of one of the most famous places in antiquity, he also argued for its continuing relevance. This was evident in his opening remarks, where he compared Delphi to the Vatican, Swiss banks and the World Cup all in one sentence. And once he'd got going, there was no stopping him. The 3,000 messages scratched on to the city's buildings were like "an advert break in Britain's Got Talent" - a simile too far. But his main point, that the maxims in the temple still apply today, holds good. "Nothing in excess" ought to be the motto of the financial industry.

The most famous admonition is "Know thyself", the modern version of which is Dirty Harry's "A man's got to know his limitations". Michael demonstrated that he had taken this lesson to heart by confessing that he was not very good at sketching, despite having spent much of the programme with pencil in hand. His scarf, on the other hand, was guilty of hubris, imagining it was the resurrection of the slain python.

That scarf would have looked good around the neck of Dave Davies, dedicated follower of fashion, who, with his brother Ray, was co-founder of one of the most quirky bands of the 1960s, the Kinks. Dave was Dionysus to Ray's Apollo. They didn't have the inventiveness of Lennon and McCartney, but no one could touch them for their special blend of archness, whimsy and social observation. Dead End Street hasn't dated. "We both want to work so hard/We can't get the chance", while Waterloo Sunset does what all the best art does - show the beauty in the commonplace.

Kinkdom Come (BBC Four, Friday 15 July, 9pm) was an intimate portrait of Dave. It was he who was responsible for the Kinks' distinctive sound, that drone, that fast, heavy twang that grabs you at the beginning of You Really Got Me. He achieved it by slitting an amplifier with a razor blade. But in the process he nearly electrocuted himself. What you might call a close shave. Dave's music is more gentle now. He is looking for what we all are - that moment of clarity, the feeling of wholeness. Wandering around Exmoor, where he now lives, Dave mused about life. "You don't really fail at anything," he said, "you have an experience and you progress." There's philosophy in the old rocker yet.

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