Self-appointed voice of contradiction, career chameleon and intrepid adventurer. Kyriaki Karadelis talks to Dr Patrick Darling, a part-time supply teacher who discovered the world’s longest ancient earthworks and helped Nigeria get its first UNESCO heritage site.
Perpetually wearing a 100-watt sardonic smile, Patrick Darling’s eyes sparkle with delight through his thick mop of curly silver hair.
“The establishment is always going to disown me and I’m always going to disown them.” These are the self-defining words of an outspoken academic who’s one year away from publishing his new book Nigeria’s Visible Archaeology.
Dr Darling spent six weeks last summer boring holes into Nigerian baobab trees. He is trying to rewrite the history of African settlements and contradicting the observations of botanists and ecologists in the process.
“The dating of Africa is absolutely appalling,” he laughs. By counting growth rings on baobabs, the world’s fattest tree, he aims to establish how long ago African settlements were founded and how they expanded. He believes trees within the settlements were planted intentionally and looked after by the populations there.
Interesting then, that botanists have maintained the baobab has no visible growth rings and that ecologists ascribe the trees’ distribution and flourishing to Mother Nature alone.
“They had a near 100% success rate meaning they were protected against domestic animals and reflect human society in an uncannily accurate way,” Dr Darling says confidently. “It’s a magical tree and is treated as such.” The doctor emphasizes the baobab’s crucial role, even today, in Nigerian ritual practices. He relates an incident which occurred while he was cataloguing a 120-year-old tree in the town of Donga, east Nigeria, where local Hausa people practice the cult of spirit possession.
“I asked the local liaison official if I could make a little borehole into the baobab to examine it. He agreed. So I begun to bore and out of nowhere appears this Hausa woman, spinning wildly, tearing her clothes off to reveal her breasts.” Dr Darling leans forward and clutches his shaking head with both hands. “Then another one came, then another one, and another, and I’m being attacked by these possessed Hausa women who accuse me of breaking the leg of their demon, the baobab tree spirit.”
Sitting in his Bournemouth living room on an enormous floral settee, amongst a jumble of antique furniture packed ad lib into his comfortable Victorian house, it’s hard to imagine him travelling with a bicycle and compass through rainforest and savannah.
“Nigerian archaeologists are suit and tie armchair archaeologists… I’m the only person doing any fieldwork there”, he remarks matter-of-factly. He has always actively visited the things he’s read about, which throughout his career, has paid off. He was in the 1973 Guinness Book of Records for discovering the world’s longest ancient earthworks. The boundaries of the Benin Empire in Nigeria are the second longest man-made structure after the Great Wall of China.
At 62, when Dr Darling isn’t being a part-time supply teacher, he still runs adventure holidays through his not-for-profit organisation African Legacy, taking young groups out to survey the thousands of miles of still unexplored ancient banks and ditches. They stay in African homes, pay a local colleague to chaperone them and venture off the beaten track.
“It’s a lifelong passion of his,” smiles Jonathan Darling, 24, who went to Nigeria with his father 18 months ago for the first time since he was a baby. “It was important for us to go and see it first hand. He’s a different person in Nigeria. The African nature gives him a lease of life. He fits into the chaos.”
Dr Darling’s wife of 33 years, Lisa, spent the first two years of their marriage in Nigeria. She’s thankful for the experience, but the pensive poignancy in her voice says she wouldn’t go back. “I’m quite happy to let Patrick go and do his thing though… I think his heart’s in Africa really.”
In 1999 Dr Darling got a lot of attention for discovering Sungbo’s Eredo, a 1000-year-old, 70ft high kingdom boundary rampart that stretches for over 100 miles, deep in the Nigerian rainforest. The attention was mostly because local folklore associated it with the biblical Queen of Sheba, though he says it was probably built 2000 years too late.
His hands-on approach has occasionally got Darling into trouble. He’s had a number of run-ins with Nigeria’s non-uniformed secret police and once ended up with a gun in his mouth. From his seat he proudly demonstrates the various punches, kicks and head butts that helped him get out of this situation. “It was a bluff you see”, he says casually of the gun-in-mouth episode, “because I stood up [for myself], it was ok. They didn’t know who my power base was.”
Dr Darling’s new book speaks openly about the difficulties he experienced working in Africa. In the early 1980s he says he witnessed first hand an illicit trade in 3000-year-old terracotta figurines, facilitated, he alleges, by the secret connivance of Nigeria’s National Committee for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). “It’s the Nigerians taking things out directly,” he says, but there’s a tendency for them to blame “wicked white men coming in and taking our things”.
Yet the western buyers are of course, equally responsible. Dr Darling claims that a retired official from a major UK museum has openly admitted 95% of the items he was dealing with were either fake or illicitly obtained.
In 2001 he aired his views on looted antiquities at the World Bank conference in Kimberley, South Africa. “Speaking out is dangerous. It’s the same rings that run drugs and arms smuggling,” he says. Bournemouth University, where Patrick Darling has been an honorary research associate since 1999, apparently stopped him from using University headed paper to communicate these ideas.
Professor Tim Darvill, head of archaeology at Bournemouth, says he hasn’t seen Dr Darling for over five years, but describes him as “a quietly eccentric archaeologist”.
Darling spent two years ghostwriting Nigeria’s UNESCO applications for the Benin Earthworks and Sungbo’s Eredo. He spent two weeks manically piecing together for the NCMM another application for a palace complex in northern Nigeria at Sukur. Sukur became Africa’s first UNESCO world heritage site: Benin and Sungbo’s Eredo didn’t make the shortlist.
He’s clearly used to being frustrated, even marginalised, but Darling remains outspoken. “There’s got to be people like me that get up and say there’s another point of view.”
He happened to be an agricultural economist for the Overseas Development Agency when population control was a hot issue in the early 90s. “I did a small-holder farmer survey of Kenya and Ethiopia, and found higher population densities mean better conservation management and population management, especially when one owns their own property”. The Sunday Telegraph reported on the over-zealous way his findings were ostracised at the first World Optimum Population Congress in Cambridge because they ‘did not fit the received orthodoxy’.
Dr Darling hasn’t had time to talk about being a dustman in his student days. Nor about when he was Nigerian state cycling coach. “I’ve been a tutor, a horticultural worker, cleaned the bottom of ships (…) and a consultant for the World Bank. I’ve been from the sublime to the ridiculous – in that order
Nigeria’s Visible Archaeology will be out in autumn 2008.