‘I would definitely recommend teachers to show this to their students’

More than 1.1 million viewers tuned in to ‘The story of Flanders’ on Sunday. The lecture halls are usually not that full. How did Tom Waes do as a national history professor? Philippe Crombé (UGent) and Fernand Collin (Préhistomuseum) give their verdict.

Mary Slijper

“I would definitely recommend teachers to show this broadcast to their students,” says Fernand Collin full of praise for what he saw in the first episode of ‘The Story of Flanders’. That episode showed how modern man first set foot in present-day Flanders. And according to Collin, who is director of the prehistoric museum in Flémalle, near Liège, this happened in an original way.

An image from the first episode. ‘Usually an image is shown of prehistoric people who are having a very hard and difficult time. But in reality that wasn’t too bad and the makers have handled that well here.’Image © VRT

Tom Waes uses inventive tricks to explain complex content in an understandable way. For example, by making a timeline with flags in the landscape – it immediately becomes clear how incredibly long prehistory lasts. To my delight, many skilled Flemish scientists will also be speaking.’

Amongst them Philippe Crombe, professor of archeology at Ghent University. He has now watched the entire episode and is satisfied. ‘It is quite a task to capture a period of 36,000 years in fifty minutes, but a good job has been done. I couldn’t find any errors. The makers have done their research thoroughly and the things that are discussed are scientifically substantiated.’

Presenter Tom Waes.  Image © VRT

Presenter Tom Waes.Image © VRT

To a certain extent, this also applies to the atmospheric images that have been incorporated into the episode. For example, an encounter between a modern man and a Neanderthal is staged. The two human species face each other threateningly for some time, but eventually refrain from a violent confrontation.

Crombe “We know from genetic research that there has been contact between Neanderthals and modern humans. The two species have been crossed with each other. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly how the contact went on. So this scene from the first episode is hypothetical. The chance that the groups would meet in the landscape was very small, because the population density was very low at that time. But it happened, albeit not very frequently. And that’s the most important thing.”

Collin also finds this kind of reconstruction acceptable. ‘Certainly in comparison with other documentaries, they did a good job with ‘The Story of Flanders’. Usually the atmospheric images are very clichéd. The men, women and children from prehistoric times are then only portrayed as survivors: they have a very hard and difficult time. But that actually worked out quite well. Those images are the fruit of what we believe. For the comparison with Plato‘s allegory of the cave: they are shadows that we mistake for reality.’


Due to the many clichés, our ideas about prehistory are not always in line with historical reality. We wrongly think, for example, that prehistoric man is very different from us, says Collin. ‘Today’s homo sapiens has the same abilities as the homo sapiens of prehistoric times. They both have social and cultural capabilities. Those who look at this from a 21st-century perspective may think that prehistoric people had less potential than we do, but that is not true. This documentary forms a nice counterbalance, because the atmospheric images are realistic and many experts are involved.’

Popular scientific attention, for example in the form of this type of television, is important, agrees Philippe Crombé. ‘I am very grateful to the makers that they started their series in prehistoric times. Often that period is forgotten or treated somewhat stepmotherly. It’s great that an entire episode is now being spent on what is the beginning of our history.’

Crombé hopes that knowledge about early Flanders will be increased somewhat. «Many people do not realize what is present in Flemish soil. When I say that I am an archaeologist, the first reaction is often: in which countries have you worked? While I have been doing my research in Flanders for thirty years. Everyone knows the beautiful reports from Egypt, but you don’t have to go abroad to make spectacular finds. Maybe people will start to see that now.”

Presenter Tom Waes emphasizes a number of times that prehistory is a complicated period. We actually know very little about it, he says. But Crombé expects a lot of progress in the coming years. ‘Our knowledge has increased considerably over the past twenty years due to archaeological finds. There are still undiscovered sites in Flanders as well. To the north of Ghent, for example, there is a valley 20 meters deep and 50 kilometers wide. On the bottom are still remains of Neanderthals. They are well preserved, because they are deep and well covered. In short, there is more than enough work for the future generation of archaeologists.’

And therefore also for the future generation of television makers. Because the final story of Flanders has not yet been told.

‘The story of Flanders’ can be seen every Sunday at 8 pm on One.


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