‘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 nationalhistory professor? Philippe Crombé (UGent) and Fernand Collin (Préhistomuseum)give their verdict.

Mary SlijperSunday, January 8, 202308:24

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

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

Tom Waes uses inventive tricks to explain complex content in anunderstandable way. For example, by making a timeline with flags in thelandscape – 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 GhentUniversity. He has now watched the entire episode and is satisfied. ‘It isquite a task to capture a period of 36,000 years in fifty minutes, but a goodjob has been done. I couldn’t find any errors. The makers have done theirresearch thoroughly and the things that are discussed are scientificallysubstantiated.’

Presenter Tom Waes.  Image © VRT

Presenter Tom Waes.Image © VRT

To a certain extent, this also applies to the atmospheric images that havebeen incorporated into the episode. For example, an encounter between a modernman and a Neanderthal is staged. The two human species face each otherthreateningly for some time, but eventually refrain from a violentconfrontation.

Crombe “We know from genetic research that there has been contact betweenNeanderthals and modern humans. The two species have been crossed with eachother. It is difficult to reconstruct exactly how the contact went on. So thisscene from the first episode is hypothetical. The chance that the groups wouldmeet in the landscape was very small, because the population density was verylow at that time. But it happened, albeit not very frequently. And that’s themost important thing.”

Collin also finds this kind of reconstruction acceptable. ‘Certainly incomparison with other documentaries, they did a good job with ‘The Story ofFlanders’. Usually the atmospheric images are very clichéd. The men, women andchildren from prehistoric times are then only portrayed as survivors: theyhave 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 withPlato ‘s allegory of the cave: they are shadows that we mistake forreality.’


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

Popular scientific attention, for example in the form of this type oftelevision, is important, agrees Philippe Crombé. ‘I am very grateful to themakers that they started their series in prehistoric times. Often that periodis forgotten or treated somewhat stepmotherly. It’s great that an entireepisode 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 Iam an archaeologist, the first reaction is often: in which countries have youworked? 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 goabroad to make spectacular finds. Maybe people will start to see that now.”

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

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

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