Yesterday I spent a few minutes studying the features of a man who lived and died more than 4,000 years ago — one of the amazing reconstructions made possible by developments in forensic anatomy. As I did so, I wondered whether he had ever seen his own face with the clarity with which I was able to. I know next to nothing about the history of mirrors but have a vague idea that, in these islands, polished stone and discs of bronze were used quite early on. They were better than staring into a pool or bowl of water, but I don’t know whether such mirrors were the preserve of the rich or more generally available. The image reflected back by any of these methods would probably have been dim, perhaps distorted by the wind in the case of water, or flaws in the surface or angle of the light falling on it in the case of stone or bronze.
My 4,000 year old man did not see daily, and in close-up, the changes to his face as we can see the changes to our own. Did that affect his sense of self, I wonder? Did not knowing what he looked like in detail affect the way he viewed the world and his own place in it? My blind and visually impaired friends vary in what they say about not being able to see themselves as I am able to see myself, so I am left pondering. We take a modicum of self-knowledge for granted, at least at the physical level. Delving below the surface to our thoughts and feelings is infinitely more complex. As we grow older, we may grow in insight; but not always. Like St Paul, we can find ourselves wanting to do the right thing but failing again and again.
We do not know what our 4,000 year old compatriot thought or felt. We have only his skeleton, a few grave goods, and his reconstructed head. He lived a hard life and died in his late teens or early twenties, perhaps from malnutrition. We do not know whom or what he worshipped, whether he had children, how he was perceived by his contemporaries. But we do know the most important thing of all. He was a man. He was human like us. And on a day when the popular press was howling with rage about Peter Sutcliffe and his unspeakable crimes, it was good to remember that. I prayed for my unknown man, as I prayed for Peter Sutcliffe, his victims, and all who bear the scars of his monstrous behaviour. Judgement I’ll leave to God.