Among the privileges of a career in archaeology is the great perspective it reveals on life and history, great and small. Years of digging up abandoned settlements and graves of nameless, long-forgotten people leave one thing without doubt: all the fears and tribulations of the world we live in will one day be nothing but a mystery to any who might survive us. Future archaeologists, if there are such people, will marvel at our occasional outbursts of technology amidst the overweening primitiveness.
The learned among them will imagine that they have come to understand us. But whatever reconstruction of our cultures they will come up with would look bizarre to us, like some fun-house mirror image of what we hold to be reality.
They will give lectures in which they declare, with righteousness, that the 21st century wasn’t as bad as we seem to think, and point to evidence of some rudimentary technology. Indignation at the prevailing opinion that we were savages will become trendy.
Or they will find, to their surprise, that there were empires and complex social structures, or that the one or two “great” civilizations of which they might be aware were not so great after all. And all of this will be for reasons which we would find utterly perplexing today.
I will always remember looking down at the mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum, in its controlled atmosphere glass case. I looked down at the face of Ozymandias, hoping to gain some sort of empathy, some glint of recognition, some insight into that long ago place and time. To my astonishment, only one thought came to me.
It’s just another corpse.
“It’s just another corpse.”
Of course, even recognizing that a King of Egypt 5,000 years ago was basically the ‘same’ as us is important in developing empathy and understanding that people long ago acted in much the same way as they do now and will do in another 5000 years. The fact that their physical and emotional needs were similar to our own is not a trivial fact.
I read this with interest. How similar are we to our ancient predecessors? How different? I can’t answer that but the question is intriguing.