Key PagesJoukowsky Institute Workplace |
September 17, 2007
Field Day #1: Peeling Back the Grass, Finding Some Glass, and Wearing Mask with Class
It is interesting - just as gazing into the sky at the stars and contemplating the immensity of the expanses of the universe reminds me of the trival place of the Earth in the expanses of space, picking out tiny shards of glass from the rich soil around the First Baptist Church this afternoon succeeded in putting me in my humbling place in the continuing story of humanity. These are the haphazardly perserved vestiges of a people whom I never knew that ironically are a part of my present self. Is that odd that I should feel connected in this way, or is archaeology and all learning a struggle to piece together ourselves, glass shard by peach pit by piece red plastic?
As Veronica, Mike, and I meticulously delineated our trench - perfectly aligning it with the north-south and east-west axes, ensuring the levelness of the lines connecting our carefully placed corner stakes - I could not help but wonder if the people of the past had any idea that their daily activities would be the subject of such precise scrutiny. Do I or any of us live with the notion that our seemingly mundane present is the elusive past to those curious unborn of the future? Moreover, does this precision and meticulous, mathematical approach detract from our understanding of the humanity of the site and the people whose lives it records? Can we truly understand the artifacts that we, wearing protective masks and glasses, move from an organic, human environment into a regimented, ordered, ideal research sphere?
As I delicately toyed with the glass, the peach pit, and the shell fragment we had found, I wondered if the people of the past had any idea that these probably peripheral items in their world would be the objects by which we judge and understand them today. Do we in the present have any control over what aspects of our lives eventually end up in the hands of our posterity? After we are gone, it seems that we have no control over what of our lives is taken up by others as important to understanding us. I must say, the thought that I do not have any say as to were my underwear end up after I am gone and that they may be the only relic of my existence by which I will be understood is frigthening, but I suppose the future deserves that candidness to understand themselves. I suppose time also protects people with anonomity also. Anonymousness is a mysterious aspect of archaeology, but I wonder how unknown the people of the past really are. A book I recently read in which the author publishes and comments on the grocery lists people leave behind in the store ties into these questions and musings I had while we dug, I think. Reading these people's personal lists and "notes to self" makes these people's schedule, welfare, and worldview all remarkably tangible, making them completely known to the reader, anonymous only in name.
And as I scraped soil from the trench into my bucket with my trowel and lugged it up the hill to sift it, I wondered if my questions about these people and myself were practical. I like to think I am a scientist, but do my admittedly confusing, more philosophical questions obscure the understanding of the world or enhance it?
As you can see, I am an effusively inquisitive and passionate person. Investigating the world around me in a scientific manner arouses questions about myself; I cannot see the dynamic world around me in any other eyes but these. I do not claim to be a philospher, only a curious American trying to understand my present self as it continuously becomes wedded to the past and pulls on the future. Having used many more traditional fields like history, literature, and science as a basis for this self-examination, I am eager to explore this relationship through the new lens of archaeology for the next three months.
As I considered the glass, the peach pit, the red plastic, and the shell fragment we found in trench D2 today as I trudged back up the hill with a trailing dust cloud, I could not get that treacherously adventureous theme from Indiana Jones out of my head. Just as William's music is a beautifully confused symphony of emotion, after the dig today I am left feeling materially satiated but detached, isolated from the past. In this respect, I am looking forward to making sense of everything later in the semester in lab.
If nothing else, it seems that the pursuit of knowledge in all fields, whatever else it accomplishes, universally succeeds in comfortably humiliating us with our own triviality.
Off to hide my underwear from those relentless archaeologists of the future,
September 24, 2007
Field Day #2: The Soul of a Site
Is it acceptable to destroy that which we archaeologists seek to understand? Of course it is ironic and lamentable in some ways, but is it necessary? Is it respectful?
As I stood admist the lazy emanations of dust (see photo in 9.24.2007 photolog), wafted into the hazy afternoon by my sifting, such thoughts crept into my mind. The soil heapped on top of my feet, and from it seemed to escape the sacred spirit of the site. Can we ever expect to understand that which we disassemble in this manner, overlooking the humanity of our site in our persnickety attention to measurement and detail. I suppose a machinist would answer in the affirmative - that a unit's overall function can be described as the simple sum of its parts and their function, and that if we understand the functioning of the individual parts and their relation to the whole, we can fully understand the whole. But machines are very different from humans, I think - just look at the way a comupter functions compared to a brain. Likewise, I wonder if we are letting an integral part of the site slip through the sieve and into thin air...
Or is the archaeologist's excavation the ultimate show of respect? In is our meticulous recordtaking on each stratigraphic unit, our precise measurements of arbitrary levels, and the time and emotion we invest in extracting artifacts the ultimate show of our veneration for the story that was the reality for our ancestors? Investing so much time in preserving the destroyed reality of the site - is that consummate respect?
What does it say about the humanity that connects to our ancestors and to our posterity across time, that what one culture created must be dismembered to be understood in the context of our own culture?
Our field archaeology text by Hester states that there is no current technology that would allow for the archaeolgist's investigation to be non-intrusive. Would we benefit from seeking such a science, or would that take away a degree of intimacy that we get from pulling the barebones of a civilization from the ground? Or would it be desirable to find a way around what may be a disrespectful exhumation of our ancestor's archaeological legacy?
Is the lost "site soul" what we try to recreate from our records? Perhaps archaeological records are like a gravestone, recording the human spirit that once existed in a site or a human being but whose presence is no longer tangible.
Maybe the swirling dust was getting to me, but as Maddy and I brushed back the soil from charcoal, picked pieces of brick from the sieve, and displayed the delicate ceramic fragment (see photo in 9.24.2007 photolog) to Kate and Michelle today, I couldn't help but wonder if we were separating these fragments of the past from their soul in the context of the site. I was exceedingly excited to have found the curious tiny fragnment - whose leaf design and minute features suggest a passionate hand - but I wonder if the dust of our destruction contained stories just as important.
We've dug down 27 cm in trench D2 - well into our third stratigraphic unit. If the spirit of a man or woman must be buried six feet under, I wonder how far we have to go to reach the soul of the church site. Is it even in the stratigraphy?
Yikes! Off to find an exorcist to rid me of this riddling, pesky poltergist of the past,
Field Day #3: Archaeology: The Science of Secrets?
They all ask... Passing members of the congregation dressed in reverent garb, the taxi driver - music blaring - waiting for the light to turn green, the humbly curious woman trailed by her less than enthusiastic husband, head down in modest embarassment: "What have you found?" Of course I do my best to enumerate the day's finds - the real interesting square inch of decaying, rotting fabric, the several tiny pieces of sooty charcoal, the scores of glass shards (we even found a slightly green one!), and a rusty nail! But I couldn't help but notice a slight disappointment as they strolled or sped off.
Still, I can't help but be excited myself about what we are doing - we are essentially uncovering that which the past did not proclaim to posterity about itself. We are uncovering what the past thought too mundane to perserve and felt confident would be destroyed by the ages. But nature had the last word - perserving the fragments of an unrecorded past - and now we, the archaeologists have their secrets! The interest lies not in what the artifacts are, but what they were and how they got to us. These artifacts slipped around the filter imposed by the past society on iself, thinking they could control in their writing and record keeping - what the future saw of them . But no!
And maybe that is why archaeology is so different - it is the science to understand the past through what was not prepackaged for the future. One's greatest secrets lie in what one does not say about themselves. Historians read what societies wrote and made an effort to preserve. Archaeologist uncover their secrets in what was by chance and nature perserved and then "dish the dirt"...
And it is this candor that makes archaeology so personal. As I plucked a single glass bead out of the sieve with Whit in trench C1 and continued to work around and even uncover more of the odd features in trench D3 with Chelsea today, I more connected to these people than I ever would reading the Declaration of Independence or reading of the political musings of these people's times. No - it is the glass bead, that which the people did not prepackage for interpretation of their posterity. It is in the glass bead that what these people where, and not what they hoped they would be to the future, comes to me across the ages.
To me, I must admit, there is a guiltly pleasure in unearthing the vestiages of people's lives that were most intimately connected to them, that they kept only for themselves while they willingly offered in writing what they considered worthy cultural accomplishments like business transactions, literary musings, and orations to the future.
As a history enthusiast, this experience with archaeology is making me second guess what we interprete as history. Is trying to recreate our ancestor's lives through their writings, through their bold proclamations engraved into stately stone facades in a imperial style reminiscent of Rome legitimate? Or is it only by examining the detached daisy petals left behind by a giddy love-bird's personal game of "she-loves-me, she-loves-me not", and his lazy scribblings of love in the sand. Is it only in the candor of latter two that we can truely understand the past, apart from the seemingly timeless urge to package one's glory, all that one is proud of, for the future?
Should we trust the past's interpretation of itself that it leaves written in stone, or is it the secret scrallings in the sand, the artifacts fragments of a reality that were never ment for us to see, where the true spirit of these people lives?
Eager to continue "dishing the dirt" of the past,
Field Day #4: Silent Story-Telling
As Jason Urbanus's passionate cadences ricocheted off the dark walls so as to seem omnipresent and the silvery projection of his colorful presentation floated surreally through the lazy morning air, I could not help but note the intent, the awe evident my classmate's concentrated countenances as the narrative of Rhode Island unfolded to their enthralled minds and lulled them into wonder. Shown a reality that was and that they had never seen nor known, both they and I were captivated. Seeing something outside our existence that nevertheless created the existence we know today, we felt part of a higher, more expansive existence, I think. We delight in having our ordinary, present reality, the names of streets and whatnot, explained through the lens of the past, as it seems to order our existence and incorporate us into a story greater than ourselves, more vast than our own existence.
But as I think about it, it would seem that humans are alone among Earth life in this historical fixation and that it is an affinity to the past before our existence that determines our thoughts and thus makes us human... Indeed it is hard to imagine a world in which our actions were not based on what came before. But we have to ask ourselves where that knowledge of events outside, and more specifically before, our existence comes from. How do all Americans today know who George Washington is, that he had false teeth, that he chopped down the cherry tree (even if that is not a tru history) - all realities or constructed realities beyond their own existences. I wonder if it is fair to say that animals live as infants thoughout their lives, intelligent maybe, but without the communicative tools to explore the past and learn from it. A chimp infant does not know of his great-great grand-chimp-father, yet I know about my Prosper P. Foote born and dead more than a century ago. It is the acculuration of story telling that makes an infant a true human, it would seem. Is that what sets humans apart - the ability to communicate, to understand, to ponder the past that is inaccessible without story-telling and collective remembrance? Is it is story telling that allows us to advance as humans? It is this anthropology that I ponder as I dig this week.
Does this focus on the past hinder us in a way? Is there a whole universe, if you will, that we are missing by not thinking about the future. I think most people would like to think of themselves as forward-thinking, but perhaps forward-mindedness is simply an ability to interpret and rework the successes and failures of the past...What if we were creatures concerned only with the future? Would there be progress in this future oreinted-world (thinking about it, it ironically seems that progress is indeed a product of prudence with regard to the past and not forward-thinking), and is that future-focus even possible, given its nature? If it was possible would it be conceivible to the human mind that is apparently so wired to the past?
How does the future differ from the past, really? Yes, the past has happened and the future has not, but both are intangible and incomprehsible to those that exist in the pres without the communicative
But philosophical musings aside, here's where the archaeology comes in: Or is the past really that incomprehensible without books and without grandma whimsically recounting those "good ol' days"? I wonder if archaeology has evolved as a way to understand the reality of the past where the people's words - spoken and written - have gone silent. By digging into the Earth and unearthing a preserved piece of that reality, a parcel of the past that the shroud of time failed to hide from our present eyes, it silently tells us of the continuity of humanity.
As I hutched awkwardly over the topographic idiosyncracies of the D3 trench this week, pulling out pieces of glass, coal, and corroded metal with Nicole and Doug after the surreal experience of trying to learn about the past by walking transects across a lawn with funky equipment (can we learn about past people in this passive way?), I contemplated my very concept of history - its like a company I feel as though I helped found but was out of the office most of the time and had to have my secretary fill out a "while you were out" message slip to fill me in on the office's happenings. The world that we are born into is one that we inherit, a world shaped before and that we in our existence shape for those of the future that will.
It is interesting to think that individuals so similar to us of the present are made intangible by a mere boundary of time, but somehow the intangible message of their tangible materials can tell us of their existence.
Again, archaeology seems the foil of history - the latter is essentially the study of records made possible by communicative technology, but the former is the study and interpretation of merely what is silent, that has no established meaning as words do, and in that sense, I think, it is more quixotic.
I'm sorry, it probably sounds absurd in words, but if you have stuck with me through my effusive ramble this far, perhaps you will understand: I genuinely wonder if you can listen to the future, if an archaeology of the future is possible, just as that of the past is possible?
It was as a freshman - in my first week at Brown - that I noticed the bold, declarative engraving on the side of the John Carter Brown Library, and I have now walked by many times since. Somehow there always seemed to be a meaning beyond what I was seeing: a mysterious understanding of that which I did not understand.
"Speak to the past, and it shall teach thee" it says. As an archaeologist and as a historian, I now understand.
Shhhhhhhhh... The artifacts are speaking!...
Field Day #5: A Common Canvas
First of all, let me say that I give kudos to anyone who can follow the bombastic ramblings of last week... I hope to keep my feet on the ground and my mind on the artifacts and evidence it contains for this week and evermore!
This said, I would like to explore (beyond the veil of the last entry's beguiling, bombastic tone!) the differences I have been pondering and developing between history - one of my fields of concentration here at Brown - and archaeology - what I am finding is a fundamentally different way to view the past as I become more gradually accustomed to the field. As I worked with Chelsea in the artifactual paradaise that is the D1 trench this week, pulling out a pipe stem, a bone fragment, and cashes of glass and corroded nails, I began to internalize the fact that human activities, like my own of the present on this very spot distributed and deposited the materials I am finding; moreover, I began to understand the limitations of both history and archaeology as lenses to examine the past. After all, it is not often that we consider the limitations on what we can know beyond our fascination with the inifinity of interaction that is the universe and the world in which we live.
Indeed, as an archaeologist, I am beginning to see the past as a painter's canvas, a story in an environment of four dimensions - that is, a continuous reinvention of a 3-D space (in the largest sense, the entire Earth's surface) through time by different people. We are all painters that project our ideas as new realities onto the earth's surface, the medium of the soil, that past painters reworked just as we rework. As I said in the last entry, we inherit a world that has been defined by that earlier reality that we never knew, but in our investigation of that canvas, that common ground through archaeology, that past reality becomes a tangible part of our existence as we bring its fragments up from the layers of time. And moreover, we create a past as an understanding of the evolution of this canvas. In this way, the world is a collective masterpiece on which successive generations react to earlier artists' strokes and methods. In archaeology, we are removing the layers of the ages one by one to see the tangible relics of how former artists reworked this same ground, this common canvas.
This, I think, is fundamentally different from the nature of the past as seen in the historical world. Indeed, history is a study not of the tangible products of culture but ideas made universally cognizant only through communicative tools - that is, writing and oral language that convey intangible ideas or try to recreate tangible past realities. The key is that historical documents do not preserve contexts of location and time as perfectly as do artifacts. Artifacts are, by their nature and their relationship to other materials, a multidimensional record of realities that together make the past. Archaeology must be studied in a specific location, where history, as related by moveable, mutable historical documents that represent only point ideas in time, do not preserve definitively the locational (environmental) aspects of their origin; think of it this way: reading the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall or perusing the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls does not give me a greater understanding of the ideas they express than if I read them in New Pembroke #2 201 at Brown University, whereas archaeology must be conducted in the area that was once used by the . In sharing this ground, the activities of the people of the past become tangible to us in the present - the ground, that canvas, is an intersection of our collective story. Present and past, it might be said, necessarily become one...
I will stop short of saying that archaeology is a superior lens with which to view the past, for this is would neglect, I think, the function of ideas - communicated across time by the documents studied in history - in shaping what we call the past. Indeed, I would say that history informs archaeology (a concept that became clear as I pondered how to go about conducting the investigation I proposed in my mock CRM proposal project in respect to the background information about the site), as information that we uncover archaeologically becomes a part of the history as we record it (an ironic concept, don't you think? Can archaeology ever stand alone as a record of the past? Can history for that matter?
Perhaps it can be said that the past has a tangible and an intangible component, as a person is both corporeal and a world onto itself in his or her imagination, a multifaceted entity that is understood only through the combination of archaeological and historical paradigms or lenses...
Oh dear, all these lenses are making me cockeyed! Off to add my brushstrokes to the collective human masterpiece at our feet,
Field Day #6: Head in the Sand, Mind in the Clouds
Had I not been so enthralled in my reflections on this last day of digging at the site before soil sampling and restoration of the churchyard, I may have been more concerned about how ridiculous I must have looked to the staring passers-by, my right leg extended outward to balance my precarious, low, hunching position as I reached deep into the southeast quadrant of the D3 trench to remove the last of the soil 75 cm below the surface; from a distance, my left ear hovering an inch above the void and my body slightly teetering with each plunge of my arm into the past below and beyond (all accompanied by my stoic, concentrated demeanor), I am sure I appeared deeply engaged in some sort of yoga-inspired, ground-worshiping meditation. Yes, I physically almost had my head in the sand, but my mind was in the clouds, collecting my thoughts about my archaeology experience thus far.
It is true that much of our reality is made of physical, tangible entities - that is, we are surrounded and we surround ourselves with a physical environment in which we can better position ourselves to to achieve our passions, our fancies - and these physical entities and relationships are the focus of the archaeologist's investigation. We build a fence to show who owns what and to contain our herds, we use a fork and knife to avoid what we in American culture see as the barbarousness of eating in polite company with our hands. We pull the pipe-stem from the earth, part of a former reality, and ask, "what was the physical world like for these past people, and how does that reflect their thoughts.
But the way I see it, this is somewhat of an indirect route to understanding the mindset of the past. History - in studying documents, artifacts of words that allow the mindset of the past to transcend time and be easily recognizable to the reader - seems to be direct study of these ideas that I think are the objective of anyone who studies the past. The historian can delve into the mind of Jefferson because they read of the "inalienable right in which he believed enough to "sever the bonds" between two peoples, but the archaeologists seem to me struggling to come up with the Declaration by examining the pen Jefferson used to write it! Of course this is not to say that archaeologists are illiterate or avoid documents, but their focus seems to be on only those ideas that are accepted enough in a society to be shared amongst the members of the community and thus reflected in their public, physical environment.
Indeed, how much of our dreams and mind - that which make us human - remain unsaid, never to be reflected in our environment because of cultural restrictions on their expression? Archaeologists are concerned about bias in the research technique, bias in the field worker's conception of what is an "artifact", bias everywhere!, but why do they not consider the bias that may impair their investigation stemming from a lack of physical expression of one's dreams due to the values of the culture of which they are a part. I may be harboring an intense infatuation with Cheetos that my habitual vegetable munching and apple crunching belies; my culture admonishes me to eat healthly, so I am a health nut, and the archaeologist picking at my bones (imagine!) would perhaps perceive that chemically, but my true love of Cheetos would be lost, never to be known again (the tragedy!). To use an earlier analogy, archaeologists who find my fork and knife would never know that I would much rather shovel the whole piece of pie into my mouth in one swoop with my hands (and I know there are others out there that feel the same way!
My earlier entries seem to ask the question, "Are these incorporeal and unexpressed mindsets accessible to the archaeologist - can we truly hope to understand people from what they leave behind? Is it the individuals we are studying in archaeology or the societies that in many ways constrain the individual and prevent the individual's mind from truly being expressed? Archaeologists can map the world all they want, but it is left to the historians and their documents, it seems, to map the world beyond, to map the mind!
But perhaps the language and words that historians study, too, are no more than a tool created for the benefit of a society and are not conducive to expressing the individual. As fun a word as it is, Mary Poppin's neologism still doesn't quite As I listen to the organic music of Debussy and Copland and I see how it truly speaks to me, perhaps more than words, across time, I can't help but feel puzzled by man and his relationship to the culture that claims him.
That is a question all students of the past must ask themselves: Am I trying to understand the individual, or the collective culture that bends the individual?
But, maybe after all this musing (and so much I have to leave unsaid!), perhaps the ideas and the artifacts support one another and reinforce one another's meaning... Indeed, as my groping hand falls on single corroded nail 70 cm down in this shadowy, shady window we have created into the past, I think of the society that used it, and the man who cast it aside. But who was he?
Anyway, I am off now to secretly binge on Cheetos and pie,
Field Day #7: We Came, We Dug, We Backfilled... (take that, Caesar!)
The sun fell behind the towers of modern Providence and the aged churchyard fell into deep shadows, setting a sober, pensive atmosphere for our backfilling. Like brazen figures we looked as we shoveled, hauled, dumpped and sighed in the the golden-red twilight - a living Greek freize. And then darkness decended, and only my shovel's hollow scrapings against the cold earth remained to guide my motions as I toiled. Shoveling lugubriously, listening astutely in the dark...the sounds of a city and my work intermingled, the sources unseen, hidden, almost unreal...it seemed an eerily fitting culmination for two months struggling to internalize the echoes and reverberations of an unseen past...
Indeed, the day's work was surreal: after so meticulously measuring out the trenches, systematically opening a window to the past, pain-stakingly recording the final sections and top-views of trenches D1 and D3 with Chelsea today, to unceremoniously and haphazardly heave dirt back into these windows - and to seaver what had become that intimate connection to the past that contributed to my present and that I had grown to realize was a part of me - seemed an absurd labor.
Still, as sureal and sobering as it was, I must also admit how was pleasently cathartic it was to hack out a sample of the mysterious features we had pedestaled in D3 after so carefully and awkwardly digging around them for so long. Take that, you white-pebble permeated, spongy structured, persistenty puzzling buggers!
So that's that: a tub of bags, filled with an awkward amalgam, a mysterious melange (alas, how assiduously and ardously alliterative I am on this autumn afternoon!) of glass and charcoal, brick and corroded metal - this is the puzzling product of two months digging.
We opened a tunnel to the past and it spoke to us - it offered up these curious relics. Now to interpret their hidden message, to find the source - the human heart - that we hear so clearly in these fragments of the past! Though the sun set on yesterday's people that created these things, let the new light of a new day redeem their meaning for us archaeologists. Let the laboratory analysis begin!
But first, I'm going to turn out the light and rest after a taxing battle with D3's cryptic columns!
Lab Day #1: Artifactual Baptism
Just as an unrecognizable face regains its friendly familiarity after a simple wash, the dusty, mysterious artifacts that I plunged into the murky water as we cleaned our finds this week seemed to emerge imbued with a new intimacy and made anew as objects that reflect my own human passions and needs, not as sacrosanct vestiges of the past. Indeed, to pull these artifacts from the ground accentuated their historical significance and their difference from that which we surround ourselves in the present world, their existence apart from us - an otherworldliness. In bagging them, meticulously recording their presence, we seemed to shelter, quarantine, sequester them from a world of which they were not a part. Here in the plastic tub, they waited in purgatory, in awkward limbo, simple bits of the past not yet reconciled with our complex present.
But to remove them from their segregation, to clean them, to allow them to take on their appearance before time intervened, the artifacts became a part of the present world again. The haze of the ages, the dusty shroud of time was lifted, and I accepted them as objects in my present, transcending time... Gently plunging the artifacts into the tranquil waters, we removed that dust, a badge that heralded their difference from the dogma of the present; they were baptized into our brave new world...
After our class readings for this week, though, I can't help but wonder if our "conversion" of the objects was for the better. If it is true that archaeology is more reflective of what the archaeologist and his modern society value - that is, that the picture of the past painted by the archaeologist is truly a selective portrait highlighting only the parts that make for a pleasing picture - have we brought these artifacts into our world only to have their truth silenced? Will these innocent, unbiased representations of a former truth be manipulated - even unconsciously - to confirm our preconceived notions of our American history. Though try as we might, the temptation to see the clear glass fragments through rose-colored lenses is, I am afraid too great. In fact, it is perhaps not our personal flaw, but the original sin of our engagement in the dig to confirm some pre-meditated historical hypothesis about the past, that is our downfall. I wonder...
Are we corrupting the artifacts with vanity for our own age in accepting them into our world?... In any case, under the dusty shroud of time, a familiar world is revealed.
And now if you will excuse me, from under my fingernails, the sandy accumulation from washing must be removed!
Lab Day #2: Artifact Tectonics
Just as the tedium of helping Maia collect up all of the glass fragments from each stratigraphic units and trenches - big, small, curved, green, amber, olive green, amethyst, dark olive green - was beginning to weigh heavily on my wistful, turkey-craving mind, I was shaken from my complacency by the similarities between two shards in one section of the drying rack over which I was hunched. I hesitated, patiently investigating beyond their congrueous rose tint and thin body: an eerie feeling of affinity hung between the two pieces. Indeed, as my eyes followed their edges, from saliance to chip, feature to feature, I found their edges remarkably complimentary. Like Africa and South America, two fragments in whose very shape hang a hidden history: a protrusion for a recession, a void for a presence, a yin for a yang.
Indeed, it was a perfect fit... Two perfectly congruous edges reunited. And then came the aftershock of my first notion of these pieces similarity: here was the proof that the time-worn debris in this surreal potpourri of artifacts, sitting before me in regimented organization on racks, not for any reason but to be studied, were once part of a cherished whole and a complete culture. Here, a testament to a world literally fragmented by time. It was on this fault that the utility of the object to the people who craeted it was shattered and from which its existence as an object of history emerged. But reuniting these fragments of the past, I had made the seam of time seamless: the past and the present had collided, and it set tremors through my mind!
As much as my class readings stressed that we could hope to create a picture of the past by studying the artifacts we had found, through my meticulous excavating, cleaning, and sorting, the artifacts seemed disjunct, all voices taking me in separate directions, plates diverging to leave a sea of uncertainty. But fitting these two pieces together conirmed a prior unity, a lost continent were the sea of time had intervened!
Placing these tiny fragments into the bag, I now understood the unity of all the artifact fragments in a human story, an unfragmented whole.
Now off to see my Physical Geology professor... extra credit seems in order for having bridged the fault that separates our continent of the present from that of the past...
Lab/Library Day #3: Echoes of the Symphony of the Past
It is said that music is a universal language, and indeed, because music involves an actual, physical manipulation of the environment - a pattern of sound - that we can sense directly, it requires no training to enjoy and to react to music. When you listen to it, music's essence is not conveyed through an abstract code like the words made of symbols that an orator uses: music is the message, and it speaks directly to your mind and to the soul. Why does the most loving mother rely on a song to sooth the excited child before bed, why do the most evil political regimes radicalize the masses with music, why can't you get that cheesy Chi-Chi-Chi Chia Pet jiggle out of our collective American memory while the universally loud and universally unctuous exclamations of the local used car salesman forgotten tomorrow? Music is the direct product of the passion that recreates it and is easily intelligible to our senses, but the cheesy pitches of the salesman are the passion expressed in a code of language.
Musical notation that records the reality of music for posterity, however, is an abstraction, a "code" that can be converted only by a person trained in reading music into a beautiful reality...You see, the ink is not the passion, only a representation. It is not the ink but the music that speaks to the soul. This is, I suppose, why Steve Jobs has not yet to started tinkering and think-tanking develop a tiny, portable gadget that people can use to view musical scores on their way to work, while washing the dishes, while walking the dog. Wow, wouldn't that just be a universal thriller!...
The past, I think, is like a piece of music that we (in the present) would like to listen to, would like to perform, would like to have touch our soul, but we have never heard it. Sure, a historian can go to the documents that record the essence of the past, but these are, like the organized blots of ink on a page, intricate patterns of ink on paper that someone placed there in an attempt to convey a reality to posterity.
But , indeed, analyzing these documents that (yes, I admit it!) I revere as a historian - I now realize how far I am still removed from the past that I am trying to understand in reading the these mere words, a mere code. After all, the reason a rose by any other name would smell as sweet (thank you, insightful Juilet) is that the word rose is simply a code that we use to refer to a rose, to try to conjure its beauty, when speaking with others, but really it is on the individual level that we all see the world. Your friends can describe to you just how cold the water of Cayuga Lake is at 6:00 in the morning, but their admonitions just don't compare to the pinching, gaging submersion as you make that punge ( but alas! see how I struggle to describe it to you - anyhow, in this case I would advise that you not try to experience this yourself).
This is why we, hoping to play that symphony of the past, turn to the archaeological record: artifacts are directly produced by the activities of the past, are physical embodiments that were part of the essence of the past that we can understand through our natural senses and without having to decipher an abstraction. These artifacts were the very elements of the song that we hope to recreate. That manufactured nail, that faux-pearl bead, they are the reverberation of the past. Running the bead and the nail through my hands, I am directly sensing the euphonous way of a previous culture, the music of the past. The Industrial revolution, the Great Awakening, the urbanization of the 19th century, the rise of popular culture, the American Revolution - they all rest in the artifacts in my hands.
But I must be off quickly...I need to get my patent for a portable artifact viewer before Apple beats me to the case!
Lab/Library Day #4: The Whispering Winds of Time
A program for the Sabbath school's Christmas eve concert in 1873, an invitation to the state memorial service for late President James Abram Garfield on September 26th, 1881, a forward-looking monthly of the First Baptist Mutual Benefit Association that went through a mere two issues. A minute marble fragment, a faux-pearl bead, a glass shard whose edges perfectly circumscribe the rised letters spelling out PLEASE - as if this message were specifically segregated, intact, to cry out to us, to plead for the artifacts and for the people whose only existence is now within them. PLEASE... the artifacts say..... PLEASE: the people!....
As the muted sunlight struggles through the heavy, translucent blinds in the almost sanctimonious silence of the reading room in the John Hay Library, I flip causally through the pages of the monthly, The Endeavor. At the same, I am interogating that "Young Ladies' Improvement Society" and those "checkers'-players" that these pages speak of, souls of the past whose life and existence is now trapped between discolored pages three and four. They are now people of history.
But they are still people, I have realized: their humanity as merely taken up a new form, a new physical abode. I can look at, question these objects - this earthenware plate fragment, this sheep's bone, this program for the "Municipal Celebration of the Anniversary of American Independence" - and they will reveal their familiar, human creation, their patterned existence and teach me about the fragments of the past of which I am made. Yes, holding the 1899 penny, staring into its brazen, unblinking eye of Lady Liberty, I see that we inherit parts of the people of the past, feeling pangs of pride at the sight of their symbols, their ideas that have become our world, living in the spaces, the same world that they once intimately occupied...
"Speak to the past, and it shall teach thee"...
On the way home up the hill, I bow my head at the sight of the meetinghouse below, a temple to this eternal human connection.
Well, time for me to release this collection of thoughts to the steady winds of time... Let my history now blow where it may.