What will the future say about us?

February 10, 2007 at 9:39 am 6 comments

Jim Thompson’s house ThailandI have been reading Roger Atwood’s book Stealing History about the illicit trade in antiquities. Atwood, in a book that is a mix of detective work and historical facts, illuminates the little known world of tomb raiders and the international antiquities dealers who enrich themselves at the expense of humanity’s cultural heritage. Despairingly, I read about looters and plunderers who dig up ancient objects they know will fetch a high price on the black market and who tread on human bones or carelessly shatter pottery that could give archaeologists an understanding of cultural context. Not to mention Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, who spirited off with the so-called Elgin marbles from the Parthenon in Greece during the 1800s. The heart-wrenching part of the book for me was reading about how archaeologist, Walter Alva, discovered tombs of the Moche elite that tomb raiders had missed after ripping apart a nearby tomb. The Moche were contemporaneous with the Mayans in Peru. Like any good archaeologist, Alva knew that excavating objects in situ and noting surrounding items is critical to the interpretation of objects and the culture that created them. Alva discovered necklaces of fanged cat’s faces; golden beads with spider web patterns; golden rattles that tinkled when worn at the waist; the body of a young girl sprawled face down in the tomb’s cold interior. They told the story of a culture that was capable of creating extraordinarily beautiful and intricate jewellery and artefacts yet, at the same time, was a society capable of bloodthirsty acts of human sacrifice. The Moche’s religious beliefs and what some of the artefacts represented may only ever be partly known to us thanks to unscrupulous and careless thieves who do their work in the shadows of the night.

This led me to reflect on how future archaeologists will view 21st Century life. As they dig up grave sites from our time period, here’s a preliminary list of what they might find and how they’ll interpret what we stood for:

* skeletons of soldiers and weapons found in the area that was known as Iraq – after thousands of years of progression, 21st C people were still war-mongering
* tattered magazines showing (mostly) women with oddly frozen faces and impossibly straight pearly white teeth – 21st C people mutilated themselves with primitive chemicals, underwent bizarre plastic surgery rituals; and worshipped at the altar of Hollywood
* large caverns of space, sometimes with multiple levels – 21st C people congregated in spaces known as “shopping malls” for “retail therapy” because they had lost connectivity with fellow humans and with nature
* a family frozen in time due to a volcanic eruption, sitting in front of a large box – 21st C people had something called a TV or plasma into which they stared for hours on end; perhaps this was a form of therapy as their world was not going so well with climate change, poverty, pollution and other assorted evils…so they had to amuse themselves somehow.

But they may also find beautiful architectural constructions like the one from Thailand in the photo accompanying this post and they’ll conclude perhaps that 21st C people were also capable of astonishing feats of beauty and gentleness when they took the time to stop, think and respect the people and nature they co-existed with.

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Entry filed under: Archaeology, Reflections.

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