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Archaeology Rediscovered

Our pandemic present looks a lot different through history’s eyes

Before Corona — or BC, for short — has now entered our lexicon. No wonder. The world has been knocked off course and irretrievably changed in ways we can’t yet even imagine. But as we look for solace, there’s one place that’s been largely ignored: Archaeology.

I know. It sounds crazy. How could discoveries about old worlds — the other BC — help us solve the problems of the new? Well, maybe in addition to solutions, we need some reassurance. Maybe knowing more about our historical legacy can connect us to our bigger selves and provide some much-needed perspective on both calamity and resilience. That’s my hope. Perhaps it’s yours as well. Here are just a few examples to consider.

Greek Merchant Ship, 400 BC. Three years ago, scientists using a laser scanning technique made an amazing discovery in the Black Sea — a 2,400-year old Greek merchant ship lying on its side, still well-preserved, right down to the rower’s benches. The lack of oxygen in the deep waters prevented the ship’s deterioration, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to look back in time at a trading vessel that was once as common as trucks on an interstate.

Apart from the eye-popping excitement of this discovery, a point worth remembering in the time of COVID-19 is that the impulse toward trade, to exchange one product or material for something else, is profoundly human. Whatever the pandemic’s disruption of supply chains, whatever the ultimate changes to manufacturing and industrial policy, and whatever the nativist impulse to isolate and shun, humans will continue to push at boundaries and cross borders. For those who sometimes worry that global citizenship is a dead concept, remember this Greek ship at the bottom of the Black Sea. Once the coast is clear, we will be riding the waves again and reconnecting with the world.

Appleseed, First Millennium BC. The marketplace as a source of infection is part of the Covid-19 story. But there is an older and very different marketplace story that we should also keep in mind. It involves apples. From Red Delicious to HoneyCrisp, there are now more than 7,500 different varieties of apples that nourish us. According to archaeobotanist Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute — who published the results of his research into the domestication of wild apples last year — this vast array of delicious, fleshy fruit would never have arisen were it not for humans and their penchant for trade, particularly along the Silk Road in Kazakhstan.

It is there, specifically the Tian Shan Mountain region, where Spengler has determined that much of the genetic material for the modern, domesticated apple originated. How so? In carrying wild apples from place to place, humans became inadvertent seed-spreaders. Previously isolated wild varieties were then cross-pollinated, creating hybrids that were selectively cultivated. While humanity’s inadvertent spreading of the COVID-19 virus is a different kind of tale, there is some comfort in knowing that not everything humans spread is bad for our health.

Ramps for the Disabled, 4th Century BC. Illness, disability, and death are just some of the frightful consequences of our current COVID-19 crisis. But from an archaeological perspective, we aren’t alone in our worries about health and longevity. Healing and medicine were an important consideration in ancient cultures as well — ancient Greeks included. Now come suggestions that at one of the great healing centers of the ancient Greek world, the Asclepius sanctuary at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, ramps for the disabled were a common sight.

While some might argue if these ramps were intended only for the infirm, who otherwise would have struggled to climb the stairs on crutches, or a convenience for everyone, it’s a reminder that the impressive, youthful torsos on surviving Greek statues weren’t necessarily commonplace or lasting. Like us, the Greeks had to work at staying well, and when disease struck, like us, they sought help from the experts of the era. Over time, these experts — including Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine — sought rational solutions to illness, bringing clinical observation, curiosity and diagnostic rigor to the study of physical and mental disease.

We can be thankful that as we battle COVID-19, we now have more medical tools and techniques and centuries of science-based research to assist us. But when a successful vaccine finally arrives, let’s not forget to also recall and applaud those ancient Greeks and their first on-ramps to wellness. They showed us the way.

Songbird Figurine, 13,500 years old. Symbolic thought — often defined as the human ability to visualize abstract ideas unrelated to our immediate needs — is the foundation of everything from art and music to engineering and language. Thanks to the discovery of a small bird figurine at a Paleolithic site in Lingjing, China, archaeologists are concluding that this kind of thinking is likely far older and more widespread than once imagined.

The figurine itself — a small bird carved with stone tools from a piece of heat-blackened animal bone — is barely a half-inch tall. But its size belies its significance at a time when COVID-19 and our focus on survival shrinks our focus on larger culture. Perhaps, instead of despairing about what we’ve lost, we should think about what remains to be done, and how that can be achieved. After all, we share the same lineage as this ancient artist. And whatever impulse prompted him or her to fashion this tiny songbird can’t be silenced by a virus.

Lastly, when it comes to symbolism, the fact that this beautifully simple figurine emerged from a refuse heap says something about the enduring power of the artist’s vision and art’s ability to surprise — even after 13,000 years. This is a time for us to be equally creative.

Nefertari’s Legs, 13th Century BC. When researchers concluded in late 2016 that the mummified legs in an Italian museum were likely those of one of Egypt’s most famous queens, Nefertari — wife of the warrior pharaoh Ramses II — the news was largely overshadowed by political events in the US. That political noise has yet to subside, but it’s worth recalling that Nefertari was a political power in her own day as well. A highly educated mother of eight, she engaged in foreign affairs and was reportedly able to both read and write hieroglyphs. At an estimated height of 5 feet, 7 inches (sandal size 6.5 to 7), she was tall and, if her lavish tomb is any indication, beloved and revered. All that aside, what is most reassuring about her story is that, despite the indignities to her physical remains committed by tomb robbers, she proved more than the sum of her body parts now on display. She remains a person of historical influence and a symbol of female authority.

In our current COVID-19 crisis, with death tolls soaring, both are reminders that while we might not own palaces or sail down the Nile, the lives we live and the decisions we make will shape our personal legacy and the country’s future. America is 250 years old. Egyptian civilization lasted for thirty centuries. I’m betting Nefertari would have worn a mask.

Culture writer with an eye for history, science, sports, art, politics, photography, travel, and the original story between the lines.

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