A Tally of Firsts…and a Communion with the Past

Loren Crow writes:

Few things in life compare to the thrill of a “first thing”: your first kiss, your first baklava, your first trip to a foreign country. Today was the first day of a process that will occupy me and my colleagues nonstop for the next several weeks: slowly uncovering material remains of a mostly forgotten past and recovering whatever can be known on the basis of those remains. It’s difficult work, but someone has to do it.

Well, to be factual, no one actually has to do it, just as no one has to paint or compose symphonies. Archaeology, like its older sibling history, is one of the great non-necessities without which life would be much poorer. When I dig, of course I’m constantly trying to figure things out: What’s the stratigraphic context of this find, what’s my plan for digging the next piece of my square, what else is happening in the world at the same time as the part I’m digging — stuff like that. But there’s a deeper level, too, something that approaches what might be called the “spirituality” of archaeological work, and every so often this element presents itself to my consciousness anew.

When I do archaeology, something happens to me that feels a lot like communion with the past. Call me a romantic if you must — it’s probably true in any case — but when I uncover something as simple as a potsherd I think of the people who made and used it. When I uncover a fire pit, I imagine families who probably argued and loved much as my family does. To excavate human remains becomes an act of honoring the dead whose name I don’t know but who, like me, felt some of the joys of life and encountered pain that seemed unendurable. And then I remember that their time eventually gave way to mine just as my time will give way to later generations. And that, to me, is a huge source of hope.

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