Ancient History & Civilisation

3/INTERLUDE: WHY SEARCH FOR THE PAST?

The aim of this book is to describe the evolution of archæology; that is, to describe, without anticipating, a process of development; to answer questions that present themselves in the course of our daily intellectual lives.

Often, in search of whence we have come, we wander through museums and see yellow, half-decayed leaves of papyrus, and fragments of vases, reliefs, and columns, all covered with wonderful signs and pictures called cuneiform characters or hieroglyphs. We know there are men who can read these signs as easily as we read newspapers and books in our own languages. We wonder how the mysteries of these ancient scripts and languages that had ceased to be written when Europe was still virgin forest were revealed. We ponder how it was possible even to read sense into the dead signs.

We leaf through the works of our historians. We read about the history of ancient peoples whose heritage we carry with us, in linguistic fragments, in many of our customs and usages, in the artifacts of our culture, and in traces of a common blood stream though these same peoples may have lived out their lives in distant zones and have disappeared from view in grayest antiquity. We read about their history not in terms of saga and legend but of dates and numbers. We learn to know the names of their kings, we find out how they lived in peace and in war, we see them in their homes and in their places of worship. We are instructed concerning their rise and their decline, a cultural pulsation of fixed duration to the year, the month, and the day. Yet all this may have ocurred when our own time-reckoning had not even begun, before our very calendar had come into being.

Where, then did this knowledge of the past come from?

But when all is said and done, what does it matter to twentieth-century man, who drives a car and flies a plane, who worries about the future, not about the past, what an Assyrian king wrote to his son in cuneiform writing, or what the ground plan of an Egyptian temple may be? This is a fair question, and deserves a fair answer.

In Chapter twenty-four of this book the idea is developed that one cannot look at the numbers on the face of one’s clock without taking into account the old Babylonian method of reckoning time. This indicates that anyone who occupies himself with the study of ancient cultures no longer can be justly compared to a seaman pressing forward through unknown waters not knowing whence he comes or whither he is going. Rather he is like the navigator who has suddenly become aware of the current he is sailing, and of his course from a definite past to a recognizable future. Yes, he even has some sense of the future, for the science of the past uniquely provides him, in its five thousand years of history, with a model, in terms of which he can extrapolate the future.

All of us live within our heritage of five thousand years of history. Were this not so, we would be no different from the ahistorical Australian bushman. The white construction-worker in an Australian city may never have heard of the name Archimedes. This is of no importance. Important is the fact that he makes use of the laws formulated by Archimedes.

It may be that the learned men of the Middle Ages who called themselves “humanists” completely misunderstood Greek and Roman antiquity. But the important thing to remember is that through their intervention the dead doings and thought processes of ancient Greek and Rome became a social stimulus. Perhaps the men and women of the Mayflower in 1620, and the Spaniards under Cortés and Pizarro who came to Middle and South America in 1519–32, were able to imagine beginning a new life on a new soil because the old and customary had been written down for them. It turned out that in migrating they did not lose their old life, but instead brought it along with them. To new continents came men who, in thought and feeling, in religion and in customs, in their attitudes toward life’s basic institutions of love, marriage, work, and duty, and toward the principles of good and evil, of deity and devil, were at one with their past—and this regardless of whether they were conscious or unaware of the fact.

This has become the archæologist’s grandiose task: to make dried-up wellsprings bubble forth again, to make the forgotten known again, the dead alive, and to cause to flow once more that historic stream in which we are all encompassed, whether we live in Brooklyn or Montparnasse, Berlin-Neukölln or Santiago de Chile, Athens or Miami. This stream is the great human community of the Western world which for five thousand years has swum with the same flood tide, under different flags, but guided by the same constellations.

On this account archæology is everybody’s concern and is not in the least an esoteric special branch of science. When we busy ourselves with archæology, life as a whole has become our subject. For life is not an occasional affair, but a constant balancing on the point of intersection where past and future meet.1

In his memoirs the Roman antiquarian Augusto Jandolo tells how, as a boy, he participated with his father in the opening of an Etruscan sarcophagus. “It was no easy matter, moving the cover,” he writes, “but finally it was lifted upright, then allowed to fall heavily on the other side. And then something happened that I have never forgotten and that will remain before my eyes as long as I live. I saw resting within the coffin the body of a young warrior in full military panoply, with helmet, spear, shield, and greaves. Observe that it was not a skeleton that I saw, but a body, complete in all limbs, and stiffly outstretched as if freshly laid in the grave. This apparition endured but a moment. Then every thing seemed to dissolve in the light of the torches. The helmet rolled to the right, the round shield fell into the now sunken breast-piece of the armor, and the greaves suddenly collapsed flat on the ground, one to the right, one to the left. The body that had remained untouched for centuries had suddenly dissolved into dust when exposed to the air … a golden dust was suspended in the air and about the flame of the torches.”

In this sarcophagus described by Jandolo had lain a member of that mysterious Etruscan people whose origin and descent remain to this day undetermined. Yet the discoverers had only a passing glimpse of the body before it fell apart, never to be restored. Why? Gross carelessness caused this irreparable misfortune.

When the first statues were dug out of classic ground, long before the discovery of Pompeii, there existed even at that time people of sufficient enlightenment to see things of beauty as well as heathen idols in the naked marble forms. Even so, as often as not when they were put on display in the palaces of Renaissance princes and cardinals and in the villas of doge, condottiere, and parvenu, they were regarded as little more than curiosities that it was the fashion to collect. It could very well happen that in private museums of this sort an antique statue of wondrous beauty would be shown beside the dried embryo of a two-headed child. Next to an antique relief it was quite possible to find the skin of a bird that reputedly had lit on the shoulder of St. Francis.

Singing reveler, decorative picture from inside a bowl attributed to the school of Epictetus.

Up to the last century there was nothing to prevent the greedy and the ignorant from enriching themselves on whatever finds they chanced to discover, or to stop them from inflicting great incidental damage in their exploitations.

In the sixteenth century lime kilns were operated in the Forum Romanum, the Roman place of assembly and site of the most splendid buildings grouped about the Capitol. The Roman temples were razed to provide stone for building material. Pieces of marble were used indiscriminately by the popes to decorate their fountains. The Serapeum was blown apart with gunpowder to get stone for embellishing the stables housing the stud horses of a pope named Innocent. For four centuries the Colosseum was used as a stone quarry. Even as late as 1860 Pius IX continued this work of destruction to obtain cheap decorative materials for a Christian building project.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century archæologists who studied ancient Rome had wreckage left to work with, whereas had the monuments been intact, it would have vastly facilitated their task.

Even where no incompetent hand had wantonly destroyed, where no thieves had sought hidden treasure, where the past lay untouched—and how rare this was—still there were difficulties of another sort. For even with perfect material the problem of interpretation has to be reckoned with.

In 1856 a cave was opened in Düsseldorf, and from it was taken the skeleton of a man who, according to the geological circumstances of the find, must have lived in remotest prehistory. Today we call this skeleton the Neanderthal man. At the time, however, it was thought to be the remains of an animal. Only a certain Dr. Fuhlrott, a secondary school teacher in the provincial town of Elberfeld, interpreted this find correctly. A Professor Mayer of Bonn declared that the bones belonged to a Cossack killed in 1814. Wagner, of Göttingen, maintained that the skeleton was that of an old Hollander; and Pruner-Bey, of Paris, that of an old Celt. The great German pathologist Virchow, whose too rashly accepted authority retarded so many sciences, said that the skeleton was that of a gouty old man.

It took about fifty years for the scientific establishment to decide that the schoolteacher from Elberfeld had been right.

This example, of course, more properly belongs to prehistoric and anthropological research than to archæology. A more apt illustration, perhaps, is the early attempt to date the Greek sculpture called the Laocoön. Winckelmann placed the statue in the period of Alexander the Great. Experts of the last century believed it to be a masterpiece of the Rhodian school, and dated it c. 150 B.C. Others contended that it had been created in early imperial days. Today we know that actually it was the composite work of the sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus of the Rhodian school, a group of artists who flourished about the middle of the last century before Christ.

And so it is obvious that even when material is found intact, interpretation is difficult enough. How much more difficult, then, when the genuineness of the artifact itself is in doubt!

Into this category of the dubious falls the sort of tomfoolery that victimized Professor Beringer of Würzburg. In 1726 the professor published a book with a Latin title that I shall not give here for the reason that it covers one and a half pages. The book tells about the fossils that Beringer and his students found in the vicinity of Würzburg. The text describes petrified flowers, frogs, a spider in the act of catching a fly (spider and fly petrified simultaneously); also a petrified star, a half-moon, tables with Hebraic characters, and other curious objects. The book was richly illustrated. The reader could see engraved on copper the very things described verbally in the text. This work was comprehensive in scope and contained a running commentary in which the professor’s intellectual enemies were subjected to invective and counter-attack. It was widely read and came in for much praise—until the horrid truth was revealed. Schoolboys had been playing an elaborate practical joke on the innocent Beringer. Working at home, they had carefully manufactured “fossils,” and these they had planted where the professor was sure to dig.

Beringer’s name brings to mind that of Domenech. This French abbé published in 1860 a curious volume that is preserved in the Paris Arsenal Library. It contains 228 plates showing, in facsimile, what the author called the “manuscrit pictographique américain.” These supposedly Indian drawings later turned out to be the crude products of a child of Low German settlers in the American backwoods.

Even the great Winckelmann was duped—by Casanova’s brother. This Casanova, an artist, had been engaged to illustrate Winckelmann’s Monumenti antichi. In Naples Casanova produced three paintings, one of which showed Jupiter and Ganymede, the others dancing female figures. These he sent to Winckelmann, boldly claiming that they had been taken from walls in Pompeii. To make his story more credible he embellished it with romantic details. An officer had secretly stolen the paintings piece by piece. Mortal danger, dark nights, shadows of the tomb—Casanova made a production. And Wickelmann was completely taken in.

He believed not only in the genuineness of the paintings, but in Casanova’s story as well. In the fifth section of his History of the Art of Antiquity he wrote an exact description of the find and maintained that the Ganymede in particular was a painting “the like of which had never been found before.” In that he was not far from wrong, seing that after Casanova he was indeed the first ever to look at it. “Jupiter’s favorite,” he wrote, “is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful figures to come down to us from ancient times. I know of nothing to compare with the face of this figure; it is instinct with sensual bliss, as if all life were but one long kiss.”

If the hypercritical Winckelmann could be fooled by such deceptions, who could ever be sure to escape them? In our own times a Russian archæologist has shown how confusing interpretation can be. For what appeared to be a relatively simple marble statue from Herculaneum he listed nine different identifications, all of them arguable.

The art of not being fooled, the method of determining the genuineness, the mode, and the history of an artifact from a diversity of signs, is called hermeneutics. Whole libraries are filled with literature devoted exclusively to the interpretation of known classic finds. It is possible to track down a single line of interpretation from Winckelmann’s initial attempt to the controversies of modern scholars over the same object. Archæologists are pathfinders. With a detective’s sharpness of observation they fit stone to stone—often literally—until the logical conclusion stands out clear and irrefutable.

Is their task easier than the criminologist’s? They deal with dead objects, which offer no resistance, which do not purposely mislead or leave false trails behind. And, true enough, dead stones are open to anyone’s inspection. But how much error is already inherent in them? How many mistakes have been made in the first reports of the find? No archæologist can closely examine all remains in the original, scattered as they are throughout Europe and all the museums of the world. Today photography can give a precise copy, but in fact much material has yet to be photographed. Drawings must still be used in many cases, and these may be subjectively miscolored and misconceived, especially when made by persons unversed in mythology or archæology.

On a sarcophagus kept in the Louvre in Paris is an Amor and Psyche group in which the right forearm of Amor is broken off, but with the right hand still caressing Psyche’s cheek. Two French archæologists published a work with an illustration in which this hand is shown as a beard. Psyche with whiskers!

Despite the patent absurdity of the drawing, another Frenchman, author of the Louvre catalogue, writes: “The sculptor who worked on this sarcophagus did not understand the theme, for his Psyche, though dressed like a woman, wears a beard.”

In Venice there is a relief that, in a series of scenes, shows two boys leading two oxen harnessed to a cart in which stands a woman. This relief was restored about one hundred and fifty years ago. The interpreters of the period considered the relief to be an illustration for a tale from Herodotus. Herodotus tells hows Kydippe, priestess of Hera, had two sons, who, the usual oxen not being available, harnessed themselves to the cart used to bear her to the temple. The mother, touched by this act of filial devotion, prayed that the gods would grant her sons the greatest happiness known to mortals. Hera, with the questionable approval of the other gods, caused the boys to fall gently asleep, never to awaken; for easy death in early youth was the sweetest boon available to mankind.

The relief was restored in terms of this legend. A lattice at the woman’s feet was made into a wagon with a wheel, and a rope-end in one boy’s hand became a wagon-tongue. The ornamentation was enriched, the contours of the sculpture developed, the depth of the carving deepened. All manner of detail stemmed from the new interpretation. The relief was dated on the basis of the restoration—falsely dated. What had originally been pure ornamentation was assumed to be representative sculpture and treated accordingly. What had been a temple was falsely identified as an ædicula, or shrine. Herodotus’ fable was inaccurately decked out in many ways. The whole concept of the restoration was wrong. Indeed, the relief had never illustrated a story from Herodotus. Herodotus had never been “illustrated” at all in the works of antiquity. The cart was a free invention on the restorer’s part. It was provided with ornamental spokes such as never had existed in ancient times. The wagon-tongue and the strap about the oxen were also pure inventions. And so this single example shows how many misconstructions can arise once one has strayed off the right track.

The writings of Herodotus are a bubbling spring of information on antique works of art, their creators and their dates. The works of ancient authors of all periods are the foundation pillars of hermeneutics. Yet how often archæologists have been misled by them! For, after all, are not creative writers rightly concerned with a higher truth than that of literal reality? Are they not justified in using historical fact—and myth, of course—as so much raw material subject to alteration and reshaping according to their personal whim in order to achieve an artistic form?

Authors lie, the literal man says. And if we conceive poetic license to be a lie, we must admit that the ancient authors have erred quite as much in this respect as later ones. The archæologist must use great effort to cut his way through the thicket of data provided by the ancients. For instance, to date the Olympian statue of Zeus, most famous gold and ivory piece by Phidias, it is important to know the circumstances of the sculptor’s death. Ephorus, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Philochorus all give different accounts. He is supposed to have died in prison, to have escaped, to have been executed in Elis, to have died peacefully in that city. Philochorus’ version was finally confirmed by a papyrus published in translation at Geneva in 1910.

The above account gives some idea of the contrarieties the archæologist must oppose with shovel and much exercise of good judgment. To explain archæology’s critical methods; the accepted ways of seeing, drawing, and describing; the interpretation of myths, literature, inscriptions, and coins, the correlative interpretative approach, which takes into account other sculptures, the location, physical arrangement, and mileu of the find—to go into all these matters would exceed the bounds of a single volume.

Take, for instance, the object illustrated below this paragraph. For the sake of those who find pleasure in testing their wits, I ask: What is it?—hastening to add that archæologists themselves have yet to agree on an answer.

The mysterious dodecahedron with the pentagonal ends.

Judging by its external appearance as shown in the picture, it is a bronze object shaped like a pentadodecahedron. Round openings of various sizes are found in the center of each face. The interior of the object is hollow. All specimens of this artifact have been found north of the Alps, which indicates a Roman origin.

One interpreter sees this mysterious thing as a mere toy; another as a die used in games of chance; a third as a model used in teaching the measurement of cylindrical bodies; a fourth as a candleholder.

What is it?

Since this book was first published, I have received over a hundred answers to this question from both experts and laymen all over the world. The experts’ explanations tend to be quite authoritative in tone, though they contradict each other. The most probable solution—though far from established—is that we have here a musical instrument.

1 See “The Ideal Archæologist” by Leonard Woolley, in C. W. Ceram, ed.: Hands On the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1966), p. 13.

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