Saturday, 6 February 2021

Rubbish

There is a received image of archaeologists as lean, snowy-haired old men who spend their time on distant Anatolian hillsides, caressing the earth with a toothbrush in a narrow trench marked out by twine strung between small pegs, uncovering great, lost civilisations.  Just as Michelangelo said he saw within the rough-hewn marble block a statue, complete and fully-formed, which he then liberated with his mallet and chisel, so the archaeologists seem to be hunting for entire Atlantises drowned not by the surf but the sand, to be freed with a trowel and a bucket.  According to this view, archaeology is the combination of a recondite skill, an upmarket academic dowsing, with a kind of genteel, Surrey-garden delving such as you might apply to the cultivation of delicate orchids.

This is total rubbish.   For archaeology is actually about sifting through the detritus of ages, wading into the refuse tips of history, digging past all the old fish bones and rubble and pulling out an ancient - broken - bottle once used for storing horse embrocation fluid.

The past, as the word itself suggests, is to do with things which are finished with.  By definition, everything that is not being employed or kept for a purpose is either intentionally thrown away, lost or destroyed.  The archaeologist is concerned, therefore, with a class of objects conjugate to those which survive in use.  If they are not sorting through the successive layers of broken pots at the bottom of a well - a rich mine of old, dropped junk - then they are scrabbling for coins among the foundations of burnt cities like a posse of latter-day looters.

Certainly, there are finds which transcend these activities.  The hidden tombs of the Pharaohs, the great heroic ship burials, the vast ossuaries - all these may offer the archaeologist richer treasures than the base rubbish dumps.  Skeletons are often undisturbed; perhaps even the skin and hair remain where embalming has been carried out.  They will probably be adorned with dazzling jewels, and alongside there may fine furniture, earthenware, a comprehensive array of domestic items for the next world.  Understandable indeed is the archaeologists' joy when they happen upon such troves and cart them off to a museum.  It is unfortunate, then, that in doing so they act no better than the other grave-robbers they curse.

Whatever our feelings about the archaeologists' activities in despoiling graves or rooting around in old ordure, there is an interesting implication.  For ancient history emerges as predominantly the study of rubbish, supplemented perhaps by an odd document here or there - itself thrown away and preserved only as hidden backing to a later book.  A civilisation is known not by its ephemeral artistic achievements, but by the perdurable pile of leftovers from the great feast of its daily activities.

On this basis, then, ours will be a deathless civilisation; our fame - and our rubbish - will live for ever.  In our huge though blind generosity, we have donated to posterity unimaginable tons of the stuff, sitting there in the earth, buried like a dragon's hoard, waiting for future archaeologists to stumble across it, to enjoy and appreciate as only they can.

(1989)

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