22 March 2009

Archaeology in Fiction: “Naked and Defenseless as All Dead Things”

Fast forward to Earth, billions of years in the future. The resources of the world have been used and reused, and the sun itself is dying. Severian, the protagonist and narrator, flees from his pursuers by climbing down an eroded cliff-face:
In Saltus, where Jonas and I stayed for a few days and where I performed the second and third public decollations of my career, the miners rape the soil of metals, building stones, and even artifacts laid down by civilizations forgotten for chiliads before the Wall of Nessus ever rose. This they do by narrow shafts bored into the hillsides until they strike some rich layer of ruins, or even (if the tunnelers are particularly fortunate) a building that has preserved some part of its structure so that it serves them as a gallery already made.

What was done with so much labor there might have been accomplished on the cliff I descended with almost none. The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well…

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river.
- Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor

Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun is a fun read for the classicist – his forest of Greek and Latin neologisms (like “chiliad”, for 1,000 years) give the story an air of strange antiquity, and a good excuse to bust out Lidell and Scott to track down his more obscure coinages. According to the author, the books are a ‘translation from a language which has not yet come into existence’, just one of many ways Wolfe hints that time is not a linear as it seems.

In this world, geology and archaeology are not much different. A giant cliff is made of archaeological deposits; the earth itself is a gigantic archaeological site. There is no wilderness, nowhere that people have not lived or touched, no difference between natural and cultural landscape. (The concept of ‘natural landscape’ is an oxymoron anyhow, since the idea of ‘landscape’ is a cultural construct – but that’s another discussion.)

I like this passage because it captures something very real about how we experience ruins. We get a glimpse of some fragment as we pass through. We know there’s a pattern there, some larger story, but can’t quite put it together no matter how much we puzzle over it. At the same time, much of its power is in its fragmentary state, the fact that the ruin is a tangent from another world. A bit of four-dimensional geometry that breaks up the fabric of time, and shocks us out of our assumptions about our surroundings.

Wolfe describes the past as “naked and defenseless”, and in a sense it is. Archaeologists have had to grapple much less with the politics of their discipline – and especially its colonialist and imperialist baggage – because our subjects are dead and cannot resist us when we speak for them. Yet at the same time, ruins destabilize our present, and force us to account for their unexpected presence at our shoulder. That’s the contradiction of archaeology: it is a way of orienting and rooting ourselves, but it is also the source of disorientation and confusion. We resolve it with stories about the past, but under those stories are material things that will never tell us whether our tales are right or wrong.

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