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Caring about the past in the embattled present

Growing up in Manhattan meant that I didn’t live among ancient ruins – just subway stations, high-rise apartments, and Central Park’s relatively recent architectural confections. It took living for a year in Europe as a six-year old and for another year as a ten-year old to develop awareness about our collective heritage stretching back millennia. Visiting the vacant site of Stonehenge on a blustery fall day in the early 1960s, long before the introduction of a Visitor Centre and tickets, led me to imagine white-robed druids chanting among the stones. I filled a small bottle with water from the Roman baths in Bath, England, believing that the water itself was 2,000 years old. And I pretended to be a knight while exploring the medieval citadel of Carcassonne in Southeastern France, built atop the remains of Roman fortifications.

Yet as we shake our heads at images of Aleppo’s rubble captured through slow-moving drones, it is hard to explain why attention to the remote past warrants even a millisecond of concern today. Tragedy and misfortune strike people around the globe, hour by hour. From criminal gangs to intolerant governments to natural disasters, our 24-hour news cycle provides an ever-spinning carousel of loss.

In the face of human brutality and environmental devastation, the relevance of archaeology is far from obvious. But to those of us who have sought to illuminate the handiwork of ancient artisans, artists, and architects, and the contexts in which they toiled, the real gift of that study is a balanced perspective about our place in history.

It is possible to be consumed by sadness from footage replayed minute-by-minute on screens of every type. But it is also possible to seek a larger understanding of life, in recognizing that it has always been so.

Before modern medicine, there were neither vaccines nor awareness of preventive treatments. Before satellites, there was no ability to forewarn those in the path of a tsunami. And before video and the Internet, there was no way to reveal acts of violence perpetrated on the innocent.

“The study of antiquity reminds us that the human condition is ever-changing, and that our sense of self is built on the remains of earlier civilizations.”

With each of these advances and countless others, our modern lives have been greatly improved since Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 description in Leviathan of the natural state of mankind as “nasty, brutish, and short”. As more people are lifted out of poverty, generation by generation, we can find consolation in the fact that increased global awareness is spreading among the young, rather than receding, regardless of the vagaries of electoral politics of the moment.

The study of antiquity reminds us that the human condition is ever-changing, and that our sense of self is built on the remains of earlier civilizations. By making room and time for understanding what people believed, how they lived, and what they left behind for us, we stand to appreciate what we do have without forgetting what we can do to better the lives of others.

There are many among us who work to improve the world without interruption—and we are all grateful to environmentalists, firefighters, police, and first responders, medical professionals, members of the military, scientists, social workers, and so many others for their daily efforts. But they too can find perspective and awareness about the value of their work through the lens of history. It is a lens that both sharpens our vision about the day’s events and magnifies otherwise less visible lessons of earlier times, without which we would be an impoverished world, lacking the long view.

By embracing the long view and the examined life that comes with it, we can equip ourselves for thoughtful, purposeful action, leavened by knowledge of antiquity, sensitivity to the present, and clear-eyed hopefulness about the future. For kids growing up in both the canyons of New York and the smoldering remains of postwar Syria, that potential for hopefulness will be an essential ingredient in keeping the human experiment one of promise and possibility.

Featured image credit: “Paestum, Salerno, Italy” by valtercirillo. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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