The Archeology of The Future
I think a lot about what archeology will look like in the future.
Not what the science of archeology will look like, but what of our culture will remain.
How will it look here in 1,000 years and how will those things be interpreted by future archeologists?
I imagine the land I live on in Los Angeles – a hill covered with apartments — as it would have been a hundred years ago; a beautiful hill with trees and green pastures where bees and birds buzz around like a scene from Fantasia.
Nothing like now LA — strip malls and a mangle of freeways.
A thousands of years from now the apartment buildings will be gone. Vacated long ago, or bombed from some unexpected future war between America and a country that doesn’t exist yet.
Concrete rubble, some old chairs strewn about like in a ghost town. The rusting metal skeletons of old structures will be grown over by vines with snakes and spiders running amok.
Why is the future so much more bleak than the idyllic past?
The future is misunderstood because we can’t go there.
Time turns The Now into a Roman ruin. Once grand and majestic white marble and granite. Riches and Roman emperors.
In the future, a pile of jagged rocks.
I’ve always been drawn to digging things out of the dirt. Things caked in dirt are shrouded in mystery. Rocks, bits of culture, dead Romans.
Mysteries that contain stories.
As a kid, I once found a large nail in the ground in my backyard. I was told by my parents that it was an old railroad spike, despite our house being nowhere near a railroad.
It made myself think about the past. Did a railroad go through here at one time? What else is in this ground?
The past had left clues without meaning to. The spike was a ghost, a moment in time trapped inside an object.
An anthropology major in college, I worked at archeological sites in Rome the summer I turned 18. I sat outside in the humid Italian summer listening to the buzz of passing Vespas and sifted through shoe boxes filled with ancient shards. They were mostly terracotta, plain and boring, like the stuff we dug up in our backyard as kids.
Some shards had interesting patterns or Roman writing, nothing Indiana Jones would bother with.
This was not the archeology I signed up for, I thought, writing numbers on each piece as instructed by the real archeologists.
I was sent to another site which was discovered when the city of Rome tried to construct a new building and ran into more ancient Roman stuff.
Most excavations are a big hole in the ground, but this hole was bursting with human skeletons.
I was handed a trowel and told to crawl into the pit and scrape away at a pelvic bone. It was still attached to the spine.
Who was this person whose hips I was cleaning? I wondered as I scraped at packed dirt between sections of vertebrae.
The site had a thick sulfuric stench. They claimed we were close to a sewer line, but I had to wonder, as I picked away at the deceased — was this the stench of death?
These bones were not laid out neatly like in a cemetery. It was a mass grave site, bones piled on top of each other. A bit of skull here, part of a femur there. The pelvis I was assigned to didn’t have legs attached or a head anywhere.
These bodies had been dumped here.
This, I thought, is archeology. A morbid and smelly mystery. Picking at bones and getting dirty in a big dirt hole.
Archeology tells us a story of the past in objects.
Pieces of things that when put together give us a map of what life was like way back when. If we’re lucky, there is language somewhere in the clues. And if we’re REALLY lucky, we’ll be able to interpret that language to understand the story of a piece of the past. A language we don’t know that’s made of antique garbage.
If we thought about the clues we leave would we do things differently? Would it make us consider our mortality more seriously?
Death is the one thing we know is certain, after all.
From the hill where I live, I can see the skyline of downtown LA. I imagine what it will look like in a thousand years.
It will likely be a pile grown over and covered with grass and trees and buzzing creatures.
It will go back to its former idyllic beauty, and if archeologists decide to dig beneath it they can make up a story based on our ancient garbage.
Pamela Parker 2022