The Past: What We Know, What We Don’t

I was writing about cancer and medical knowledge we’ve accumulated over the last few millennia, when I realized that I’d gotten more off-topic than usual.

For me, that’s saying something.

When I catch myself rambling I’ve got options. Sometimes I delete and start over from where I was making sense; or copy and paste the ramble into a text file for later use, delete and start over.

Sometimes I delete, get up, make myself a cup of coffee, and try desperately to remember what, if anything, I had in mind.

This time, my train of thought wasn’t so much derailed as rerouted to another line. When I looked out the window; I’d reached an entirely different region.

What I’d written looked interesting, though, at least to me, so I kept going for a while; and that’s where this post comes from.

Like the title says, it’s about what we know and what we don’t about the past: and why we’re not all that certain about so much.

Museums and Cuneiform

The model shows how the Ishtar Gate fit into Babylon’s inner city wall. It was an impressive bit of architecture in its day, and still is.

Radomir Vrbovsky took a photo of the gate while he was visiting the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin.

A few decades back some folks dug their way down to the gate, while studying Babylon. They thought it’d make a nice display in another part of the world.

I’m not quite sure what I think of my civilization’s habit of digging up artifacts, and occasionally buildings, and putting them on display elsewhere.

It’s educational, and can help scholars study long-gone cultures. It can be a way of honoring them, or an opportunity to do so.

But descendants, biological and cultural, of the original owners aren’t always happy about the new arrangement. And that’s another topic.

The writing on that clay tablet is cuneiform. It’s an earlier version of the information storage and retrieval tech you’re using to learn what I had in mind while writing this. Cuneiform was designed to get put on clay tables with a blunt reed.

If you’re reading this post in my native language, English, we’re both using one of the Latin alphabets. They’re derived from Latin script, a phonetic data storage technique based in turn on the Euboean alphabet.

That’s one of the early Greek alphabets. Greeks started their alphabets by using symbols from the Phoenician alphabet, the oldest alphabet we’ve found so far.

Technically, cuneiform isn’t an alphabet, and that’s yet another topic. Folks used it in various forms for something like three millennia. Cuneiform tablets got baked after writing, which made documents remarkably durable.

Problem was, when folks stopped using cuneiform they also stopped teaching their kids how to read cuneiform, so we had to re-learn that in the 19th century.

Finding things like the Rosetta Stone, where the same ideas were recorded in cuneiform and in at least one language we remembered. The Rosetta Stone doesn’t include cuneiform, but its message was in Egyptian hieroglyphs and a language we had retained. That made Egyptian hieroglyphs readable again, more or less.

Getting back to that clay tablet, it’s the Code of Hammurabi’s Prologue, or most of it. A nearly-complete copy is on a basalt stele currently on display in the Lourvre, with exact duplicates in Chicago, the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kampen, Berlin, and Tehran.

If they’re as durable as the original, each of those duplicates of a Babylonian law code written in Akkadian could endure for a few millennia. It’s likely enough that records of what they are and how they got to where they will be found won’t.

If that happens, archeologists will have a very interesting puzzle on their hands.

Wizard Oil and Linear A

I’m not surprised at the mix of magic and medicine in surviving Egyptian texts.

We have documents from Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, but it’s far from a complete picture.

Written records are good to have, but we can learn about ancient cultures from the other stuff they leave behind.

That’s a good thing, since we only have the equivalent of about two typewritten pages from the Minoan civilization. We don’t even know what they called themselves. (March 12, 2017)

Problem is, what we assume is the Minoan language is in Linear A, a writing system that probably isn’t related to any other known language. But we’re not sure. What we are certain about is that we can’t read it.

Then there’s the Indus script. It’s probably writing, fancy decorations, or something else. We don’t know.

Unanswered Questions

Think of what we know about the ancient world this way — say that around the year 5600, someone like me is writing about whatever we’ll be calling the North American branch of Western civilization.

If the scenario sounds vaguely familiar, I spun a similar yarn about the hypothetical Mr. Smythe earlier this month.

Surviving North American records include a complete issue of National Enquirer from 2013, copies of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, the U. S. Constitution’s Preamble, and half of a 1948 Farmer’s Almanac.

A recent dig, about 48 kilometers northwest of the ruins of what scholars think was a dam or possibly a fortification, archeologists uncovered legible business records.

This, finally, will allow them to study the area’s economy. The single-drawer filing cabinet holds the 1992 and some 1994 inventory records of a small food service. Tucked at the back of the file drawer is an Agatha Christie mystery.

Finally, there’s the world-famous pride of some museum’s collection: an almost-perfectly-preserved Hamlin’s Wizard Oil advertisement.

Scholars could learn quite a bit, and extrapolate more, from that source material. But they might be astounded when archeologists found a complete, relatively undamaged, “Black’s Medical Dictionary,” 39th edition.

That’s all hypothetical, of course. My branch of civilization may leave as many documents and artifacts as ancient Egypt’s. Folks in a remarkable number of places use English for trade and commerce, so there’s even a chance that our language will be remembered.

As for doing something worth remembering, that’s yet again another topic.

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
(“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818))

More; not particularly related, but reflecting our efforts to understand this world — also our so-far-unsuccessful efforts to find neighbors:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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