Tag Archives: history

Of Houses and Time

Countless vacant and abandoned houses are scattered over the American prairie and plains, headstones marking the passage of a rural way of life nearly gone as the face of agriculture has changed.  Each house has stories to tell, imprinted in front porch wood, kitchen walls, or the stones of an empty hearth.  A faded curtain moves in the breeze, and for a moment, murmuring voices are heard.  In the arid southwest, homes carved into cliffside ledges mark the presence of an entire civilization.  These Anasazi ruins speak of the passing of “The Ancient Ones,” a people whose origin and fate are unknown.  Stories live here as well, told in voices so old they are part of the land itself.  The Anasazi stone houses, empty now for about a thousand years, are likely to outlast the abandoned rural home of far newer vintage.  When this prairie house is torn down or burned, what will become of its stories?  Photos: Livingston County Illinois, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Apache County Arizona.

Advertisements

The “First Time”

In the beginning, according to ancient Egyptian texts, the universe was a dark and watery nothingness, a shapeless and inert cosmic sea of blackness.  From this void rose a mound of dry land, the Great Primeval Mound, upon which the sun god Ra materialized into form as the deity Atum.  This was the moment of creation, the “First Time.” In ancient Egyptian theology, both the Great Pyramid at Giza and the natural rock outcropping upon which it is built correspond to the Great Primeval Mound.  It is said to be a place of birth, death and rebirth, where time itself began. 

Three languages, one dictionary

On this day in 1799, a black granodiorite rock slab bearing inscriptions in three languages was found near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, 35 miles east of Alexandria.  It was soon determined that the inscriptions were more or less identical, but written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek. 

Although the stone was broken, and parts of each text missing, there was enough of each inscription to allow scholars, for the first time, to cross-translate the heretofore undeciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Credit for this work has been given to French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, although other scholars were involved in the effort. 

The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be called, was in effect, a dictionary, and it could be argued that no other discovery was more significant to the study of Egyptology.  When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the find was widely publicized because of its magnificence and nearly complete array of contents.  But from a scholarly perspective, the Rosetta Stone discovery and subsequent translations was a watershed event.

There are other undeciphered ancient languages awaiting their own Rosetta Stone.  The Indus script of ancient India, and the Rongorongo symbols of Easter Island are probably the two most well-known.  Despite much effort by scholars, these two languages remain largely unreadable.  Are there “Rosetta Stones” waiting to be uncovered which will allow us to read these ancient words? 

The thought that such an object is “out there” somewhere is tantalizing to those who are interested in these subjects.  As well, romantic notions of exploration and discoveries like these are what led to my own lifelong passion for archaeology.  The sublime thrill of discovery, of being the first person to see an artifact, a tomb, a city, in thousands of years drives many a historical researcher in their quests.

What is out there, yet to be found?  We cannot say.  My personal wish list includes The Ark of the Covenant, The Hall of Records, The Holy Grail, and Atlantis, among others.  Fanciful yearnings possibly, but the inspiration and excitement generated by the stories of search and discovery of treasures like these remains as strong inside of me now as it did when I was a boy.  And that is what matters.         

(Rosetta Stone photo in the British Museum by Hans Hillewaert)

When the world was young

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a time when many of America’s children gained their education in one-room schoolhouses.  As much a fixture of rural life as the horse and plow, the schoolhouses vanished as the number of farms dwindled, as people migrated to cities and towns, as the agrarian dominance of the country’s workforce passed away.  Most have been torn down, but here and there an isolated and empty schoolhouse remains.  If you listen closely when it is quiet and the wind is just right, you can hear the voices and laughter of children, carefree and young and full of delight at knowing the world was limitless and it belonged to them.  Ogle County, Illinois (left) and Stephenson County, Illinois (right).

Sic Transit Gloria

Many years ago one could travel nearly anywhere by train.  The journeys could be long, sometimes involving connections with other trains and different railroads, but the process was reliable.  That era has passed, as impatient travelers of today think only of destination and little of journey.  Railroad stations, the portals at the beginning and end of the train-travel journey, have slowly disappeared from small towns and big cities alike.  Now empty, the stations wait along abandoned tracks for trains that will never arrive. Weeds grow where passengers once stood. The travelers have gone elsewhere and the portals have closed.  Lee County, Illinois.