Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Emotions of Archaeology

I'm currently reading though The Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter.  Carter was one of the excavators of King Tut's tomb in the 1920's.  As was par for the course in the early days of archaeology, his book is a mixture of dry descriptions of the finds and exciting narrative about the discovery, and from time to time he provides personal insights into his emotions during the dig.  As he describes his entrance into one of the rooms, he writes this:

Small and simple as it is, the impressive memories of the past haunt it none the less.  When, for the first time, one enters a room such as this, the sanctity of which has been inviolate for more than thirty centuries, a sense of reverence, if not of fear is felt on the part of the intruder.  It seems almost desecration to trouble that long peace and to break that eternal silence.  Even the most insensitive person, passing this inviolate threshold, must surely feel awe and wonder distilled from the secrets and shadows of that tremendous past.  The very stillness of its atmosphere, intensified by the many inanimate things that fill it, standing for centuries and centuries as pious hands had placed them, creates the sense of sacred obligation which is indescribable and which causes one to ponder before daring to enter, much less to touch anything.

One of the appeals of archaeology has always been to touch and see things that have been concealed for centuries.  Even a volunteer on an average dig can feel this sense of awe when he stops to think about the thousands of years that separate him from the last human being who ever touched the artifact that lies before him.

And herein lies one of the most valuable aspects of archaeology ... In a way, it brings us in direct contact with the past, and it serves as a reminder that the people who lived so long ago were just like you and me.  They lived in this same world and had real problems.  Although those problems often looked different in the details, deep down they were similar to things we face today: financial problems, health problems, interpersonal problems, etc., etc.  And most importantly, they had available to them the same God that still reaches out to us today.  They had to have real faith in a real God and trust Him to help them through the trials of life.  So the next time you read your Bible and slip into thinking that the biblical characters were some sort of spiritual superheroes, remind yourself that they were just like you.

Quotation from Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (London: Cassell, 1923-; Reprint: Washington D.C.: National Geographic Adventure Classics, 2003), 199.