Digging through the layers of the past
When I was young, I used to dream of hiking in the woods and coming upon some ramshackle cabin, long abandoned, and discovering a trove of old coins buried in the dirt floor.
As a young man, upon buying a house, I imagined that while weeding or digging up the backyard for one reason or another I would find an old Native American arrowhead, or some kind of peculiar implement or talisman.
Years later, I can report that I have retrieved my share of 1950s nails and 1960s bottle tops, curiosities perhaps but nothing museum-worthy, headline-grabbing, or fortune-making.
And yet, you never know. So you keep looking.
Such is the nature of our curiosity. What are we walking on? Living on? What lies under the ground on which we trod? A number of scary movies have derived from those kinds of musings, but exploitation aside, there is an undeniable allure in digging down and peeling back the layers of history.
Some searches are modest. But some are spectacular. Like one in the news recently with a Guatemala dateline. It was in the north of that Central American country that researchers from the United States, France, and Guatemala reported they had uncovered a large 2,000-year-old Mayan civilization buried under a rainforest.
When they say “large” they mean 1,000 settlements across 650 square miles connected by 110 miles of elevated roads called causeways. With pyramids. And ball courts. And canals and reservoirs.
Buried, under a jungle.
The discovery was made, like some other recent finds, with LIDAR — light detection and ranging — which uses laser light rather than radio waves to scan mammoth rainforests from the air, penetrate the dense vegetation, and reveal what is in the ground beneath them.
It’s like something out of the movies, magical yet real. But it’s not the only way we dig down into our history. Modern construction, too, reveals the past as when work on a new industrial park last year uncovered the 1,500-year-old Mayan city of Xiol on the Yucatán Peninsula.
In Rome, you can’t build anything without running into the past, as with — famously and recently — a new subway called Line C. It has unearthed a Roman military barracks, thousands of artifacts, and an ancient home with mosaic floors and frescoes that somehow are nearly intact.
In Egypt in November, archaeologists discovered yet another in a seemingly endless series of pyramids, this one belonging to an unknown queen from more than 2,500 years ago.
And more modestly, even here, on Fire Island, an autumn storm uncovered wreckage believed to be the pre-Civil War ship SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, though it did so largely by virtue of its sails. Two years later, in 1821, it ran aground and broke up on our shores.
Our attraction to these stories is easily understood. We want to understand more about our origins. A story of ancient ruins unearthed is a grand manifestation of our simpler genealogical searches, both revealing the layers of time. If we can better understand our ancestors, we might better understand ourselves. Because we’re all part of this continuum of humanity.
One afternoon a few years ago, I was extending a garden in the front yard when my shovel went down about 12 inches and hit something hard. Excited, I quickly dug around the object and pried out — a brick. In a row of bricks. There for whatever reason, but not of any significance, at least none that I could tell. And yet . . .
History is underfoot. Where, we never know.
n COLUMNIST MICHAEL DOBIE’S opinions are his own.