Many scholars say that they wish to get the most intimate and personal view of the peoples and cultures they study. Who doesn’t want to feel “in the moment”, like we were standing there alongside our historical subjects? Perhaps dream of being one of them, just for a day. We say those past peoples were human like us, at their core, and we share many human universals such as emotions, sapience, social ties etc, and we’re not so far off despite the technological and cultural changes. However, sometimes that intimacy can feel like it becomes more and more distant. Perhaps it’s due to the splendor of many finds, like they were “larger than life” so to speak, a lost era of glory. On the flip side, some societies seem so primitive and simple that we can’t imagine living like they did! Many tend to think of them as dull primitives, unlike our “advanced” selves.
Whenever I learn about a time period in history, and the many peoples and cultures, I get enthralled in many details, what they wore, what they looked like, what languages they spoke, what they believed about the world and beyond it etc… Sometimes, it can be hard to imagine them as being like us, but I can also see their humanity, I can see that in many ways, we aren’t that far off, we all share basic human nature. However, some details I can come across are much more poignant and resonate with me in unexpected ways. Many, can be guessed as more intimate looks into their humanness, but some can come more out of the blue. Often, it’s the most mundane things, like a clay pot, or a hairstyle, or even an engraving for me. Many little artifacts don’t trigger that intimacy as much, even though I appreciate the knowledge they give is about other cultures, but some just stand out, some for reasons I can’t quite explain.
One huge example of an artifact that made me feel an emotional connection was a little sculpture of a bird found in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany. It dates from the paleolithic and is believed to be about 30,000 years old. It’s exquisitely crafted, and pretty realistic. It looks like it’s diving to get something or in mid-flight. Partly, the thing that amazes me about it is how old it is. Who knew, human beings were so artistically gifted so long ago? It gives one a snapshot of what a prehistoric person saw and rendered. I can almost imagine what that person was seeing when he decided to create it. The other part that struck me was just imagining the craftsman behind the piece. Even though I can’t see who made it, I can imagine a human being crafting it, and leaving it as a trace of his existence. I feel the same way about many artifacts, I imagine the person behind the making of it. I wonder what they felt when they were creating what they made. It stands out in my mind with every sculpture, or brush stroke, or drawing. Some artifacts, especially very ancient ones stand out because they look stunningly modern! These two bison carved on a rock look very realistic, so realistic that I would be tempted to think a modern person made it! Many time periods have their own unique style, but I find the realism to be more modern. Whoever made that was more talented than the majority of us! “Primitive” is not a word I would use to describe he skill needed to create that! Other things, like clay pots that resemble a modern style get to me, or designs that are still in use today. Another example is when unintentional blunders happen, like a fingerprint left behind, or a smudge in the ink! This really leaves a trace that a human being was there, and not some perfect automaton that created the find! Sometimes, it’s things like doodles that look like you or I drew them or graffiti saying things that we also say in
graffiti! The closer the resemblance to a modern occurrence, the more poignant it is for me, especially if the find is very old. But sometimes, there are even more intimate finds for me!
What seems most obviously human, human remains such as mummies get to me the most, but not in all ways predictable. Yes, the clothing and personal possessions are very intimate, but what gets me the most are simply the fact that it can look just like you or me. It’s the hairstyle that often makes the most personal connection for me. For example, there’s a female mummy with two braids in her hair. Braids, exactly like the ones I put in my hair sometimes. I can imagine her weaving her hair into a braid the exact same way as I do. It’s amazing to think that this 3000 year old mummy had a hairstyle that was truly unchanged over the millennia. That may be one of the strongest examples that trigger intense emotional feelings in me. Sometimes, it’s just simple human anatomy that strikes me. The Tollund Man, a bog body has a remarkably preserved face. His face still has every wrinkle and looks like he’s sleeping. Now, my logical brain tells me that of course, homo sapiens have the same anatomy since they were homo sapiens, but it still amazes me that people several millennia old still look like us, that all of their physical human features were unchanged throughout all this time. That really boggles my mind!
Overall, I love it when I can get that emotional feeling with a find. It makes me go beyond being solely a scholar, but also connect with humans from the past!
(Well, perhaps that’s a little too close to history! :)