What Is Vanishing: Some Artifacts of
Saudi Arabia and Manhattan
by Megan Harlan
“The past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the
most surreal of subjects — making it possible…to see a new beauty in what is
–Susan Sontag, “Melancholy Objects,” On Photography
We’re treasure-hunting again in the open desert of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. This being my family, the treasures we seek are nothing so obvious as jewels or money. What we are after is broken beyond repair, rare and often perplexing in origin, at once priceless and almost certainly unsellable. This combination of attributes is irresistible to my people.
All around us, sand dunes stretch through glass-crisp atmosphere to the horizon, free of towns and roads, trees and any other living, rooted thing. Look on a map, and it might appear we are in the middle of nowhere, though, of course, it won’t be labeled like that since “nowhere” is not a location but rather a judgment of value, presumed to be so clear it doesn’t even need naming. And it is always wrong.
My parents’ friend, a petrochemical geologist and amateur archaeologist who works with my father, invites us on his many trips to this place, like the one today. He’s recreated in our minds what vanished here many centuries earlier, an incense trade route. It once ribboned the Arabian Peninsula, connecting camel caravans southward to Oman, north to what was once Mesopotamia, to routes continuing westward to the Levant and Egypt, or heading east, overland into what are now the national borders of Iran and Afghanistan, India and China. He’s taught us how to find its remains, a technique that requires no tools, no machines, only the sharp eye and long patience of a beachcomber.
The sand is pale as bone; any dead animal desiccates swiftly to bone; a bright bone glare sunburns us from the ground up. So we look for dark patches, any fleck of darkness on the ground. These could be pieces of glassware or pottery, or, if we’re observant and lucky, a grouped or ring-like pattern, the sign of a long-ago fire pit. Because the sands shift with the winds, every time we return to this stretch of desert over many months, it looks different, re-contoured by traveling dunes, and reveals new ancient things.
Like a tiny buoy drifting along the desert’s rippled surface, a blackened half-circle catches my eye. I pick up a corroded coin and brush sand away from the sun-warmed remnants of a Roman face. We’ve already found a few of these silver coins; they might have been minted nearly anywhere the Roman Empire once existed. We will add it to our collection of treasures: Assyrian red pottery fired four thousand years ago; palm-sized stone loom weights pre-dating the Old Testament; glass sections of thousand-year-old Egyptian perfume bottles; lapis-lazuli beads shaped like rigatoni and carved in Mesopotamia, back when that was a place; and–my favorite, simply for their looks–thick earthenware potsherds glazed deep teal hailing from medieval Iraq. We found those in a fire pit formation, the biggest shard about a foot long.
The geologist has taken many such artifacts to the British Museum for identification. He’s given my parents mimeographed field guides to Aramaic and Akkadian script, to the crosshatch patterns of ancient pottery styles found on the Peninsula dating from 5000 BCE onward. And so our outings have pieced together a world history lesson for me as tactile as it is fragmented, as international as it is pre-national, as commerce-based as it is priceless: A random, broken assortment of the ancient world’s caravan-worthy treasures, plucked from the Saudi sands in the late-1970s by me, an American kid, and my family.
There I stand in my Here Today Gone to Maui T-shirt and white sun hat, staring at a coin someone lost two thousand years or so earlier. That person and I are linked, one hand holding the coin to the next, across a vertiginous span of time. It’s a thought that keeps flashing inside me like a trick of light, a reflection off the atomized quartz landscape. Someone dropped a coin during the Roman Empire, and much of recorded history later it’s picked up by a kid in sand-filled sneakers.
* * *
Months pass before the geologist confides a secret to my parents. North of the incense route, he discovered two enormous jars, tall as he is, buried in the sand. They are in near-perfect condition, he says, but are too heavy to move, so he has buried them further, hoping that someday they and the site around them can be properly excavated. They are in an ideal environment to be preserved, in fact, lolling amid dunes, since archaeological pieces are often stored in fine sand. If, that is, the jars can survive two imminent threats.
The first: Saudi Arabia’s most extremist mullahs and their followers, bent on destroying evidence of non-Islamic religious cultures within the Kingdom for being infidel, whether Jewish, Christian, or any of the polytheistic faiths that once thrived across the peninsula. The geologist tells us about a recent case, the smashing to bits of some 2,500-year-old remains of a long-vanished Jewish settlement on the Arabian Gulf coastal island of Tarut, about thirty miles from where we are standing. Though the Saudi Arabian royal family has regularly supported archaeological excavations throughout the Kingdom, news of the finds is suppressed from public release, lest they attract the angry attention of zealous Islamic fundamentalists. It’s an example of the philosophical divide between the ruling Ibn Saud family and the Wahhabi Islamic leaders with whom they’ve had a complicated alliance since the country’s inception as a modern theocracy.
The second group that threatens the archaeological history of Saudi Arabia are people just like us. More precisely, people that are us. And not just the people squirreling away Roman Empire coins into the pockets of their shorts. The geologist and my dad are employed by Bechtel Corporation, itself hired by the Saudi Arabian government in 1975 for what will be–to this day–the world’s largest civil engineering project, the construction of the petrochemical metropolis of Jubail. One perpetual irony of the construction and engineering industries is that excavations for new building often reveal very old buildings right before threatening to destroy them. The geologist knows that Bechtel’s Jubail project is helping to expose for the first time and also partially demolish some archaeological remains from what he believes are–and will indeed turn out to be–one of the ancient world’s oldest and most sophisticated civilizations.
Granted, this is a culture very few people alive today have heard of; it was legendary, oh, say, two thousand years ago. The Arabian coastal civilization of Dilmun was first cited in Sumerian texts circa 3200 BCE as an expansive seaside country of great wealth, advanced maritime trade, and artesian-fed gardens, with urban centers dotting the northern and western Gulf region, including the earliest incarnation of Jubail. By 2100 BCE Dilmun is named as the garden paradise in which Gilgamesh searches for a plant that gives eternal life. Some archaeologists and historians believe the story of Eden–and other garden paradises featuring eternal life, a common theme in ancient Middle Eastern religious traditions–was based on a location in Dilmun.
As for the geologist’s buried jars, they might have fallen off a camel however many centuries ago, or they might have been connected to the mythic culture of Gerrha. It is another long-lost civilization, right down there with Dilmun in obscurity, though once described by Greek geographer Strabo as the wealthiest place on earth. The Gerrhan capital of Thaj–a city filled with Greco-inspired architecture, exquisite gold work, and remnants of the largest marketplace of the Gulf region, starting in the third century BCE–will, years later, be excavated several miles north of our incense route walks.
Yet it is not evident that the areas in and around Jubail comprised a nexus of built human culture for thousands of years. By 1978, virtually no visible ruins of these places remained. Jubail is described to the Westerners moving there at the time as a sleepy fishing village whose main industry, besides fishing from traditional wooden dhows, is free-diving for pearls. Saudi Arabia itself occupies a curiously redacted space in world history, often in those years boiled down to a quick study of Muhammad, the development of Islam, and the oil industries.
But the “Saudi” I get to know on those walks–for that is what my family calls the country, as if we were on a familiar, first-name basis with it–contains a lightly buried history of human civilization’s deep, wandering roots. It traverses well beyond any versions of the peninsula then propagated by the Saudi Arabian or American governments, beyond any Islamic fundamentalist propaganda or Western stereotype. It contains the archaeological objects I’ve come to see as crucial evidence for what is always missing from view, for what has almost been obliterated, for the way almost everything–but not everything–disappears. Up pop these objects out of “nowhere” and lost histories get rewritten right into our present day. How we value these histories depends on the degree to which we see all human beings as interconnected, even across extraordinary versatilities of place and time, and in ways we can always do more to imagine.
Foley Square1Map New York, Five Points
In October 1991, I’m 21 years old and working for Bechtel, really a construction development partnership called Bechtel-Park Tower Properties, in an office building at 52 Duane Street in Lower Manhattan. My father finagled me an interview for the position, the assistant to the comptroller, and it’s my first full-time job. I’m two months into living in New York, where I’ve moved to attend New York University’s graduate program in creative writing. My workdays are filled with accounting spreadsheet programs in which, on the sly, I write the poems I’ll bring to Jean Valentine’s evening workshops.
Outside the tall windows of my boss’s office where my desk is stationed, I have a view rare for this centuries-old, workaday part of Manhattan, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Just past tiny Elk Street, I look onto a vast empty lot and see daylight and bare ground. The foundation for a new building is being dug, already carved down about fifteen feet below street level by backhoes rumbling across the site where Duane Street ends at Broadway’s streaming traffic.
Every day, my attention wanders further away from my work inputting accounts receivable. Alongside the construction workers and banana-yellow Cats, people with the neatly casual, unweathered look of graduate students fill the site in ever greater numbers, many of them female, in jeans and sneakers, holding fine tools or little notebooks. They are archaeologists hired to excavate the site.
I know this because word of the archaeological discovery during the building dig has traveled the streets, literally airborne: “Old human remains.” Rumors, speculations, and jokes about the remains circulate everywhere, while I’m buying falafels from the Palestinian street vendor or a bialy from the Hasidic morning bakery; while I’m standing along the site’s chain link fence with the Wall Street guys, the lawyers, the Brooklyn administrators, the cops, and the scores of bike messengers, all hanging around on a break, chattering our curiosity and blarney. The bodies could be New Amsterdam-era Dutch people. The bodies are definitely Revolutionary War soldiers. The bodies might belong to Algonquian people from before the city was founded. And this wild theory: It’s got the Mafia written all over it.
But in October the rumors end. During a press conference attended by Mayor David Dinkins at the site, the archaeologists announce they’ve uncovered part of an enormous cemetery for African slaves and free African people dating from the 1690s to the 1790s. Only a few maps from the Dutch and English colonial eras designated its existence. It’s a place no one believed was possible to have survived the centuries of building on top of it.
The discovery of the African Burial Ground will retell the history of slavery in America through New York City’s buried past. It will forever change the record of how New Amsterdam and old New York was built. Its infrastructure and architecture, its docks and buildings and original roads–such as Broadway and the Bowery–were constructed by African slaves. Their remains bear witness to the manual labor that sometimes literally broke their backs; to living conditions that resulted in nearly half the remains belonging to children. Estimated to contain between 10,000 and 20,000 graves, the cemetery gives evidence that slavery in 17th and 18th century New York City was as widespread and brutal as anything in the South.
But early news of the African Burial Ground’s existence seems to meet with one overriding response in my office: Pity for the builders, tempered by sporting streaks of Schadenfreude.
“The GSA won’t get their offices built any time soon,” says one guy I work with. “They’re screwed.” From him I learn a few key things about our neighbors: The GSA is the General Services Administration, and it’s their new building that’s been halted indefinitely. The delay comes from federal law. If construction of a government building reveals a historically important site, contract archeologists must be brought in to excavate it before building can continue.
And I learn that my employer was similarly “screwed”–at least in the view of my coworker–by the same law earlier in the year. That’s because Bechtel-Park Tower Properties is also working on a GSA-funded project, the development of Manhattan’s new federal courthouse at Foley Square, the city’s largest construction project in three decades. When completed, it will be a lanky beauty as courthouses go, later named for Daniel P. Moynihan. But it’s a project currently halted because of artifacts discovered at the site, an accidental find that will result in the largest archeological dig in New York City’s history.
The courthouse site overlaps what was once Five Points, the notorious nineteenth century slum. About a decade later, Five Points will star as the setting for Martin Scorcese’s movie, The Gangs of New York. A few years later, Luc Sante’s visceral history of Lower Manhattan, Low Life, will be released, and take its place forevermore on my short list of favorite books. But back then, all I know is that Five Points had been packed with poor, mostly Irish immigrants who’d fled the Famine, none of whom had yet been played by Liam Neeson. The site encompasses two blocks between Pearl and Worth, where the early-1800s buildings and their privies and garbage pits were located, the latter considered treasure troves to archaeologists. The number of artifacts retrieved from these fourteen urban lots will be staggering: more than 850,000 objects.
Until that moment, I’ve barely given the courthouse site a thought, too dazzled by my sudden incarnation as a brand new New Yorker, graduate student, and working professional and by a logistical reality that involves hours each weekday of teetering at top speeds across cobblestones and subway stations in my sales-rack corporate outfits. Mostly, I am working hard to ignore how comically out-of-place I feel in my new job, one I’ll manage to keep for another eight months.
That lunch-time I head two blocks east to the site, a wedge-shaped expanse that at first glance looks bombed out, cratered clean away. A few dozen thoughtful-faced people in jeans and sun hats, holding delicate instruments, and mostly covered with dirt–whom I now recognize as archaeologists–stand inside it, inspecting old stone walls or foundations two stories below street level. What had stood here most recently was a large parking lot. But instead of paving paradise, someone in the 1960s had put up a parking lot where tenements with names like “Gates of Hell” and “Brickbat Mansion” once stood.
Named for the five spokes created by the intersection of three streets–Anthony (today’s Worth), Cross (now Park), and Orange (now Baxter)–Five Points was the most populous slum in American history, synonymous in newspaper reports in the 19th century with extreme poverty, brutal street crime, gangs, prostitution, outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis, and the then-shocking fact that poor white immigrants speaking a foreign language–the Irish–lived, worked, and caroused alongside free black people (slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827). Later, when I learn all of this, I will realize that many of those African-New Yorkers had family buried one or two generations earlier in the African Burial Ground. What they felt as buildings rose over their families’ graves can only be guessed.
But that day, what I notice most about the site is its silence, as if this piece of the island had paused. Time seems to have stopped right there, on Worth Street in Foley Square, seems even to be turning, tunneling backward through the hush of buried facts, ones that will–like the African Burial Ground–change history. Time doesn’t seem to do that very often, not in New York.
In the two months since I’ve moved to Manhattan, the city seems barely able to keep its past underground. It is apparently erupting on every street corner. But the coincidence of two major government-funded buildings going to ground the same year and amid the city’s original streets–not to mention four blocks from each other–is unprecedented. Despite being the oldest major city in the United States, New York possesses the nation’s worst record for historical preservation (at least according to the fascinating history of its archaeology, Unearthing Gotham). This aligns with the city’s mythology: New York moves faster than anywhere. New Yorkers rush toward the nearest future, the next gig, deadline, deal. New Yorkers have no time to look back.
A minority of New Yorkers, though, just can’t help looking back: its poets, its wanderers, its history lovers, the people who seek and find meaning in the past as if it were a form of spirituality. People, in other words, like me.
Yet I am also my father’s daughter. I grew up in the large-scale construction and engineering industry. Most of us take for granted that, like any great city, New York is its buildings: The streets these buildings landmark, the shapes and textures they carve through the air, the shadows they cast like eccentrically timed sundials, the views they unfurl from top floors. By necessity, their builders–driven by budgets and deadlines, by staffs of engineers, architects, construction workers, accountants, and lawyers, each with conflicting mandates and priorities–aren’t exactly the poets or philosophers of this world. They sometimes produce monstrosities that will then evolve before our eyes. For example, the Twin Towers were widely reviled when they went up in 1973, but during the nine years I lived in Manhattan, they seemed beloved for their flashy, five-block-high brawn. The old neighborhood will sometimes get razed. The new generation will move in and see it all differently, anyway.
Look closely, and a place toggles across time, all its presents and pasts. A place contains its strata of change, captured in situ, made seemingly solid. But it is barely more solid than its future. And that can be unnerving to notice.
Back near my office, the archaeologists’ work never seems to cease. They work during rainstorms under clear plastic tents where they sift pans of red dirt and inspect their finds. I see them at work after dark, illuminated by floodlights, when I leave the office late.
And discoveries from the African Burial Ground keep rising from the earth. Dozens of beads were found around a woman’s skeleton, I hear one day. Those beads, her bones, the woman I imagine she was, appear in my mind every time I look out the office window. In the coming days, I hear more details about her: the almost disintegrated white fabric she’d been shrouded in, her head aligned to the rising sun according to the burial practice in her native West Africa, the number and quality of beads possibly signifying her role as a revered spiritual leader.
African culture, alongside European, forms the deepest substrata of the city of New York, its built urban landscape: this vast cemetery of its people, the alignment of their graves, containing the cowrie shells and blue beads they considered sacred, the buttons from Revolutionary War jackets, and the silver earrings they once wore. In Lower Manhattan in 1991, no visible landmarks from this original culture remain. It appears to be nowhere, until now.
Two Burial Grounds2African Burial Ground Manhattan
Today, New York’s African Burial Ground is a place, a memorial of sculpture and garden at the corner of Duane and Elk Streets and a National Monument since it opened in 2007. Around the corner is an interpretive center dedicated in 2010 to the site’s history and artifacts, tucked into the ground floor of the GSA administrative building, the one that did finally get built next to my old office at 290 Broadway. In 2013, I visit both places.
Among many other stories, the interpretive center details the controversies and travels of the site’s human remains after the excavation I witnessed in the early 1990s. First, African-American community members and politicians successfully lobbied to halt construction of a parking tower where the Monument now stands. Then they worked to transfer excavation of the site from the original contract archaeology firm to one experienced in African-American burial grounds and to send the skeletal remains to a leading forensic anthropologist, Howard University’s Michael Blakey, for study. But the various parties involved were divided for years over how the remains should be treated, whether as sacred objects, opportunities for historical research, or both. Finally, the groups agreed that further disturbance of the site’s graves should cease and the 419 individuals already exhumed should be reburied, which they were in a large ceremony in 2003.
And so the Monument reincarnates the African Burial Ground as a literal cemetery and an architectural memorial. Amid the site’s grasses and trees stands an open-air court of polished granite spiraling just below street level and inscribed with languages, symbols, and maps from across the African diaspora. To the west rises a twenty-foot-high granite vestibule, a mirror image of the subterranean depth at which the graves were discovered. All 419 remains of free and enslaved Africans originally buried here are reinterred within these grounds. Their descriptions–nameless, dateless epitaphs now taking place in history (“Burial 284 man between twenty and twenty-eight years”)–are carved into the granite walls. The architect, Rodney Leon, has said he wants the sculpture to be walked through, touched, and experienced by everyone. As I move through it, the memorial feels like a fountain fed from great depths, its curving, reflective spaces mimicking water’s undulating motion, primal force, and meditative pull. But it is the visitors who provide the movement, the force, the meditations; it is we who learn of and remember what it marks.
And the Monument embodies this stark, uncanny fact: No object, no artifact, no matter how rare or extraordinary, can survive the tides of Manhattan and speak above them. In the language of New York, only a place can hold its own, can communicate the degree to which its subject counts, and is designated for permanence. Like nowhere else, New York is a city where the metaphors of location shape its mythology, a shared, tightly wired mythology of cross-streets, parks, storefronts, and neighborhoods that elides with millions upon millions of private ones. At the most basic level, something is important in New York if it has its own address. The interpretive center, however thoughtfully curated its artifacts are, inhabits a space that looks as if it could be replaced with a future Starbucks. A memorial park crafted of black granite, sprawling over 15,000 square feet of prime lower Manhattan real estate and shining with luxurious quantities of natural light changes the map. It speaks to the ages. It means business.
Place is an object of location and so always presumed to be discoverable. Objects in the usual sense have a way of being stolen, of getting crushed to bits, of going missing. In the short term, places so rarely do.
But sometimes they do. And in broad daylight.
* * *
In 1842, Charles Dickens was appalled when he took a tour of Five Points–for which he demanded police accompaniment–and famously reported of it: “All that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” Dickens, though, was never a fan of its most populous inhabitants, the Irish, whom he’d once called a “racially repellent” people. Indeed, Five Points’ infamy as the world’s urban capital of crime, vice, and poverty supplied garish and exciting details for several of the era’s most virulent biases: anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic. Newspaper reports on Five Points throughout the 19th century trafficked in the shock and horror of its purported grotesqueries: gang wars, saloon brawls, and streetwalkers selling papers. And there was some truth to all of it.
The voluminous findings from the Five Points dig at Foley Square in 1991 were studied by a team of archaeologists led by Rebecca Yamin of John Milner Associates. Her group spent years analyzing, cataloguing, and photographing the more than 850,000 artifacts found in the site’s privies dating to Five Points’ 19th century heyday. They cross-referenced building addresses with census, directory, and bank account information to piece together a more complete portrait of the neighborhood’s inhabitants.
In 1997, Yamin sketched out her firm’s unexpected findings in an Archaeology magazine article, “New York’s Mythic Slum: Digging Lower Manhattan’s Infamous Five Points.” The surprise? Five Points was mostly filled with gainfully employed people who saved their money, kept a nice table, and led conventional lives.
True, behind the basement brothel at 12 Baxter in the 1840s were cast-off glass urinals made for women, once used by prostitutes bed-ridden with venereal disease.
But as hundreds of thousands of other artifacts bear witness, most Five Points tenement dwellers worked long hours in regular, if low-paying jobs to purchase the same quality items found in middle-class households: ceramic tea ware and dinnerware from Staffordshire; olive oil bottles imported from Lucca and Marseille; Parisian perfume flasks; redware flowerpots; and the trendy decorative figurines du jour, ceramic Staffordshire dog heads. Five Points children owned marbles, dice, and tea cups inscribed with their first names, just like children from higher-income enclaves.
Many of these humble objects might be found in somebody’s attic or an average antique store. They strike me, each individually, as not so remarkable, similar enough to some random household items that have survived from my own American family ancestry from the 1800s. What is extraordinary is their sheer untouched quantity, their context of having been in situ, right under the streets of Manhattan, where they’d carried on their lifeless existences in nearly the exact condition as when they were discarded, like a sediment layer of the city’s 19th century human culture.
After Yamin’s group finished work, eighteen Five Points pieces were exhibited in a small display at the South Street Seaport Museum. They are all that remain of the artifacts from the Foley Square dig today.
The other 850,000-some objects were archived in the basement of Six World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, when the face of Tower One collapsed on top of that building, every one of the artifacts was destroyed.
A footnote amid the whole-scale mass murder and monumental wreckage surrounding them, their loss is one I learned of while reading The New York Times two months after 9/11, on the other side of the country, no longer a New Yorker by about a year.
Rebecca Yamin will be later quoted in Archaeology magazine: “It’s hard to get emotional about the artifacts; they’re just not significant compared to the loss of human life.”
Artifacts are not significant at all compared to human life. Yet they are significant enough to halt major construction jobs, to spend careers studying, and to rewrite histories of entire places and cultures. Those 850,000 artifacts went fairly rapidly from being historically significant objects no one knew still existed to objects that no longer exist, whose significance is diminished to almost zero within the context of their loss.
But not zero. Not quite.
Almost everything–but not everything–disappeared.
And their story connects the unlikely crosscuts of accident, history, and place so common in archaeology.
The Five Points artifacts–decades worth of junk to their mostly Irish Famine-era owners–survived beyond their burial in privies, after their chance discovery during a massive building dig. Their history was reclaimed after painstaking archaeological work in the twentieth century. Nearly all these objects were destroyed when the Twin Towers fell, at the hands of the terrorist hijackers of two airplanes, who hailed, but for one, from the Arabian Peninsula.
After my family collected the artifacts from the vanished incense route, we took them out of Saudi Arabia when we moved away in 1979. Along with their geologist friend, my parents believed we were preserving the objects from obscurity, radical Islamic fundamentalists, or, their most likely fate, being destroyed by the construction crews that would develop the incense route area over the coming decades into what it is today, the largest industrial city in the Middle East. I know the artifacts do not belong to me. Yet I’m the one who has kept them.
I hold my favorite shard, hailing from Iraq around 1,200 years ago, a chunk of an earthenware pot’s circular base about the area of my splayed hand and standing four jagged inches tall. Teal glaze streaked with cobalt sheathes the exterior, as smooth to the touch as enamel. In its present day, the shard belonged to somebody’s pot for storing food, an ordinary domestic item. But in my hands, across the intervening span of centuries, its original world signals from a great distance, as if in a root language. It’s a world where blue-green pottery transmits a beauty I understand, the color of garden paradise transported into a future I inhabit.
I don’t hold the shard very often. It’s usually wrapped up–along with my other artifacts–in the original canary yellow paper towels my mother used in our Jubail kitchen back in the 1970s, their brown-and-orange floriated patterns still crisp, all of which is tucked into two small Tupperware boxes of similar vintage. Now even the Tupperware and paper towels feel archaeological to me, exotic artifacts of middle-class Americana circa 1979.
My mother has the best incense route pieces locked away in a storage unit; I haven’t seen them in decades. The rest of my collection comprises a mix of real, guessed, and unknown objects annotated by her, including five stone loom weights with eraser head-sized holes, alongside the handwritten note, “2,000 years old (older?)”; a dozen potsherds of black chlorite, the material favored by Eastern Province pot-makers four thousand years ago; and the delicate base and neck of a green glass amphora, for which I have another handwritten note from my then 39-year-old mom: “1,000 years old, Egyptian (good condition — rare!).”
In 2013, the Saudi government launched an unprecedented museum exhibition of the Kingdom’s archaeology, “Roads to Arabia.” Featuring the 100,000-year-long human record on the Arabian Peninsula and co-funded by ARAMCO (the Arabian American Oil Company, in business since 1933), the showing opened at the Louvre in Paris and traveled to several museums around the Western world, including San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, where I saw it in January 2015.
My Tupperware-stored shards are–to a precise degree that startled me–like the reject versions of several pieces in that exhibition: loom weights and black chlorite pots predating the Egyptian pyramids; multi-colored, medieval Egyptian glassware; and a pieced-together, three-foot high Iraqi jar circa 600-800 C.E., the same beautiful teal-glazed earthenware as my favorite potsherd.
Thus Saudi Arabia’s deep history has been introduced to the world stage in one recent fell swoop. What could explain this about-face by the Saudi government, this very public airing of the true complexity of Arabian cultural and religious history, one not limited to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam? The most obvious, cynical, and likely explanation: Its government is engaging in a little PR. Since September 11, 2001, of course, Saudi Arabia represents to the West a different place than the distant, deliriously oil-rich desert lands of my childhood, now infamous as the home country of Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers. How Saudi Arabia leapt up out of “nowhere” to produce so many key players in anti-Western terrorism has never been answered.
We designate “nowhere” at the risk of many kinds of ignorances, and sometimes at our peril. But in my idiosyncratic eye-witnessing of building and archaeology in New York and Saudi Arabia, the history of every place contains a fluid, shape-shifting force. The truth of the past reveals ongoing discoveries rather than any completion.
If nothing else, archaeology saves us from the witlessness of certainty: If history ever seems written in stone, then it’s time to find some more stones. And there will always be more stones. This view of history includes our own. Our pasts are never fixed, at least not as we’ve experienced them, because there is always more to our stories, even if only by searching for it.
When considering artifacts of whatever origin, some questions will dog us: What do we owe to the past? How much of it should we dredge up, how do we use it, and where do we put it? These are ideas we may pick at regarding our own family histories, the stories and belongings that haunt us. Artifacts, somewhat ironically, let in fresh air, opening these questions to a vantage point beyond the personal, beyond the limited range of notes carried by any single human voice. They grant hard evidences of other lives fully lived, cultures fully formed, about which we may know almost or exactly nothing, yet which existed as surely as our own. They transcend our need or reasons for them.
We could crush them into dust, sure. They are, after all, only objects. But they can also survive beyond ourselves, and so connect our experiences of them within a human continuum of cultural exchanges across time and space. We can try to understand each other–even others long dead–across impossible distances this way. We can peer at some artifact up close, be drawn into its original provenance going back dozens, hundreds of generations. That closeness and that distance create its own relationship. We stand in someone’s never-to-be-experienced future, peering at their broken pot. It is touching, yes, that word–but what is it touching and with what is it doing the touching? Our senses of scale and depth, of intimacy and eternity, feel tapped and flexed all at once. Artifacts help us see the whole shape, the real expanse of the human race, our habitation. Even if we individually scatter and dissipate, atomized as sand.
Some things will remain. We can never guess what.
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