Recently I visited a Mayan ruin in the far south of the Yucatan peninsula. Dzibanche, being a relatively new discovery and just far enough away from the coast to escape most tourists, is unusually low key. There are no vendor stalls lining the road. There are active excavations underway. You can even climb to the top of the pyramids or duck inside the cool dark rooms if you want.
We had a wonderful guide, of Mayan descent himself, who explained how each building was used, how the city grew and how it eventually declined, left to be overrun by the jungle.
As he spoke, I felt the same doubt creep in that I do in any situation like this: but how do you really know?
This is no indictment of historians or archaeologists but my own suspicion about what artifacts can tell us.
Perhaps this building was for worship and that building was for paying taxes. Perhaps those fields were for military exercises. Perhaps royalty did roam these hauls. Perhaps right here animals and humans had their throats slit, their blood staining the stones red.
That may all be true, and yet it can only hint at the truth of any culture. For all the sweeping buildings, there were hundreds of thousands of modest homes, long since returned to earth. For all the religious spectacle, there were millions more people who searched the skies – and their hearts – looking for answers, looking for comfort, wondering what it all means.
We look at what is left and try to construct a cohesive narrative about a people, but we’ll never know what we’re missing.
Some day, maybe decades from now, maybe thousands of years from now, people will excavate a portion of this continent and will try to make sense of who Americans were as a people. What assumptions would they make about this era, based only on the rubble?
Clearly, we worship our cars since great areas of land have been cleared just for their use, and we construct house-sized structures to hold them.
We had great and small arenas, some covered and some open to the air where people were forced into combat for the amusement of the crowds. Sometimes the combatants gained their freedom and even some wealth, but more often they were kicked out of the arena after their bodies were broken beyond use.
We seemed blithely unaware of the damage we were doing to our own environment, sending great plumes of smoke into the air, dynamiting the tops off mountains and spewing contaminants into our water. These historians will marvel at our naïveté, just we shake our heads that anyone would assume the weather had to do with a god’s pleasure or displeasure with our sacrifice.
While all these things are true about our culture, they do not tell the whole story. They are only pieces of the puzzle (and only pieces made of rock are likely to survive that far into the future). While they provide a glimpse, they will not be an accurate picture of who we were, and what life was really like in the 20th and 21st centuries.
And so I too will always be skeptical of the stories told in museums and history books. I will recognize that my understanding is limited. I will try to remember that real people walked these streets.
Real people who worried about their father’s failing health and the good-for-nothing boy who’s been hanging around their daughter. Real people who worried about the future and wanted to have faith that things could be better. Real people who made supper and learned skills and yelled at their kids and liked to have a beer now and then.*
Real smiles, real tears. Real misunderstanding about how the world works. Real superstitions and real bad habits. Odd ritual paints for our faces, bizarre costumes and all. (Especially on game day.)
Real people, with bigger stories than our artifacts would indicate.
*Yes, even the most ancient cultures made ale and wine.