One of the strangest features of archaeology to my mind is that it is, almost exclusively, a field focused on studying ruins and other such sites. This might not seem so odd at first glance, but think about it – archaeology is the study of those things which humanity has left behind. One does not generally excavate a site that is inhabited today, or at least not the parts of it still in use. One excavates empty cities and buildings, the abandoned and the lost. Often those sites of greatest value are those brought down by some cataclysmic event and preserved frozen in their prime, like Pompeii. Archaeologists, to learn more about past and present, study that which has died, been lost, or been thrown away.
This focus would seem to make the whole field somewhat morbid. Archaeologists spend the vast majority of their time among the dead and the forgotten. The people they study are not only long dead, but lost to history, their culture and way of life forgotten. Humanity moved on, left these people and places behind. They are often the root of modern things, to be sure, but the reason why they pass into the purview of the archaeologist is because they collapsed. They grew, flourished, withered, and died, and in doing so left the bare skeleton that an archaeologist seeks to give flesh.
I note this tendency not only because it all seems a bit depressing, but because it tempers what we know and study of the past, the things we have to learn from. More is known about the burial practices of many peoples than is known of their lives. More is known of ancient cities that succumbed to the desert or the jungle than of those that became our modern metropolises. More is known of some cultures that fell out of existence than of some that grew and changed into those of the present day. The dead speak to us, those things that were lost tell us of those that were not. Pompeii, for one, was destroyed, but remains preserved, like a bug in amber, as a record of those cities that lived. The “bog people” were killed and cast out, but remain as the best witnesses to their contemporaries. The great cities of the Maya disappeared into the jungle, but persist as a record of their greatness. It is only from the forgotten that we may learn.
One wonders what we will leave for the archaeologist of the future. A city abandoned after some nuclear disaster, perhaps? Some massive industrial complex that fell silent with a change of the economy? It will not be those things that continue, for the most part. It will be those that we allow to sink away, to wait in the darkness for new life as new discoveries. Those things that we forget will become, for the world, our memory.