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.

7 thoughts on “Abandonment

  1. At the dawn of every evening, our anticipation for the morrow blossoms and memories of the previous day are stored away. I like your analogy that we, as humans, are fascinated with the unkown or as you put it, we seek to understand that of the dead. True, as a community we do not see the same amount of research invested in learning about the history and culture of historic or modern day New York City. Nevertheless, if one of this great megacity was to fall into disrepair and disintegrate, I bet, as a society, we would find a new fascination in the culture and environment of the neglected community and its past inhabitants. Like Pandora’s box, we humans have an indefinite wave of curiosity. It is our goal to piece together that which is lost. It is our challenge to rebuild the stories that were left behind. On the other hand, we search for clues, and we investigate ruins because this is the only way from which we can aqcuire new knowlegde, new knowledge pertaining to our species’ lost memories. If this information had not been ‘lost’ then we could have easily ask around and received a response. Therefore, one of the main purposes of an archaeologist would vanish. Archaeologists seek to uncover the truth, and the truth can only be found if it has already been lost.

  2. I see the point you are trying to make here, however I have to disagree. Archaeologists do study physically deceased people, old ruins and other things that have been forgotten. But the job of an archaeologist is to keep these things alive. By studying these cultures and sites, the archeologist is helping to keep them relevant and important in the modern world. Even though ancient Rome is no longer flourishing, it lives today in the history books and most importantly in the minds of every curious person that has access to such knowledge. Because of this, they are bringing the dead and the fallen cities back to life. Now that I think about it, archaeology is really the only thing keeping these sites alive. The main goal of an archeologist is to study the cultures of the past and use them to make changes in our own culture. They use the past to help influence the future, so in essence what happened in those past cities is still alive in the cultures of today. Without this living influence from the past, our demise would probably be similar to those of the previously fallen empires and cultures.

  3. It is a fair point to say that the archeologists are in morbid places and im sure they get the willies every once in a while when they walk into a burial mound and something does not feel just right. But at the same time we can see so much change into modern culture and how we developed as a species through the sites they find and excavate. When you said that we dont excavate modern sites and we don’t know how they developed to be that is both correct and incorrect. We may not know the intricacies of how some of the “old” cities were built or the exact types of artifacts they used to build them, but for the cities that are still living we can see parts of the ancient culture still thriving in the people of the city today and that is what these discoveries and excavations are supposed to lead too in the first place. The last part of your post is what intrigues me most and at times it is one of the most interesting things to think about and at other times it is a scary thought to think of what future archeologists may conclude about our generations in the event that our records were destroyed. Would we be seen as a lazy culture a non innovative group of individuals or depending on the circumstances of our demise could we bee seen as savage and ruthless.

  4. I think the points you bring up here (in the original post) are quite interesting. I also really like this post because its not repetitive like the others and is more original. I do understand that archeologists do study the “lost and forgotten” and that they do study the remains of people. It does involve (in a sense) digging up graves, whether they were meant to be graves or were accidental graves. But I do not really think these studies are or should be described or looked at as “morbid.”The way some people may have died or reasons for abandoning their residences may have been somewhat morbid, but the study of these places and people should definitely not be labeled as morbid. I think that archeological studies should be looked at as a treat. How else do we know so many intricate details of ancient Egypt? Or the Mississippians? I also agree with some of the points in a few of the replies. Archeologists try to give the remains as much life as they can. Trying to figure out what their occupation most likely was, their gender, their social class and even their state of health prior to death. Even if archeologists do come to morbid conclusions about these people, they are just presenting the facts, not giving the study of archeology an element of morbidity. These facts can help us as a human race learn and grow. Think those people archeologists found that died for political or territorial reasons is morbid? Then lets try to prevent that from happening today.

  5. Interesting perspective. Especially interesting is a topic that most people don’t think about, but was brought up in this particular blog: the future archaeology of today’s society. Of course it’s a topic of pure speculation since none of us will be around by the time some part of our society is completely lost. Let’s think about it for a moment…

    If we look at ourselves today, we quickly notice that nothing really ever gets truly “abandoned”. We can’t really lose societies anymore; people don’t just get wiped out without other people knowing about it. If a major city or population gets destroyed by some sort of pandemic or physical force, there will be other people to demolish the remains and rebuild without leaving behind any sort of archaeology. If there were to be a true site of a civilization, the civilization would have had to suffer on a global scale. Some sort of MASSIVE pandemic or world war that took out a majority of this earth’s population; a devastation on the scale that actual information about the sites destroyed was lost or unaccounted for.

    So what could afflict this sort of destruction? Nuclear bombs? Unlikely: if nuclear war broke out on such a scale, by the time it was over, the world would probably be inhabitable for several thousand years; humans would no longer inhabit the earth. What I think would have the best shot at generating archaeology of today’s society is a pandemic. If some sort of megavirus took out 80% of mankind, there would definitely be a loss of real estate, as well as information on technology and how to manufacture it. As humans rebuild and repopulate the planet, many cultural/technological differences could potentially arise, making the archaeology of pre-apocalyptic society an interesting endeavor. By the time humans were able to rebuild and repopulate to a level that they would be interested in exploring their past, a number of interesting sites would have developed.

    • While I agree that our civilization has reached a point where it is essentially global and to wipe it out would mean wiping out much of the human race, it is astonishing what a society will forget all on its own. There will always be structures that cost more to demolish than the land below them is worth and areas that, for whatever reason, are left empty. Even landfills could provide a surprising amount of information. That being said, one wonders how much information about our society will be lost with the incredible ability of the internet to provide insight into so many parts of life. It may be that future archaeological finds involve finding and decoding old hard drives.

  6. I really enjoyed your post. I think it was very intuitive and interesting. I am interested in the way that archaeologists research abandoned and sites that are left behind my mankind. The thought of the future looking back and seeing what we have left behind is almost unthinkable, because we really do not know the feeling of abandonment. There is nothing in our society that i can imagine being abandoned any time soon. It doesn’t make sense to us yet. But most likely in the future there will be things that will be left behind by our people that the future people will look at and wonder what “it”meant or what “it” was used for. This idea is so foreign to us that it really is a great topic for discussion and opinion as you did in your post.

    Could you imagine the future looking back and seeing the Grand Canyon and asking what it could have been used for, or how it was formed? What about Mount Rushmore, that would be like our time’s version of the Sphynx.

    The concept of the future looking back at what we abandoned is a very weird thing to think about and even discuss, it is tough to figure out what would be the likely landmarks left behind that would stand out to future archaeologists.

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