The Power of the Past

This is a “Preamble” to my senior thesis, called “Possessing the Past: Edward H. Thompson, Maya Archaeology, and the Treasures of the Sacred Cenote.”

I am Nabonidus, King of Babylon, shepherd, named by Marduk, provider for Esagil and Ezida, who multiplies the offerings, who restores the cities of the great gods, with providing hands…Larsa, his resident town, the E-babbar, his house of dilection, which had long been a desert and become ruins, beneath dust and rubble, a great heap of earth, was covered to the point where its setting was no longer recognizable, its plan no longer visible – under the reign of my predecessor King Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabopolassar, the dust was lifted and the mound of earth which covered the town and temple….I placed bricks upon the tenemos of the ancient king Hammurabi. I rebuilt this temple in the ancient style and I decorated its structure. For the link of heaven and earth, his house of dilection, I raised the roof beam. [1]

-Nabonidus, King of Babylon, 556-539 BCE.


So reads a cuneiform inscription on a brick dating to the 6th century BCE found at the Sumerian city Larsa, in modern-day Iraq.  In this epigraph, Nabonidus, King of Babylon, links himself to the monumental remains of his forbears.  By placing his own bricks, and fortunes, atop these ruins, Nabonidus draws a continuity of power and legitimacy that stretches back more than a thousand years to the reign of Hammurabi in the 18th century BCE.  Rebuilding his predecessor’s temple “in the ancient style,” Nabonidus positions himself as the inheritor and restorer of Hammurabi’s legacy.  He raises the roof beam and renews “the link of heaven and earth” established by his predecessor.

As rulers have discovered through the centuries, associating oneself with the prestige of the past, even in its most decrepit form (“a great heap of earth”) is an easy and powerful shorthand for demonstrating authority and legitimacy in the present. The remains of past empires are often used to legitimate new ones.[1]  The past, especially when it manifests itself in the form of monumental remains – henges, pyramids, stelae – has proved a compelling, often enigmatic and irresistible draw throughout human history.   German archaeologists excavating the 7th century BCE palace of Nebuchadnezzar discovered a mélange of statues and tablets representing two thousand years of artistic triumphs from Babylon’s neighbors, and excitedly designated as the world’s first museum.[2]

We see this same impulse at the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes, where archaeological objects representing diverse cultures and periods were found collected together, perhaps presented as objets d’art.[3]  In Mexico, the Aztecs used and imitated Toltec artifacts and held religious rituals in the millennium-old ruins of Teotihuacan.[4]  We see it in the colossal Roman columns from Baalbek, hauled six hundred miles and incorporated into Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, and in the Egyptian obelisk at Paris’ Place de la Concorde.  Four copper horses cast in Greece in the 4th century BCE were taken to Constantinople and installed in the Hippodrome, stolen by Crusaders and removed to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, plundered by Napoleon and removed to Paris, before being eventually returned to Venice.[5]  Antiquities are valuable props in crafting, and staging, historical narratives.  It is no wonder that twenty-six centuries after Nabonidus, Saddam Hussein emblazoned the bricks used in the renovation of Babylon with his own name.   In this way perhaps, as Alain Schnapp suggests in The Discovery of the Past, “the archaeological consciousness is born more of confrontation with the future than with the past.”[6]


            History and archaeology are sister disciplines.  They share a common objective: to better understand the past.[7]  Historians commonly pursue this goal through texts, while the archaeologist concentrates on physical remains.[8]  The word archaeology derives from the Greek arkhaiologia, denoting the study of that which is ancient.[9]  The birth of an archaeological consciousness is unknowable.  Surely early humans of the Pleistocene were at times confronted with remnants of unknown bygone peoples: an encountered cave painting, discarded spear point or unearthed skull.  And just as surely these artifacts must have induced explanations and interpretations on the part of their discoverers.[10]  The earliest stirrings of archaeological consciousness began the moment the first person felt curious about his ancestors.[11]

As Nebuchadnezzar and the Olmecs of Tres Zapotes bear witness, people have long felt the urge to collect artifacts of the past.  In the past, these collectors were often called antiquarians.   The onset of the European age of exploration saw the proliferation of so-called curiosity cabinets, in which were collected all that was strange, exotic and interesting to their collector: from archaeological artifacts to mineral oddities and taxidermy.  The Dane Ole Worm, born in Aarhus in 1588, amassed a particularly famed cabinet and is recognized for innovating the first standardized and accessible system of ordering and documenting a collection of objects.   Before Worm, historical artifacts were merely the debris scattered in the shipwreck of time.[12]  Worm saw them as fragments of a puzzle that, through study and interpretation, could be pieced back together to reveal the mysteries of the past. The antiquary was a proto-archaeologist, often a gentleman who coveted and cultivated objects for the sheer pleasure of it, at a time when the collecting of things had yet to be professionalized.

The modern discipline of archaeology owes its inception to the appearance of stratigraphy around the turn of the 19th century.  Stratigraphy – the study of geological processes and strata – allowed for the chronological layering of the earth and the first investigation into the true age of the earth.  These methods were then borrowed by those proto-archaeologists who recognized interested in the human past.  The maturation of the science of archaeology would take most of the century, though its beginnings may be located in this 1799 report to the French Institut National, which suggests that “it is not just mineralogists who stand to gain from opening up and digging up the earth…For archaeology and history too, there will often be found matter for observation and antiquities to gather.”[13]  What Alfred Kidder, renowned archaeologist of the American southwest, calls mankind’s “incurable liking to dig,” could now be put to use in the careful and competent excavation of history.[14]

The past had been perceived as a source of prestige for thousands of years, but the idea gained growing cachet as the development of archaeology coincided with the invention of nationalism in the early 19th century.  The nation-state founded its legitimacy on the premise of a historically legible pairing of people and land.  The people that lacked a history lacked a life of their own.[15]  Archaeology could provide the evidence of this historical identity.  As Greece waged a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, the archaeological remains of a Classical Greek identity were used to attest to Greece’s entitlement for self-rule, to underpin the political rights and cultural sovereignty of the nation and thus to attest to Greece’s right to self-rule.[16]  In France the possession of these same Greek antiquities became symbolic propagandistic links in a narrative chain connecting the new French Republic to the birth of Western civilization.[17]

George Orwell grasped this closed circuit of history when he wrote, “Who controls the past, controls the future.  Who controls the present, controls the past.”[18]  This is the extraordinary power and responsibility of archaeology, and this is why the essential goal of a history of the discipline must be to interrogate the archaeologist’s motivations. For behind the screen of scientific objectivity, there is always a human being at work.[19]


[1] Schnapp, Discovery, 41.

[2] Ibid 31.

[3] Philip Drucker, “The Cerro de las Mesas offerings of jade and other materials,” Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 157 (1955): 66.

[4] Davíd Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions, ed., Mesoamerica’s Cultural Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs  (Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2002).

[5] Charles Freeman, The Horses of St. Marks: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris, and Venice (Los Angeles: Overlook Press, 2010).

[6] Schnapp, Discovery, 18.

[7] Gordon R. Willey and Jeremy A. Sabloff, A History of American Archaeology, 3rd ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1993), 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Margarita Díaz-Andreu, A world history of nineteenth-century archaeology: nationalism, colonialism, and the past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2.

[10] The paleontologist Björn Kurtén, in his novel Dance of the Tiger, imagines an Ice Age Cro-Magnon’s encounter with a Neanderthal skull leading to the development of the mythology of trolls. Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[11] Ignacio Bernal, A History of Mexican Archaeology: the vanished civilizations of Middle America, trans. Ruth Malet (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 7.

[12] The metaphor of time as a shipwreck is taken from Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, who was in turn inspired by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Vossius, who wrote in De philologia liber, “Antiquities are the remains of ancient times, similar to the debris of a shipwreck.” Adapted from Schnapp, Discovery, 163.

[13] As quoted in Schnapp, Discovery 277.

[14] Alfred Kidder, “Excavations at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala,” Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 561 (1946): 260.

[15] José A. Lorenzo,Archaeology South of the Rio Grande, World Archaeology 13.2 (Oct. 1981): 205.

[16] Díaz-Andreu, World History, 85.

[17] Díaz-Andreu, World History, 79.

[18] George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four, (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 309.

[19] Bernal, Mexican Archaeology, 10.