Friday, January 17, 2003

Urn burial

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counsellors, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarism; not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians, or tutelary observators. Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their relicks, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. Vain ashes which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as emblems of mortal vanities, antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices.
So Thomas Browne, in Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, regarding the unearthing in a Norfolk field of several dozen urns containing ancient Roman burial remains. Browne's point, as I read him, was that the careful interment of the Romans' ashes had come to naught: their names had failed to survive them, and so their lives, their deeds, their kin, were lost to human knowledge for eternity, and no historian could ever restore their identities. The ashes in the urns were now mere stuff, matter without a trace of the spirit it once contained.

t has always struck me as a little surprising that Browne thought, on the other hand, that “what song the Syrens sang” was not similarly “beyond all conjecture.” The enigma was an old one: according to Suetonius, the emperor Tiberius was fond of stumping the grammarians of his time by posing the same, unanswerable, riddle — the one about Achilles, as well. If Browne had a possible solution in mind, though, he apparently kept it to himself. (And thus left it to our own time to resolve: according to the Coen brothers, the sirens sang “Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby.”)

Stonehenge is the most famous ancient site in Britain, but as far as I know historians cannot retrieve even a single name of one of its builders. We can't even guess at what language they may have spoken or who their leaders or heroes may have been; all we have are sarsens and bones and beads and a few vagaries about “Beaker folk” and “the Meldon Bridge period.” This from peoples who inhabited Britain for millennia and constructed monuments that required the cooperation — voluntary or not — of countless laborers.

In a way, our ignorance of those very things that must have seemed most important to the ancients — their speech, their affiliations, their memories and desires — smooths out the terrain of the past and enables us to interpret its contours more clearly. We see the long, slow processes at work: the gradual supplanting of one people by another, the advent of technology, the decline or increase in the productivity of the land, and we can deliberate the reasons for the changes we observe. From this vantage point, whether a certain chieftain died in battle or survived, whether a famine or epidemic compelled a family to abandon its home, has no visible effect.

Today, in an age when seemingly everything is documented, we scrutinize every twist and turn in our own procession; we speak of the “hinge” of history, of “decisive battles.” But do we really know? The Battle of Antietam may have been decided by the finding of a package of cigars, and Five Forks by Gen. George Pickett's fondness for shad, but would the North have eventually won the war in any case? If the North had lost, would the difference it would have made as the future unfolded still be discernible after a thousand years, or five thousand, or would it survive, at best, only in the fine print of a rarely perused chronicle of “ancient” events?

Sometimes history reclaims a parcel from the vast terrains of the unknown past. Browne could not have known that the decipherment of hieroglyphics would restore to us names that were “but pyramidally extant” in his own day. Letters of Roman soldiers stationed in Britain have been found; we can trace a little, from reading them, of ordinary lives that would otherwise have been long ago subsumed by time and decay. But the general trend towards oblivion remains; whatever our efforts to record and ponder our affairs, to “make provision” for our names and deeds, the long view will eventually lose sight of us.