Friday, September 5, 2008

Preservation Bias

No, I'm not talking about my favorite jams and marmalades (though while I'm on the topic: elderberry and bitter orange), I'm referencing an interesting point brought up by today's Dinosaur Comics. T-Rex raises the issue that our view of the past is exclusively based on those artifacts of the past which survive to the present day, and thus with increasing temporal distance we rely on less and less necessarily representative evidence. As T-Rex puts it, "maybe millions of years ago life was awesome and surreal, but only the boring specimens got preserved. Maybe the non-chumps knew how to avoid riverbeds and tar pits! Maybe dragons don't fossilize." I'm not arguing for dragons here, but the principle is important to remember when considering ancient history. The classicist in me cringes with every popular depiction of early civilizations as primitive and exotic, because they simply weren't. The problem, which is very difficult for many to look past, is that the artifacts by which we judge these ancient societies have all run the gauntlet of about two millenia's decay, so most of the truly fine workmanship has perished in the meantime, which is why I love to see exhibitions of fine craftwork in those few materials that do survive through the ages. Early safety pins are unmistakably familiar. Roman glasswork looks like something you'd pay way too much for at an antique shop. Mummies of nomadic Scythian warlords wear some pretty awesome tattoos (that some people are now having done themselves) and were buried with beautiful works in gold. What I love about these things is how familiar and almost unremarkable they are. I love the overwhelming feeling of shared civilization one gets studying the ancients. Reading Bronze Age epic poems (which bear traceable echoes of Stone Age stories!), one is filled with a sense that people throughout time and place have shared similar hopes and fears. This is not coincidentally related to similar feelings that come from world travel. Human nature doesn't change, not over time nor distance. This is why movies like Apocalypto and shows like HBO's Rome work so well, and why 10,000 BC bordered on the insulting.

No comments: