In my recent paper “A Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization” I argued that the study of civilization should be scientific, and that a scientific theory of civilization would be a formal theory. Prior to this, I argued in Rational Reconstructions of Time that a formal historiography is possible. What is the connection between these two claims? In A Metaphysical Disconnect I suggested that it is a philosophical problem that philosophies of time have not been tightly-coupled with philosophies of history. This implies that a formal theory of time could be tightly-coupled with a formal theory of history, and a formal theory of history would presumably encompass (or, at least, overlap) a theory of civilization. A formal theory of civilization, then, might ultimately follow from formal historiography.
I fully understand that these are strange claims for me to be making. What in the world do I mean by a formal theory of time, of history, or of civilization? How could a science of civilization be a formal science? What is a formal science, anyway? Despite the burgeoning growth of computer science in our time, which is the latest addition to the formal sciences, the very idea of the formal as a distinct category of thought (distinct, especially, from the material) seems odd and alien to us, and the distinction between the formal sciences and the natural sciences seems archaic. What are the formal sciences? Here is one view:
“To put it in Kantian terms, the formal sciences dealt with the Reine Anschauung as opposed to empirical data. By that they have been connected to the methodology of mathematics and logic, thereby being part of both the philosophical tradition and the newly won applications of mathematical sciences to the natural sciences and engineering. Both the object and the methods of the Formal sciences were recognized as different from the Natural and the Social sciences.”
“The Formal Sciences: Their Scope, Their Foundations, and Their Unity” by Benedikt Löwe, Synthese, Vol. 133, No. 1/2, Foundations of the Formal Sciences I (Oct.-Nov., 2002),pp. 5-11
In the same paper there is an explicit attempt to answer the question, “What are the Formal Sciences?” Two answers are given:
● Answer 1: “There is a profound duality in the classification of sciences according to their scientific approaches: some sciences are empirical, some are formal. The former deal with predictions and their falsification, the latter with the understanding of systems without empirical component, be it man-made systems (literary systems, the arts or social systems) or formal systems”.
● Answer 2: “Formal sciences are those that deal with the deductive analysis of formal systems (i.e., systems independent of direct human influence)”.
At present I am not going to analyze these differing definitions of the formal sciences, but I will leave them to percolate in the back of the mind of the reader in order to return to the question at hand: the study of civilization as a formal science, i.e., one formal science among many other formal sciences, however we choose to define them.
We can get a hint of what a formal science of civilization would look like from structuralist historians and historians of the Annales school, the chief representatives of the latter being Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel. Marc Bloch’s two volume history of feudalism, in particular, stands out as a great achievement in the genre, with chapters devoted to features of feudal society rather than to great events and historical turning points. Whereas John Florio had Montaigne say that I describe not the essence but the passage, Bloch sought to describe not the passage, but the essence. (I previously quoted from Bloch in Hegel and the Overview Effect.)
There is (or, there will be) no one, single way to approach formal historiography, in the same way that there is no one, single axiomatization of set theory. Even if one agrees with Gödel that set theory describes a “well-determined reality” (a realist conception that most people today would agree describes the past, even if they would hesitate to say the same of set theory), there are, as yet, many distinct approaches to that reality. So too with formal historiography; there will be many distinct formalisms for the organization, exhibition, and exposition of the well-determined reality of history.
I reveal myself as being more of a traditionalist than Bloch by my preference for approaching a theory of civilization by way of a theory of history, and a theory of history by way of a theory of time. This is “traditional” in the sense that, as I have remarked many times in other places, it has been traditional to study civilization by studying history, rather than studying civilization as an object of knowledge in its own right. I retain the historical perspective, and indeed even many of the prejudices of historians (these come naturally to me), but I can also see beyond history sensu stricto and to a science of time, a science of history, and a science of civilization that lies beyond history even as it draws from the tradition all that that tradition has to offer.
Both the essentialist approach of Bloch and the Annales school, and my own quasi-historical approach to a formal science of civilization, may each have something to contribute to a theory of civilization. Obviously, these are not the only ways to study civilization. Civilization also can be studied as an empirical science — this is probably how most would conceive a science of civilization — and even as an adventure science. What is adventure science?
Together with Dr. Jacob Shively, I wrote an article about adventure science, Adventure Science Enters the Space Age, noting that “big science” has become the paradigm of scientific activity at the present time, but when individual human beings are able to go exploring they will be able to pluck the low-hanging fruit of exploration and discovery. Adventure science characterizes the earliest stage of a science when discoveries can be made simply by traveling to an exotic locale and being the first to describe some phenomenon never before documented by science. Such discoveries are difficult for us now, because the low-hanging fruit of terrestrial discovery has all been plucked, but once off Earth, new worlds will beckon with new discoveries waiting to be made. This will be a new Golden Age of adventure science.
Paradoxically, the science of civilization will become an adventure science (if it ever becomes one) quite late in its history, so that adventure science will characterize a science of civilization not in its earliest stages, but in its latest stages. But civilization has had a kind of early adventure science phase as well. Archaeology was once the paradigm of adventure science — as attested to by the cinematic adventures of Indiana Jones and the television adventures of Relic Hunter — when real life explorers entered jungles and deserts and swamps to search for long lost cities. Archaeology is perhaps the closest existing discipline that we have to a true science of civilization — archaeologists have many theories of civilization — so that the adventure science that archaeology once was, was at the same time (at least in part) an adventure science of civilization. And it may be so again, when xenoarchaeologists lead the way, looking for the ruins of alien civilizations.
All of the resources of contemporary big science, with its thousands of researchers and multi-generational socially-organized research programs, will be necessary in order to develop the science that will make possible the production of interstellar vessels. In my Centauri Dreams post, The Interstellar Imperative, I wrote, “A starship would be the ultimate scientific instrument produced by technological civilization, constituting both a demanding engineering challenge to build and offering the possibility of greatly expanding the scope of scientific knowledge by studying up close the stars and worlds of our universe, as well as any life and civilization these worlds may comprise.” Once starships become a reality, they will make possible the empirical study of civilizations, which will begin as an adventure science, the primary qualification for which will be a willingness to tolerate discomfort and to travel to distant places with a determination to document every new sight that one sees.
Geology will become an adventure science like this once again as soon as human beings have the freedom to travel around our solar system; biology and ecology will become adventure sciences once again as soon as we can visit other living worlds. The study of civilization will not become an adventure science until human beings are free to travel about the cosmos, so that this is a very distant prospect, but still a hopeful one. If we do not find a number of interesting civilizations to study, we will build a number of interesting civilizations, and eventually these will be studied in their turn. In this latter instance, the science of civilization will only become an adventure science after civilization has expanded throughout the cosmos, has forgotten the saga of its expansion, and then rediscovers itself across a plurality of worlds. And once again we will be forced to reckon with Hegel’s prescience for having said that the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun.
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13 September 2015
In my recent presentation at Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2015, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I recurred on several occasions to archaeology in the course of my exposition. More and more I have been drawing on concepts from archaeology, as it is in archaeology that we find an extant science that has come close to formulating a science of civilization. There are, at least, explicitly formulated theories of civilization in archaeology, which go much further than the unsystematic observations of historians about civilization.
In my talk I drew on archaeological definitions of civilization. Today I want to draw on another archaeological concept, the concept of an archaeological horizon, which is a concept employed pervasively throughout archaeology (as in “dark earth horizon,” for example), and, more specifically, I want to exapt the concept of an archaeological horizon for an exposition of the development of spacefaring civilization.
The term “horizon” is used pervasively in archaeology, though its usage is rarely explicitly defined. Here is an explicit definition from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology:
horizon: Any artifact, art style, or other cultural trait that has extensive geographical distribution but a limited time span. The term, in anthropology, refers to the spread of certain levels of cultural development and, in geology, the layers of natural features in a region; in soil science, a horizon is a layer formed in a soil profile by soil-forming processes. The main meaning, however, refers to a phase, characterized by a particular artifact or artistic style that is introduced to a wide area and that may cross cultural boundaries. Provided that these “horizon markers” were diffused rapidly and remained in use for only a short time, the local regional cultures in which they occur will be roughly contemporary. The term is less commonly used now that chronometric dating techniques allow accurate local chronologies to be built. Examples of art styles that fulfill these conditions are called a horizon style-such as Tiahuanaco or Chavin. (syn. horizon style)
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000.
And, much more briefly, here is another…
“A horizon, more like a popular fashion than a culture, can be defined by a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.”
David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 131.
More helpful is the discussion of horizons and traditions in Deetz’s Invitation to Archaeology. Deetz begins with a characterization of a horizon:
“The concept of an archaeological horizon is that of a set of traits which links a number of cultures over a broad area in a short time. In the Peruvian area a wide- spread art and architectural style, known as Chavin, appears at about 800 B.C. It is characterized by feline and condor motifs in the decoration of ceramics and architectural stone- work. Plotting the space-time distribution of sites containing Chavin type objects makes it clear that the spread of the ideas responsible for the style was rapid; the slope of the space-time line is quite shallow. This manifestation is known as the Chavin Horizon.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 59
Contrasting horizon with tradition Deetz writes:
“…one might say that horizons are thin traditions of wide distribution, or that traditions are limited horizons of long duration. This may seem as ridiculous as the idea of the world’s largest midget, or smallest giant, but it makes and underscores the point that there should be no ﬁxed dimensions for either horizon or tradition. In fact, most space-time patterns formed by archaeological materials are neither in the true sense, since they are distributed in both dimensions to a considerable extent. The concepts of horizon and tradition are usually reserved for clear instances of extreme dimensions of time or space, usually if not always linking several cultures, and of use at the broadest level of archaeological integration.”
James Deetz, Invitation to Archaeology, New York: The Natural History Press, 1967, p. 61
As an aside, Deetz’s formulation of a tradition can be used to illuminate a definition of civilization found in the same Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology quoted above:
civilization: Complex sociopolitical form defined by the institution of the state and the existence of a distinctive great tradition.
Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, Springer, 2000, p. 119.
When I was preparing my talk on civilization I was searching for explicit definitions of civilizations, and this is one that I considered but didn’t use as it was not quite right for my purposes. But informed by Deetz’s spatiotemporal definition of a tradition, one might get close to a quantitative conception of civilization with the “great tradition” defined in spatiotemporal terms.
An archaeological horizon could be formulated in terms of the presence of a class of artifacts, or in terms of the absence of a class of artifacts “An archaeological horizon can be understood as a break in contexts formed in the Harris matrix, which denotes a change in epoch on a given site by delineation in time of finds found within contexts.” (Wikipedia) In other words, a horizon can be formulated as the beginning or the end of some class of artifacts. One might, then, define a horizon in the most general terms possible as a particular structure of material artifacts in time. While archaeologists work with artifacts of the past, often long out of use (perhaps so long out of use that their function is difficult to identify), there is no reason we cannot extrapolate horizons to artifacts in contemporary use, or even not yet in use.
With spacefaring civilization to date we are working with very little information, so much of the horizon structure of spacefaring civilization is conjectural. If, instead, we sought to explicate the horizon structure of scientific civilization, which has been in existence much longer than spacefaring civilization (which has not even yet fully attained its first horizon), there is much more empirical data at our command. The horizons of scientific civilization are marked by artifacts — scientific instruments — but more especially by epistemic horizons. When sciences or bodies of scientific knowledge became commonplace, we have an epistemic horizon. When Newton brought to maturity the astronomical, cosmological, and physics developments of the century or more preceding his work, an epistemic horizon we call The Enlightenment was the result. Such examples could be multiplied.
The useful aspect of the concept of a horizon is that it places less emphasis upon “firsts,” which can be outliers, and instead is concerned with when an artifact becomes common. In other contexts I have formulated this in terms of demographic significance, but since the term archaeological horizon is already established in its usage, it may be better to employ “horizon.” From this perspective, the celebrated firsts of what is sometimes deceptively called “the conquest of space,” are of little importance. What counts, from the perspective of a horizon, is, “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” For the purposes of spacefaring civilization we can substitute “wide spatial distribution” for “wide geographic area.”
Our moonshots and even our multiple probes to other planets in our solar system were outliers. They do not define a horizon of space exploration. It is arguable that now, today, with inexpensive CubeSats becoming commonplace, that we are reaching a horizon for satellite technology. This is primarily a function of cost. A CubeSat is now within reach of even small budgets. When human spaceflight eventually reaches a cost at which space travel can be inexpensive and routine, then we may achieve a human spaceflight horizon, initially to low Earth orbit (LEO). Further horizons will follow as technology improve and costs diminish.
These further horizons can be defined in terms of the gravitational thresholds that technology allows us to overcome. Previously in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight (as well as in other earlier posts) I formulated six stages of spacefaring civilization, as follows:
Stage O spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)
Stage I spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)
Stage II spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.
Stage III spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.
Stage IV spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.
Stage V spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang.
While I formulated these stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of practical, durable, and routine space travel, I see now that the way to approach these would be to identify each as a horizon of spacefaring civilization.
As noted above in relation to (relatively) cheap CubeSats, a spacefaring horizon may be achieved for automated probes before it is achieved for human beings; we are on the cusp of a satellite spacefaring horizon, when our artifacts achieve wide spatial distribution over a relatively short period of time. If this satellite spacefaring horizon is followed by a human LEO spacefaring horizon (Stage II above), cheap access to Earth orbit for human beings will open the possibility of the next wave, which would presumably be a planetary probe spacefaring horizon, followed by a human planetary spacefaring horizon (Stage III above). The expansion of terrestrial civilization into extraterrestrial space, then, may follow a pattern of an automated spacefaring horizon followed by a human spacefaring horizon.
I think it would also be useful to distinguish between initial horizons (when an artifact appears) and terminal horizons, when an artifact disappears. Perhaps archaeologists already do this, although I didn’t find any mention of such a distinction in any of the books I’ve recently skimmed, looking for discussions of horizons. Just as the emergence of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of initial horizons, the extinction of a civilization would be attended by a sequence of terminal horizons.
The extinction of a spacefaring civilization would involve the reverse sequence of terminal horizons (counting back from Stage V to Stage 0) as the spatial scope of a civilization diminished from spanning the multiverse to being represented only on a planet (not necessarily the planet on which such a civilization originated), or possibly several planets. This, in turn, suggests the interesting possibility of a multiplanetary civilization returned again to the severe limitations of planetary constraints, technically still a multiplanetary species, perhaps distributed across several star systems, but no longer an interstellar civilization in so far as they no longer interact over interstellar distances. This suggests a further distinction to be made between the interstellar presence of a species and the interstellar interaction of a species.
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3 December 2012
What are the consequences from a cosmological point of view when an industrial-technological civilization comes to an end, whether destroying itself or succumbing to outside forces? What kind of trace will a vanished industrial-technological civilization leave in the universe?
An industrial-technological civilization that masters electromagnetic spectrum communications — i.e., ordinary radio and television signals — generates an expanding globe of EM signals as long as it is transmitting these signals. If an industrial-technological civilization that has been transmitting EM signals comes to an end, these signals cease to be generated, and the expanding globe of EM signals tapers off to silence at the interior of this globe, which means that there will be an expanding sphere of weakening EM signals. The thickness of this three-dimensional halo in light years will correspond to the age in years of the now-vanished industrial-technological civilization.
If precise measurements of the EM halo were possible, and its exact curvature could be determined, it would be possible to extrapolate the original source of the signal. Once the curvature of the halo has been determined, and therefore also the source, the measurement of the distance from the source to the inner boundary of the halo to the source in light years will yield the number of years that have elapsed since the end of the industrial-technological civilization in question.
While such signals would be very faint, and largely lost in the background radio noise of the universe, we cannot discount the possibility that advanced detection technology of the future might reveal such EM structures. The universe might contain these ghostly structures as a sequence of overlapping bubbles of EM radiation that describe the past structure of industrial-technological civilization in the universe.
It has been said that astronomy is a form of time travel, and the farther we look from Earth, the farther back we see in time. (This is called “look back time.”) Thus we can think of astronomy as a kind of luminous archaeology. Another way to think of this is that the sky reveals a kind of luminous stratigraphy. The EM halos of vanished civilizations would also admit of a certain stratigraphy, since these halos would possess a definite structure.
The outermost stratigraphic layer of an EM halo would likely consist of the simplest kind of high energy radio signals without any kind of subtle modulation of the signal — like Morse code transmitted by radio, rather than vocal modulation. This would be followed, deeper within the EM halo, by analog radio modulation corresponding to spoken language. Next within the EM halo would be analogue television signals, and then digital television signals and data signals of the sort that would be transmitted by the radio link for the internet.
This, at least, is the approximate structure of Earth’s expanding EM halo, and if our civilization destroys itself (or is destroyed) in the near future, our EM halo would be approximately 100 light years thick. The longer we last, the thicker our EM halo.
An EM halo may drop off as an industrial-technological civilization makes the transition from openly radiated EM signals to the pervasive use of fiber optic cables, but if that civilization begins to expand within its solar system, and possesses numerous settlements in EM contact with each other (as I described in Cyberspace and Outer Space), then the halo will reflect these developments — this is further historical structure layered into the EM stratigraphy of the halo.
Given that the structure of a large EM halo would consist mostly of space empty of intelligent EM signals, much of the structure of these halos would be void. It is entirely possible that Earth at present lies within the void of an EM halo that both began and ceased to transmit prior to our ability to detect such signals.
In the event of human exploration of the cosmos, as we move outward within a possible void within a halo, it is possible that our first contact with a xenomorphic exocivilization will take the form of encountering the inner boundary of an EM halo, which as we pass through it, will reveal in reverse order the development of that civilization, beginning with its destruction and ending with its emergence.
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A revised, updated, and expanded version of this post is available at The Halos of Vanished Civilizations: Revised, Updated, and Expanded. A spoken word version of this updated formulation is available at Burst 9 — The Halos of Vanished Civilizations.
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23 January 2012
A short distance north of Nazca, along the Panamericana, and situated between the designs of the “hands” (“manos“) and the “tree” (“arbol“), there is a tower (the “Torre Mirador”) that can be climbed, probably about 40 or 50 feet in height, in order to view some part of the lines of Nazca without flying over them. This close-up view of the lines clearly reveals the construction methods that I quoted yesterday (in Lines in the Desert) from Mason’s The Ancient Civilizations of Peru — stones have been removed from within geometrically defined areas and the removed stones have been piled at the edges of the designs. The piled stones not only represent the space cleared, but the piles themselves serve to make the demarcation between cleared and non-cleared areas all the more obvious, making the distinction more visually striking.
This construction technique was also used at nearby Palpa, and continues to be effective in the present day, as driving along the Panamericana (once outside the archaeologically preserved area) one sees a variety of messages spelled out in the desert, from the initials and names of individuals to fairly elaborate advertisements for small roadside stores.
In my naïveté I though that any intrepid visitor of sufficient curiosity might walk out into the desert and and look at the construction of the lines for themselves, but the desert has been fenced off along the Panamericana to prevent further damage to the lines, and once made aware of the threat it becomes immediately obvious how damaged many of the lines and figures are, which accounts for some of the difficulty in seeing some of the patterns from the air. Some — but not all.
Much is revealed by a close inspection (as one can gain from the tower along the Panamericana) that is lost in a distant view from the air, just as much is revealed in a distant inspection from the air that is close in the close-up view from near the ground. This is a perfect concrete illustration of what I was recently writing about in relation to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive thought (in P or not-P). In this post (on my other blog) I employed an image taken from Alain Connes to illustrate the constructive/non-constructive distinction such that the constructive perspective is like that of a mountain climber while the non-constructive perspective is like that of a visitor who flies over the summit of a mountain laboriously climbed by the other.
Any thorough investigation will want to make use of both perspectives in order to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible — even though each perspective has its blind spots and its shadows that compromise our perspective on the whole. Indeed, it is precisely because each perspective incorporates deficits specific to the perspective that one will want to supplement any one perspective without another perspective with a different set of specific deficits. Between two or more fundamentally different perspectives on any one state-of-affairs there is the possibility of constructing the comprehensive conception that is excluded by any one perspective in isolation.
The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the imagine of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.
Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.
This reflection gives us yet another perspective on utopianism, which I have many times tried to characterize in my attempts to show the near (not absolute) historical inevitability of utopian schemes transforming themselves upon their attempted implementation into dystopian nightmares — the utopian planner attempts to design from a purely non-constructive perspective without the benefit of a constructive perspective. This dooms the utopian plans to inevitable blindspots, shadows, and deficits. The oversights of a single perspective then, in the fullness of time, create the conditions for cascading catastrophic failure.
Historically speaking, it is not difficult to see how this comes about. After the astonishing planned cities of early antiquity, many from prehistoric societies that have left us little record except for their admirably regular and disciplined town plans, Europeans turned to a piecemeal, organic approach to urbanism. Once this approach was rapidly outgrown when cities began their burgeoning growth with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was a natural response on the part of Haussman-esque planners to view organic urbanism as a “failure” that necessitated replacement by another model that envisioned the already-built environment as a tabula rasa to be re-built according to rational standards. Cities henceforth were to be wholly planned to address to inadequacies of the medieval pattern of non-planning, which could not cope with cities with populations that now numbered in the millions.
I have observed elsewhere (in my Political Economy of Globalization) that many ancient prehistoric societies were essentially utopian constructions over which a god-king presided as a living god, present in the flesh among his people, and indeed some of the most striking examples of ancient town planning date from societies that exhibited (or seem to have exhibited) this now-vanished form of order. For only where a god-king is openly acknowledged as such can a social order based upon living and present divinity within the said social order be possible.
Nazca, however, does not seem to have been based on this social plan of a divinely-sanctioned social order which can bring utopian (and therefore likely non-constructive, top-down) planning into actual practice because of the physical presence of the god in the midst of his people. The book that I cited yesterday, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, has this to say of Nazca society:
“…the general picture seems to be one of a sedentary democratic people without marked class distinctions or authoritarianism, possibly without an established religion. There is less difference in the ‘richness’ or poverty of the graves, and women seem to be on an equality with men in this respect. The apparent absence of great public works, of extensive engineering features, and of temple pyramids implies a lack of authoritarian leadership. Instead, the leisure time of the people seems to have been spent in individual production, especially in the making of quantities of perfect, exquisite textiles and pottery vessels. This seems to indicate a strong cult of ancestor-worship. Cloths on which an incredible amount of labor was spent were made especially for funerary offerings and interred with the dead. The orientation seems to have been towards individualized religion rather than towards community participation, dictation, coercion, and aggression.”
J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 85
Such egalitarian societies focused on the satisfaction of consumer demands were rare in the ancient world, but we should not be surprised that it was an egalitarian society, organized constructively from the bottom up, that produced the astonishing lines in the desert of the Nazca. Without an aerial perspective, the making of these lines was a thoroughly constructivistic undertaking, not even counter-balanced by a non-constructive perspective, which has only been obtained long after the Nazca civilization has disappeared, leaving only traces of itself in the dessicated sands of the desert.
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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.
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6 December 2009
Second Sunday in Advent
The Feast of St. Nicholas
The 6th of December is the feast day of St. Nicholas and, as it happens, my name day after a fashion. I say “after a fashion” because anyone who has grown up and gone through life primarily known by their middle name knows the constant confusion that it can engender. I am told that my maternal grandfather began the tradition of referring to me as “Nick” when I was less than two years old. The name stuck, and it is what I continue to use today, though it is not my first given name. Thus the Feast of St. Nicholas is the name day for my second given name, but the name by which I primarily identify. So much for that.
Saint Nicholas is primarily remembered in our industrialized world as the saint who was transmogrified by consumerism into Santa Claus, the patron saint of retailers and icon of classic Coca-Cola commercials. Before his transformation into a spokesman for getting and spending (thereby laying waste our powers), St. Nicholas was a popular saint of late antiquity beloved by generations of pious Christians for almost two thousand years.
St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town on the coast of what is now Turkey, though in Roman times the region was called Lycia. The saint’s original tomb was in Myra, and in fact can still be found there in the basilica. But the relics of St. Nicholas were stolen from the tomb in the basilica in 1087 by merchants from Bari (thus the commercial connection reveals itself early on), who took them to Bari (the technical term for moving the bones of saints is “translation of relics”), where they lie still. St. Nicholas was (among many other functions) the patron saint of the Varangian Guard (burly northerners who were the personal guard of the Byzantine emperor), so the Varangian Guard guarded his relics at Bari much as contemporary soldiers guard tombs of unknown soldiers. Note that, while the object of veneration changes, the social structure of the ritual remains constant across diverse civilizations.
But the story of St. Nicholas as it has come down to us, may not be the whole story. There may be missing chapters from the book of history. Much as the fossil record (i.e., the record of natural history) only preserves a few specimens out of millions of living creatures, so too the documentary record of human history is spotty at best, and only preserves a small fragment of the actual events that took place in the past. Darwin has an evocative passage in the Origin of Species about the imperfection of the fossil record (from the last paragraph of Chapter X):
“For my part, following out Lyell’s metaphor, I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced.”
In regard to actual documentary historical records, it is often literally the case that we have only only one volume out of several, and sometimes only a page or a paragraph out of a volume, so that what Darwin wrote metaphorically about the fossil record applies literally to the written record.
As it happens, I visited in the Lycian shore in 1993. I did not see Myra, though I was nearby. There is an organization called Earthwatch that organizes scientific expeditions supervised by professional investigators who are joined by volunteers who pay for the privilege of joining the expedition. Thus it was in the fall of 1993 I joined an Earthwatch expedition that cruised along the coast of what is now Turkey, documenting both the physical geography and some of the archaeological remnants.
The principle investigator on this Earthwatch expedition was a fellow named David Price-Williams, who was a veteran researcher in the region and had extensive knowledge of Turkey from its earliest history to the present day. He brought the expedition to a small island close to the bay of Fetiyeh. The Island goes by two names: Gemilier and St. Nicholas Island. The small island is densely packed with Byzantine-era ruins, among which ruins there is a remarkable ceremonial passageway that extends all the way from the shore of the island up to near the top of the island where there is a ruined basilica that has been not merely built on top of the island but was once, at great effort, carved into the rocky substance of the island. The ceremonial passageway, now ruined, was at one time a covered walkway by which one could have walked all the way from a quay on the shore up to, and even into, the island’s basilica. It is obvious that much effort went into this construction, and one can still pick one’s way through much of the walkway, still covered in places.
Today, doing a little searching, I found a website with this explanation of the covered passageway:
“Gemiler Island is covered with Lycian ruins, including a covered walkway built for a princess who (according to various legends) was thought by her father to be too beautiful to be seen by the populace, albino and so had to be protected from the sunlight, or just very spoilt.”
In the April 2000 issue of Islands magazine there was this account:
“Christmas snows were a long way from Gemiler that bright autumn morning. Ancient steps led me steeply upward, past a covered tunnel — a long passageway that ended at the island summit, where the remains of a church still commanded a view of the surrounding water. In Byzantine times the air would have been thick with incense, but since nature has reclaimed the breezes, every breath was rich with other scents.”
Since the covered passageway has been around for well over a thousand years, and its origins seem to have no documentation in the written record, it is inevitable that there should be many different stories about the structure, and this is what I find to be the case.
David Price-Williams, the principle investigator of the Earthwatch expedition, had a theory about Gemiler Island. I don’t recall all the details, but so far as memory serves I believe he speculated that Saint Nicholas may have died at the particular location on the top of Gemiler Island, which accounts for the somewhat awkward position of the basilica and the effort that was made to excavate it into the rock of the island. As a location sacred to the memory of Saint Nicholas, the island became a place of pilgrimage in late antiquity. And, indeed, as I noted above, the island is thickly covered by ruins — the sort of development that could only be accounted for by money brought in from the outside as opposed to strictly local industry. The covered passageway, on this account, was a purpose-built structure for the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas, which would have been a major event, perhaps celebrated annually and the occasion of much festivity. (My apologies to David Price-Williams if I have mis-remembered or mis-represented his views on this matter.) I find it a plausible account, and it is apparent from visiting the site that it was a place of some importance and population density before it was abandoned.
Some of the ruins lie below the water line, and we know from historical accounts that a number of catastrophic natural disasters afflicted the Byzantine empire in late antiquity. Turkey has a complex geomorphology, more or less occupying its own tectonic plate sandwiched between other neighboring plates. The result of this situation is that the relatively small Turkish-Aegean plate can twist and turn in catastrophic movements of the earth that suddenly plunge some areas of land several feet lower while raising other areas of land. Thus buildings constructed in historical times could find themselves under water as the result of one violent earthquake (not necessarily as a result of gradual subsidence, which would require much more time).
Thus I have a certain personal connection to my namesake, perhaps having visited a spot that played a significant role in the growth of the cult of Saint Nicholas. Perhaps, but for the celebrations of Gemiler, Saint Nicholas might have been lost to history, and today we would have no Santa Claus. This is the merest of mere speculation — what philosophers call a counter-factual conditionals — but even a thought experiment, under controlled conditions, need not be irresponsible. It is certainly no more irresponsible than Collingwoodian a priori imagination by which we attempt to appreciate the what the ancient festivals on the island of Gemiler might have been like. And this is one of the things that most intrigues me about travel: the opportunity to inspire the historical imagination to get a feeling for life in the distant past.
Without the original Saint Nicholas I am left with the amusing thought of subsequent namesakes, for example, Niccolò Machiavelli and Nikolaus Kopernikus. I would not hesitate to claim both as my namesakes. Both were intellectual revolutionaries. The one began the process of overturning medieval cosmology, and thus is responsible in no small part for the modern world as as know it today. The other is similarly responsible in no small part for the modern world, though he began the process of overturning the medieval pieties that once dominated the practice of history.
If Niccolò Machiavelli has not been canonized (not yet, at least), that is not my fault. I am in favor of the action. If, by unanimous popular acclaim, I were to be proclaimed Pope, I would certainly make it a priority. But the Papacy is not an office conferred by popular acclaim; one must, rather, have the acclaim of the College of Cardinals. Here I must admit the I have no pull whatsoever.
Machiavelli ought to be a modern saint, or, we could say, he should enjoy the status of whatever is the secularized equivalent of sainthood. Similarly for Copernicus. Which brings us to an interesting approach to Löwith’s thesis (in his Meaning in History) that modernity isn’t a fully legitimate historical periodization since its categories are secularized derivatives of (mostly medieval) theological historical ideas. It would be an interesting thought experiment to accept Löwith’s thesis but not its valuation, and to extrapolate a thorough-going correspondence between properly theological concepts and their secularized equivalents in modernity. Is there a secularization of the idea of sainthood? But this is a task for another time.
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25 October 2009
There is an interesting article on the BBC about the recreation of early ocean-going canoe voyages in the south Pacific, Yap revives ancient art of star sailing. I find this a fascinating example of experimental archaeology.
Experimental archaeology really runs the gamut. Here’s an informal definition of experimental archaeology that I found at the Archaeology Expert website:
Experimental archaeology is one of the very practical methods of archaeological interpretation. It is a living analytical process used to re-create aspects in part or in whole, of ancient societies in order to test hypotheses or proposed interpretations and assumptions about that society.
The BBC article referenced above focuses on the recovery of the cultural tradition represented by ocean-going outrigger canoes and celestial navigation for Yap island, but it could still be considered a form of experimental archaeology. As I said, experimental archaeology runs the gamut. There are serious studies and there are media stunts and there are the many European open-air museums (among my favorite places to visit). Open-air museums are sometimes maintained in part to reconstruct the life of the past and also in part as an entertainment for tourists.
A few years ago when so-called “reality TV” was getting its start, public television jumped on the bandwagon and produced several series — some trivial, others riveting — that were essentially documentaries of experimental archaeology. I watched several of these with great interest.
Perhaps the most famous example of experimental archaeology in our time is the work of Thor Heyerdahl in recreating ancient sea-going vessels and recreating long distance voyages with them in order to demonstrate the possibility of his archaeological theories that were rejected by the mainstream historical and archaeological community. The Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo is absolutely fascinating. I visited it more-or-less on a whim a few years ago in Norway, not expecting it to be all that interesting, but I ended up staying for several hours. I heartily recommend it.
Voyages such as are made by the Yap islanders and those recreated by Thor Heyerdahl are crucial to our understanding of the last phase of human expansion and migration (which is not yet complete, but continues in an altered form even today). It is likely that the South Pacific was the last place on earth inhabited and settled by humanity. Perhaps if we had known the paradise that awaited us there, we might have gotten there sooner, but when men sail into the unknown they never know what they will find or whether they will ever return. And if they do not return, those who did not go do not know if they were lost or whether they found a better place and stayed there.
The Pacific is an enormous ocean. It was not crossed by European vessels until Magellan’s expedition (though Magellan died before the circumnavigation was completed and did not live to see the Pacific crossing). To set out upon the Pacific in nothing more than a canoe, and to live to tell the tale, is a feat equal to any in the history of human achievement. Whether we should think of this as a moment in natural history or a moment in human or cultural history is not clear. I don’t know what to call it myself, since the settlement of the South Pacific by ocean going canoes, while it constituted the last stage of the globalization of the human species, still took place in prehistory.
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