I am profoundly passionate about the past—so much so that I have spent my entire career studying it. I mostly pore over ancient inscriptions from the Near East written on clay tablets, papyri, scrolls, stone monuments—you name it. What I am particularly known for is the image-documentation of these ancient texts. I have worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, dispatches sent to pharaohs from the far reaches of the Egyptian empire, tales of gods and goddesses of early Canaan, tiny silver amulets that are the oldest artifacts that quote the Bible, early gospel manuscripts.
One common characteristic that just about all ancient inscriptions share is that they do not come down to us in mint condition. Instead, they are torn, worn, faded, abraded, broken, gouged, overwritten, water damaged, erased—even encrusted with bat guano. Sometimes they are damaged due to the ravages of time—but all too often their scars come from human agents bent on destroying these precious but faint messages from the past. The research group I lead has made a specialty of using every technological advance we can muster in order to reclaim and read what had been unreadable and then to make these recovered bits of ancient history available to anyone who wants to study them, world wide.
This work has taught me a hard lesson: that our heritage from the past is fragile and all too easily damaged; indeed, it doesn’t take very much for the pieces of this legacy to be utterly destroyed. On the other hand, these ancient texts are still here because a long line of people stretching back to antiquity took the precautions necessary to preserve them. These small acts are what civilization is built upon, and I deeply believe in them. I therefore often feel that with every image of an ancient text we create, preserve, and disseminate, we too are taking our place in this ancient line and fulfilling our responsibility to the past and future.
On 9/11 I was scheduled to lecture to a college class on ancient texts and ancient history. My first reaction to the unfolding disaster was to stay home and to hunker down. I decided instead to go into the university, and I was gratified to see that most of my students were also there—despite everything. I consider my decision to teach that day and their decision to learn both to be small acts in support of civilization. It is all too easy to destroy things, whether they be ancient texts or modern buildings. And when they are destroyed we feel so powerless, as we witness a part of what we are die. But I believe that our many small acts in support of civilization offer hope. In each, individual decision—however small—to act in favor of civilization, we honor our heritage and we insure that civilization will continue, just as it has continued in the past—despite everything—for thousands of years.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.