Monday, August 5, 2013

Digging Around In The Past

Pottery shards on display in the Pella Archaeological Museum
There is old, then there is really old.  For me, my celebrating a significant birthday is getting older but it pales in comparison to those people celebrating much more significant milestone birthdays.  Boston, a city near and dear to my heart is old by American standards but she is a mere babe compared to the much older grand European cities.  The Egyptian Pyramids, Stonehenge and other ancient sites have withstood time and are even older.  And then you have the great cities and empires that no longer exist but whose evidence remains today; these places fall into the ancient category.  Greece is one such place where everything seems to be either really old or ancient.  We've been exploring this historic part of the world over the past week and it has me thinking about what constitutes old.

Whenever I am in Greece I immediately conjure up memories of reading about mythology and ancient Greek history in my high school literature classes.  At the time, sitting in an American high school, all of this seemed so foreign to me, yet today as we drive by brown historic markers identifying places I had only read about, it all begins to feel real.  These places are so much more than a story on a dog-eared page; they were home to thousands of people who lived, worked, and eked out existences under often harsh conditions.  And these weren't simple settlements, they were thriving metropolises whose architecture, infrastructure, and systematic layouts rivals today's much more modern urban centers.  They thrived, faltered, and through the diligent work of archeologists and historians, many are being revived.

An ancient relic that has survived
relatively intact
Last week we spent a day following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great in the ancient city of Pella. Located in the heart of the Macedonia region in northeast Greece, the area has been ravaged by natural disasters and time itself.  Like so many of its contemporaries, the excavation of this city, which was the birthplace of this ancient Greek hero, is a work in progress.  While parts of the site, including numerous mosaics, have been fully excavated, work was continuing in other areas.  During our visit on a blazingly hot July day, archeologists (probably unpaid college interns eager to gain hands on experience) were toiling away in the sun hoping to uncover new treasures.  Some pieces are likely to be uncovered intact while others will appear as mere fragments of their original selves, yet each is special since it is a tangible piece of the past.  We gingerly walked through the site then seeking to escape the heat, we sought shelter in the Pella Archeological Museum where previously discovered relics, including an impressive number of mosaics, were on display and protected from the elements in a well air conditioned building.  A surprisingly large number of fragile looking pieces were completely intact making me wonder how they survived the test of time while others did not.

Just a small portion of the excavated site at Pella; work was ongoing
with other areas being excavated
As I have many times before, when I stand amidst these ancient ruins that have been uncovered, excavated, and (hopefully) protected, I wonder how much of these ancient lands have yet to be (re)discovered.  The designated boundary to the protected ruins may sit mere meters away but what lays beyond the fence waiting to be uncovered?  In Pella, are treasures waiting to be discovered underneath the modern village and acres of farmland that surround it?  Are someone's farm animals unknowingly grazing on a historically significant site?  Fragments of the original roads wind their way through the Balkans towards the sea.  In places we've seen the original well worn cobblestones sitting alongside dirt and cracked asphalt.  And this is in rural areas but digs in urban areas are just as likely.  It is a common sight in Europe to come across the remnants of an ancient city, wall, or building right in the middle of a modern urban center with each infringing upon the other.  These sometimes fully intact ruins are often discovered while laying  a new road or erecting a new building.  These accidental discoveries make me wonder how much of the area has already been unknowingly destroyed.  Did a backhoe inadvertently scoop out a pile of dirt that really had historical significance?  Will we ever know if it did?  How do we preserve the past while moving forward in a modern world?  Where does the need or desire for a new road or building outweigh historical significance?  These are the questions I often ask myself.

A close up of the mosaic work; it amazes me to think that
these tiny stones are intact having withstood time for

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