23 February 2013
Dear Dr. Papillon;
When I was in the fourth grade, I read a book called From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a brother and sister run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While they are there, the museum acquires a mysterious marble statue of an angel. The children become consumed by researching the identity of the angel and eventually give up their adventure to visit the home of the angel’s donor, a widow named Mrs. Frankweiler, who is finally able to tell them the angel’s story.
I was reminded of this book because it seems that every archaeologist and classicist—every historian—strives to do exactly what these children did. Eddie Izzard was right: most of what we find are a series of small walls or a pile of broken pottery or a box of fossilized seeds. Alone, they mean nothing. But then we start to date them, to arrange them with other things found in the same location, to look for them in written records or in literature. And then they start to matter because we know their story.
With Paul Heilker, we discussed metaphor as a social construct used to help make sense of the world—metaphor is a conceptualization of reality. This is doxa. This is Greek myth. In class we were told that it doesn’t so much matter what the absolute truth of history is, but what people believed it to be, what people understood it to be through the stories they told. I suppose phrase, “It’s sentimental, I know, but I still really like it,” is here a central dogma of history and culture.
In Greece we saw ruins and walked the paths in Delphi and Mycenae and read plays in ancient theatres. At times, it was difficult to connect with people who lived in a time so distant from mine that anything I knew about my own history did not reach to within even a thousand years of their great-grandsons. This was unusual for me. History is a hobby of mine and I have always been able to connect to it, especially when standing, for example, in George Washington’s dining room. Instead, I found myself coming to understand the sites we saw more as an archaeologist, or even an anthropologist, than as a historian. The most important part of standing next to the Parthenon was not standing where they stood, but the ability to use the ruins as physical evidence of a history I otherwise could not comprehend.
If I ever go back, it will be different. I will know the stories of the people who built the places I am sitting on and walking through. I will also have my own stories to tell, about the dog in the Parthenon or the Polish tourists in the theatre of Epidaurus or singing “Don’t Stop Believing” in a Mycenean tomb, which will be just as important and meaningful to me as the myths of the culture I am visiting.