One of the criticisms of archaeology is that it tries to study mysteries to which there is no likely solution. It is a discipline attractive for its mystery and the questions that it poses but rarely for the answers that it gives, for those are few and far between. When T.E. Lawrence stumbled over extensive structures in the Arabian desert he could come to no conclusion about their purpose or indeed their origin. They were obviously artifacts of some great enterprise, whose vast extent was discovered by RAF pilots in the 1920s who could see shapes not visible from the ground.
But what they meant who could say? Professor David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia, who has spent years identifying and studying the Middle Eastern circles on Google Earth can only say “that for now the meaning of the wheels remains a mystery. ‘The question is what was the purpose?'” The answer is we don’t know. The same can be said for the Nazca lines of Peru, the Stone Circles of Britain, and similar structures.
The branch of science most nearly related to archaeology is probably cryptography, which is also interested in extracting the plaintext from apparently indecipherable symbols. Here’s a thing, what does it mean? However, archaeological symbols pose the additional difficulty of being superencrypted. The ancient plaintext itself is further obscured by the vast cultural differences between the ancients and ourselves. Even if the ancients could tell it to us straight, we wouldn’t get it.
The importance of context is illustrated by one memorable scene in the movie Bubba Ho-tep where Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy attempt to decipher hieroglyphs that a malignant Egyptian mummy who has been attacking a retirement home has inscribed on a toilet wall. It’s a clue, but to what? Fortunately JFK has access to a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs, yet it does him no good. JFK says:
Saw that on the wall, took it back to my room, looked it up in my books, and I wrote it all down.
Now, this top line translates roughly into, “Pharaoh gobbles donkey goobers.”
And the bottom line, “Cleopatra does the nasty.”
The problem of course is that “Pharaoh gobbles donkey goobers” may have signified something very profound in the Mummy’s cultural context. But that plaintext means nothing to us now, four thousand years later, because we cannot penetrate the superencryption provided by the context
In fact, some mysteries may mean nothing at all. There is no signal in some things. It’s just graffiti. One perennial mystery object, a book known as the Voynich Manuscript may actually be gibberish. There may be no there “there”. You cannot decipher it because if the actual plaintext consists of random letters.
The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified. Many people have speculated that the writing might be nonsense, or proto-asemic writing.
Or it could be worse. The symbols could be chosen so that they can be interpreted as nothing specific, in which case most interpretations will be meaningless. Only one decryption will be the true one. “In cryptography and steganography, plausibly deniable encryption describes encryption techniques where the existence of an encrypted file or message is deniable in the sense that an adversary cannot prove that the plaintext data exists … Deniable encryption makes it impossible to prove the existence of the plaintext message without the proper encryption key. This may be done by allowing an encrypted message to be decrypted to different sensible plaintexts, depending on the key used, or otherwise. This allows the sender to have plausible deniability if compelled to give up his or her encryption key.”
In that case the hieroglyphs on the toilet wall could mean “Cleopatra does the nasty” or “the mummy attacks the Shady Rest Home at midnight”, depending on the key used.
What is obvious from the number of unsolved archaeological mysteries is that in many cases the “keys” have been lost. In fact they have probably been destroyed. Conquerors have long known that that one of the most effective tools of permanent suppression has been to destroy the symbol table of the defeated society. They do this on purpose, so that they can overwrite it with their own. It’s like reformatting a hard disk so that you can change its operating system.
One of the most interesting examples of this process is the Hagia Sophia, “a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) in Istanbul, Turkey. From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.”
The destruction and superposition of cultural keys is an active process. Perhaps the only way to appreciate the stakes in the struggle over the symbology of the Temple Mount is to realize that the loser will potentially be forgotten. Rick Santorum argues that Christianity is “one generation away” from being persecuted in America.
Whether you believe Santorum’s specific prediction or not, it is hard to argue with the fact that many ideas are really ‘within one generation of being persecuted’ somewhere. The hundreds of girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram for example, have been ‘married off and converted to Islam’. Given enough time the Boko Haram will destroy the keys of the defeated culture. Within a year nobody will remember those girls any more.
However most people in the West don’t see things that way at all. For most of them, culture appears to be immutable. The idea that someone may lose the keys to their own civilization would strike them as ludicrous. Perhaps the biggest contribution of archaeology is it proves the keys of great civilizations are actually lost for keeps. It not only happens, it happens all the time.
One of problems with the theory of multiculturalism is that it really ignores transmission loss. The multicultural milieu is not characterized by exact digital copying, but the exact opposite. It is a scene of intense signal competition, characterized by continuous filtering and boosting. Under these circumstances anything that fails to fight for its existence will eventually be extinguished or corrupted; it will become a stone circle in the desert whose purpose and meaning no one can explain because they have forgotten it.
But for some, culture is worth fighting for. In Bubba Ho-tep Elvis dies at last, but he saves the keys. He kills the Mummy, but even if the Mummy fatally injures Elvis in the process, he does not destroy the essential King. That survival is his immortality. Whatever the Pharaoh does to donkey goobers, Elvis knows this: the building will resound with his memory.
Your soul-suckin’ days are over, amigo.
I felt somethin’ inside gratin’ against somethin’ soft.
I felt like a water balloon with a hole poked in it.
I was goin’ down for the last count. And I knew it.
But I still have my soul. It’s still mine. All mine.
And the folks up there at Shady Rest…they have theirs, too.
And they’re gonna keep ’em. Every single one.
Thank you.Thank you very much.
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