I have been reading a wonderful book recently, called Carte Postales from Greece, by Victoria Hislop. It’s mainly about a traveller in Greece who sets down lots of stories he has heard from locals.
The story I read last night was about a villager in the mountains of southern Greece, who, while digging his isolated smallholding, comes across a beautiful two-and-a-half millennia old statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Sadly (although when one reads the story one is not saddened by this, as the old man has experienced such joy in uncovering the statue) the exertion involved in digging it out of the ground causes him to die of a heart attack.
The friend who finds the body a few days later buries the statue again, and tells no one of its existence.
Why does he do this? The book hints that this is not an uncommon thing to happen when ancient remains are found in Greece. Ancient finds cause havoc. All work on a piece of land – whether its farmland, a building plot, whatever – comes to a halt. Nothing can be done while archaeologists do their work. Often, one discovery leads to many more, so the halt can last months. This is frustrating and expensive for the people on whose land the discovery has been made, and apparently (I didn’t know this) they get very little remuneration for the find.
Greece must be particularly abundant in ancient artefacts awaiting discovery, but even here in the UK, the construction of a new railway line under London has been significantly delayed (and made much more expensive) by important archaeological finds.
Many archaeologists think that the richest ancient remains still lie underground. That is because they lie beneath large towns and cities which are still very busy and densely built up. In Europe, the Middle East, India or China, most modern cities are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old; but we can’t knock them down to get at the layers and layers of history they hide.
Recently, however, I was reading a newspaper article about applications for nano-technology (or was it quantum mechanics? Are they the same thing?) Apparently, if the technology is applied to sensors, they could be so sensitive that they could locate a submarine deep under water by detecting its gravitational field. It’s gravitational field! It made me wonder whether archaeologists will ever have instruments which can “see” through soil and rock, and so detect – maybe even make images of – objects buried under modern cities,or in other inaccessible places. This would revolutionize the discipline.
Imagine seeing the remains of ancient Rome where they still lie! This would provide the data for detailed reconstructions of where buildings, roads and other structures were, and how they relate to each other in time and space. It would bring to light the past in a wonderful new way.
I do hope it happens!