Bill Caraher’s post on Historical Figures in Social Media drew my attention to a bevvy of ancient worlders now tweeting away: iTweetus (a Roman soldier), iHerodotus (Greek historian), and Plutarch (ditto). I love the mashup of old-nerd-meets-new-nerd, which reminds me of my own family: although as a social media geek I qualify as a new nerd, I’m the product of two classics professors (old nerds).
On paper (or on screen), it may seem that this high-tech apple has fallen very far from the ancient tree. I’m not only the child of two classicists, but two members of the same arcane field, papyrology. (For a long time I was the only person in the world born to a pair of papyrologists, but apparently a couple of Italians have since produced their own offspring.) Papyrologists study Graeco-Roman Egypt: Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great (which is how I got my name). Specifically, they look at pieces of ancient papyrus (paper made from the papyrus reed), transcribing and translating them from ancient Greek, and filling in any holes in the documents by referencing other similar documents in order to guess at the missing parts. It should be no surprise that in her retirement, my mom has become a real Sudoku buff.
When I was growing up, my parents’ academic specialty seemed equal parts bizarre and cool, until I got to the age when parents mostly just seem bizarre. That was roughly the same age at which I became a baby leftie, so I found it hard to fathom why my parents would waste their time on something so arcane, so marginal and so…irrelevant.
And then I found out why papyrology held onto its place in the larger field of classics: thanks to the moist climate found in the Mediterranean, the papyri that were used to keep records in ancient Greece and Rome largely disintegrated. The Egyptian desert, in contrast, was pretty good at preserving papyri. So the documents my parents studied weren’t just minor relics from a colonial outpost…they constituted the primary source of information on daily life in the ancient world.
My mother’s chief contribution to her field was through her work incorporating anthropological studies of the contemporary Arab world into papyrology’s approach to the ancient Hellenic world. In her study of naming practices, she found that the naming practices documented in papyri were more similar to contemporary Arab naming practices that ancient Greek or Roman ones. That instigated a lively and continuing debate on the extent to which papyrologists should locate their work in the context of the classical world or the context of the contemporary Arab world, and accordingly, how they should fill in the gaps in the documents they decipher.
Two thousand years from now, nobody will have to argue about how to piece together our daily lives. We’ve got every moment, or at least every type of moment, documented via blog, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and tweet. We are leaving records of what we do, eat, love, think, sing, play. And thanks to folks like the Long Now Foundation, somebody will probably be able to retrieve and read these records.
If we succeed in retaining access to all these records (not a foregone conclusion, as anyone who has tried to read the data on a 5.25 floppy disk can tell you) we’ll lose something else. The process of filling in gaps, as my parents have, isn’t just a matter of constructing an accurate historical record. It’s also a process of reading yourself into the story…of seeing the commonalities and differences between yourselves and your predecessors. Of finding unanticipated links between the culture you think of as your inheritance, and the culture you might perceive as inimical.
About ten years ago, during a visit to Berlin, I visited the Egyptian Museum, where a friend of my mother’s gave me the equivalent of a backstage tour. Among the rooms we visited, I was astonished to see a backroom stuffed to the rafters with papyri, most of it still in the metal boxes that German archaeologists had used to collect these papryi century before. Until that moment, I had always assumed that my parents, and their circle of papyrological friends, were fighting over the chance to work on the few surviving scraps of ancient paper. The truth was quite the opposite: there were far, far more papyri to decipher than papyrologists available to make sense of them.
As we record the minutiae of our own lives in details that, unlike papyri, may literally never degrade, we can imagine those future treasure-hunters feeling even more overwhelmed by the volume of records they have to decipher. We can anticipate that most of us, most of the time, are writing not for future historians but for those endless unopened boxes piled up to the rafters. And we can wonder what happens when historians open boxes in a search for themselves, and find only us.