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Insight: Timeless Verses Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by James Wiseman

Poetic views of archaeology and its practitioners

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(Richard Tuschman)

Marcel Proust, the early twentieth-century French writer, illuminated his deeply analytical narratives with the countless details of daily life that make up the patterns of individual and societal behavior. Realizing that he shared a part of his approach with archaeologists, he wrote:

Archaeologists and archivists are now showing us...that nothing is ever forgotten or destroyed, that the meanest circumstances of our lives, the details most remote from us, have carved themselves into the huge catacombs of the past where humankind records its life-story, hour by hour.... Whether near or far, in our recent past or back in prehistory, there is not a single detail, not a single circumstance, however futile or fragile it may appear, that has perished. (From "Days of Reading," an article published in Figaro, March 20, 1907.)

Archaeologists devote considerable time to revealing the minutiae of lives once lived, whether forgotten by history or simply lost in time. Such archaeological insights into humankind fascinate most of us (as fellow humans!); they also have inspired poets. In two previous columns (January/February 1999, and March/April 2000), I explored poetic visions of the past inspired by archaeology. Many readers have written to me about their personal impressions of the poems cited and often enclosed copies of other poems that were important in their lives. I draw on some of those poems in this column, taking as a central theme Proust's optimistic view of archaeology's capabilities.

* See also, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Backfill Pile?" ARCHAEOLOGY Online, April 27, 2000.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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