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What Will We Leave?
The archaeologist of the future will find nothing of substance.
Throughout Scandinavia, numerous testaments to times and lives gone by remain in the form of runestones. The archaeology Professor Neil Price, in his masterful book ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’, details the proliferation of runestones throughout Scandinavia, most of which date back to the late Viking Age period in the 11th Century, but range from the Migratory Period in the 5th Century through the Viking Age from the 8-12th Centuries. Runes are angled signs which formed, in their most widespread use, a 16-character alphabet. Although they could be etched onto any hard surface, stone has provided the best-preserved examples, retaining their messages against the elements for centuries.
These messages, primarily carved into free-standing rocks, are located throughout Scandinavia, but exhibit particular density in central Sweden. They were originally painted with bright colours, and the runes contained within bordered, elaborate designs. They share a common characteristic in that they are almost all memorials to the dead. In this regard, the runestones immortalised the range of the Viking diaspora in this period; numerous runestones commemorate sons, brothers, or friends, who died in the East (the areas of the ‘Rus, Viking settlers in what is now modern Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia). Others memorialise warriors who died as far south as Greece and Southern Italy, likely while serving with the Varangian Guard, the personal bodyguard of the Byzantium emperors formed, initially, from Scandinavian and ‘Rus warriors.
In the many examples Price draws attention to, there is one, located in Västmanland in Sweden (image below), that is poignant in its simplicity. It doesn’t attest to great battles, or a well-known Viking warrior, but this particular runestone has attracted a long scholarly debate for another reason: a place-name carved into the stone. The rune reads:
“Gudleif placed the staff and these stones in memory of Slagvi, his son, who met his end in the east, in Karusm.”
The place-name ‘Karusm’ has been variously interpreted as referring to ‘the East’, but has also been approximated as an Old Norse word for Khwārazm, an oasis in what is modern Uzbekistan, and what was then within the Abbasid Caliphate. Either way, Slagvi took off from his homestead in Västmanland with his shield and axe never to return. Yet clearly news of his demise made its way back to Sweden for his bereaved father to erect this runestone in honour of his son’s memory.
It is the modesty of the stone, compared to other elaborate examples, that bestows its poignancy. Despite its simplicity, it communicates something powerful; two people otherwise unknown to history, Gudleif and Slagvi, and 900 years later a window into their lives remains preserved for you to know. And you know them, because their story - a father and son, a journey to distant lands, a tragic end, and a need to memorialise - is an innately human story. It is our story, and it has repeated in countless lives in innumerate places across the globe since time immemorial.
You can fill in the missing pieces of the story accordingly from what was not written; a grieving mother, perhaps siblings, and perhaps a girlfriend Slagvi planned on marrying on return from the East, brimming with tales of strange lands and peoples, and glory in battle. We can only hope that as he looked to the sky with his last breaths, he could see the Valkyries riding down to claim him for Odin’s great hall. Of course, we cannot know any of this, but the many possibilities of the mental picture isn’t the point. The point is that these were ordinary lives in their own time, and you know them because a simple message was carved into a rock in central Sweden around a millennia ago.
We tend to look at the past through the lens of the greatest individuals and works of that time and society. The story of Rome is one of Caesars and the Coliseum, not the legionnaires facing a frontal assault of frenzied Celt warriors, or the drunk punters in the stands of the Coliseum. Trafalgar is told as a story of Nelson and his tactics, not the gunners in the decks of the Royal Navy man-o’-wars. The Viking Age is a story of Björn Ironside, Harald Bluetooth, and the Great Heathen Army, not of Gudleif and Slagvi. We remember fallen civilisations from Egypt to the Inca through the legacy of sublime architecture and monuments, not the brief formation of atoms that comprised ordinary lives in their place and time.
We recount history in this way because of survivorship bias. What is handed down to us from the past is dependent on the robustness of the media through which a people marked their place in time. Runestones and pyramids stand a far better chance against the elements and the sands of time than oral stories or parchment and ink. And the development of literacy, and control of means of literacy were, for centuries, the preserve of the elites of a society. What was recorded, particularly in any literary form, was recorded about gods and kings, not commoners. Plutarch’s ‘Roman Lives’ wasn’t about the average Roman life, but those of Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar.
Yet throughout history, underneath gods and kings, pyramids and longships, was the mass of humanity, the everyday of the human condition and experience. We have to listen very closely to the whispers on the winds of history to hear their voices. The graffiti in the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, preserved in volcanic ash, detail everything from soldiers in brothels, to men declaring their sexual antics with other men, to proclamations of having defecated against a wall. The ordinariness, indeed the coarseness, of snippets of ordinary lives in their time and place are what illustrate the continuity of the human condition. Which is why their preservation, and that of the Västmanland runestone, are striking; they allow us to link together the great and the ordinary of those ages.
But what will the archeologists of 500 years from now find of us? Everything about our culture now is immaterial and ephemeral. While the people in past times and places pursued literacy, our culture is dismantling literacy; long-form leisure reading has sharply declined (driven primarily by the 18-34 age group), enrolment in English majors has plummeted, and now AI can write for us. Whatever the archaeologist of the future finds, they won’t even be able to verify what wrote it. There won’t be any message carved into a rock, because we have texts and stupefying Twitter exchanges. Our ease of communication has, ironically, heralded the end of the ability to communicate. They won’t find great literature, because no one reads to be able to write, nor will they find any great art, because selfies are all our culture can muster.
Despite our sophistication and technological mastery, we don’t produce anything that is worthy or capable of surviving for 1,000 years. We’re an inconsequential culture, for anything that could remotely inspire awe in future generations. Instead, our era will likely inspire scorn for leaving swathes of the world uninhabitable. Perhaps the remnants of trash capitalism will be left. Perhaps the archeologists of the future may uncover a can of Coke, unearth a KFC sign, or dig up a Shell-labelled petrol pump. More likely, the archeologists of that future time will be left to fine-comb the internet rather than soil, and the only thing well-preserved in that excavation will be our distorted realities, our trifling irrelevances, our disembodied alienation. The worst and most useless parts of a culture characterised by nothing of substance, and insatiable consumption of emptiness.
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