Planet Earth

Digging Deeper into Deep Time

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 27, 2009 8:01 PM

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This thoughtful essay argues for reconciling the institutional divide between history and archaeology. Daniel Lord Smail, a professor of history at Harvard, writes that

The discovery of "˜deep time' during the middle of the 19th century has long been understood as a transforming moment in the histories of biology, archaeology and geology. We are only just beginning to realise, however, that the time revolution also shaped the practice of history itself.

After tunneling separately back in time, the moment has come, Smail asserts, for archaeology and history to join forces:

The bodies of evidence now available to students of the human past are growing by leaps and bounds. To the pot shards, texts and phonemes...we have added genes, isotopes and other traces. Imagine each as a filter in a different colour. Using just one, you see your subject in an unreliable light. But now layer them one on top of the other and peer through the ensemble and, if you do so, the bright light of the original can be reconstituted to some degree.

What kind of history might such a merger yield?

So if you want to find out what was really going on in Anglo-Saxon Britain you need to layer any texts at hand on top of the coins and the shards, the ceramics and the glassware, and then add the chemical traces of spices left in pots, the isotopes of carbon and nitrogen left in bones and the modern distribution of genes. The result isn't a truth but it is a more robust understanding of something we did not know before. And it is a vision of the historical enterprise that is indifferent to specialisation and method.

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