Monday, August 31, 2009

Lost Worlds- Emperor Qin's Hidden City

There is no greater temptation for an archaeologist than ancient places which seem offer a window into the inner workings of the ancient machine.  Imagine peering into a tomb mound containing a miniature city of palaces and offices, with rivers of mercury running into an ocean, and the starry firmament shining above!  Such is the description,  by the Grand Historian Sima Qian (born 145 BCE), of the sight which might one day face those who enter the tomb of Qin Shihuangdi, China's "First Emperor."  

Herbert Eustis Winlock, the great curator and archaeologist associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had the fortune in 1920 to experience something like this thrill.  As he recall, when he moved the blocking to the tomb of Meket-Ra:

"My beam of light shot in to a little world of four thousand years ago, and I was gazing down into the midst of brightly painted little men going this way and that.  A tall, slender girl gazed across at me, perfectly composed; a gang of little men with sticks in their upraised hands drove spotted oxen; rowers tugged at their oars on a fleet of boats, while one ship seemed floundering right in front of me with its bow balanced precariously in the air.  And all of this busy coming and going was in uncanny silence, as though the distance back over the forty centuries I looked across was too great for even an echo to reach my ears..."

The great University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Loren Eiseley's essay "The Innocent Fox" describes an experience of nature that is also in essence the recovery of a lost world.  Part of his book entitled _The Unexpected Universe_ (1969),  Eiseley here recalls a transcendent encounter with a young fox in its lair:

"It has been repeatedly said that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe.  Man is destined only to see its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.  Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed innocent fox inviting me to play.  The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.  It was not a time for human dignity.  For just a moment I held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone...It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe."  

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