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Editor's Note, November/December 2004

Rescuing Our Past

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

"One of humanity's defining moments" is the way curator Joan Aruz describes the civilizations that arose in the Mesopotamia basin four millennia ago. The places have a magic to them--Babylon, Samarra, Ninevah--and in the midst of war, scholars are working to safeguard the parts that remain.

In this issue of Humanities we look at efforts being made to preserve our past, from the time of Nebuchadnezzer to the present day. In Iraq, specialists are at work using satellite and topographic maps to gather information on more than ten thousand sites that are historically significant and may be vulnerable. In Afghanistan, a treasure known as the Bactrian gold, dating to the first century and missing for twenty-five years, has surfaced safe and sound. The treasure is by all accounts spectacular--diadems and turquoise-studded scabbards and jeweled beasts in chalcedony and cornelian--nearly 21,000 pieces in all. They have been inventoried and photographed and are now in an undisclosed place for safekeeping while scholars speculate about the civilization that produced them.

In the New World as well, the NEH effort to preserve the past continues. In Guatemala, an archaeologist has discovered Maya murals dating from 100 C.E. at San Bartolo. In Bolivia, a scholar is looking into the huayrachinas, the wind-driven silver smelters used in the Andes five centuries ago. In Arkansas, state university archaeologists are photographing cave carvings and paintings dating from 900 to 1600 C.E. in order to learn about Indian cosmology and rituals.

One of the fascinating excavations has come in the unlikeliest of places. A group of Midwesterners who said flat-out they were looking for treasure started checking newspaper accounts of the steamboats that had sunk on the Missouri and the Mississippi in the decades before the Civil War, some with valuable cargo aboard. The search took three years and led them to a boat named the Arabia, which had gone down in the Missouri River in 1856. In the decades since, the river had changed its course and the searchers, the Hawleys, began the pursuit of the elusive. They compared new river maps to old and tracked her down, eight miles from the river and forty feet under a cornfield. The Arabia carried goods intended for the American frontier--boots and beaver hats and rifles and tools and porcelain dishes and buttons and pickles--as well as touches of luxury--cigars and cognac and champagne and French perfume. "The boat almost became this portal into the past," says David Hawley, "where you could go back to Abraham Lincoln's time and gather up an armful of stuff and bring it back into today's world and see it and smell it and taste it."

As they brought out the cargo, the Hawleys' views shifted. They found themselves caught up in the lives of the 130 people who were aboard the day the Arabia sailed. David Hawley's brother Greg describes sifting through the passengers' belongings. "When you lifted the lid on a personal box," he says, "without saying anything, it almost turned into a reverent experience. You were invading someone's life. You didn't feel like you should be there and yet it was okay."

The Hawleys and their partners took a vote and decided not to sell the treasure after all. Already heavily mortgaged, they went to the bankers to borrow some more money and build themselves a museum in Kansas City. Nowadays 135,000 visitors come each year to see what the Hawleys have wrought. David Hawley wouldn't have it any other way: "The great treasure that we discovered--the story--would have been lost."