Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Buried history
What are the secrets that remain in the keeping of our Mother Earth? Such was my soliloquy as I passed out of the galleries containing the antiquities in the British Museum. All things earthly must pass away, we know; but the mind is staggered as it contemplates the relics still left to us of great empires of which history gives us but a hazy dream. Year by year Earth, the great tomb of all animate and inanimate things, is casting up fragments which speak of the mighty past—fragments which come like a resurrection to corroborate the traditions of history, and sometimes to correct or restore its lost or faded pages. Everything that we see about us, from the primal granite rocks to the child’s toy which ministers to the whim of the moment, is by a slow process of disintegration passing away into a fine dust, which goes on for ever, building up the crust of the globe—a fine dust which in the course of time becomes animated with verdant sod, and to all appearance silently obliterates the marks which humanity is ever graving upon its surface, or building or shaping with its pigmy hands. To all appearances only, however; for year by year we are discovering that beneath the smiling sod and the sad-coloured earth, lie the scattered remnants of the ages that have gone. The successive waves of men that have passed over the globe have left traces as indelibly inscribed beneath our feet as the light ripples of the ocean, thousands upon thousands of years ago, have graven themsevles upon the sandstone shores of the pre-adamite world.
Let us for a moment retrace the long Egyptian galleries that have given rise to these reflections. As we pass along, the self-same shadows from the statues of the gods fall upon us as darkened the white-robed priests of Isis four thousand years ago. We pass the Rosetta stone which alone retains the key of that language, in which the science and learning of the early ages of the world were inscribed. Those sculptured stones, as we proceed, as plainly as though they spoke, yield up traces of the Greek conquest of this ancient people, and as plainly we see succeeding these, the rougher marks of the Romans who followed. But time, the reader will say, has been resisted by enduring stone. This is true, but the extraordinary circumstance is, that the most perfect records of these long past ages, are to be found associated with the most fragile materials. As we ascend the stairs, for instance, towards the upper Egyptian gallery, we find the walls covered with the brightly painted hieroglyphics inscribed upon papyri born of the trembling reed. As we enter the mummy room, peopled with the silent dead, one of the first coffins that strikes our attention is that of King Men-ka-re, the builder of the third pyramid! And near it are the remnants of a body supposed to be a portion of that of the monarch himself. Together with the dust of kings there has been preserved to us, in these Egyptian tombs, an infinity of articles, which show us how this ancient people lived and moved and had their being. Herodotus gives us many microscopic pictures of the habits of this people in his time; but here we have before us their very surroundings, even the food they ate—the corn, the barley, the oats of which they made their bread, the very bread itself, and the remains of wild duck, roasted, and looking as though it had been only just cooked. The folding-chairs of the present day may have been copies of the one to be found in this section of the Museum, and the wig that once belonged to an Egyptian lady of rank may, from the brightness of its curls, have just left the curling-tongs of Truefitt. The balls, the jointed dolls, draughtsmen, and dice we see here, show that both children and men of this ancient race amused themselves pretty much as we do now.
Perhaps the most frequented stall at the late International Exhibition, was the one in the gallery devoted to the products of Egypt. Among these, appearing like a ghost at a festival, were the famous antiquities found in old Egyptian tombs. Nothing startled the spectator so much as being led back by these remains to a period coeval with many events related in the Bible. The well-made bronzed weapons, the gilt car, in the shape of a boat with rowers, representing the passage of the soul to another world, and (more interesting still to the ladies) a diadem, a necklace, and armlets of gold. How little the Pharaohs of that period imagined that their old-world art would be exhumed and laid before the curious eyes of a nation that in their day had not even begun its move westward, borne on the surges of the great Caucasian wave. Of all the remnants handed down to us by antiquity, the most wonderfully preserved are articles of pottery, glass, and gold; the first are almost absolutely indestructible, and gold, in consequence of its unoxidizable nature, is almost as everlasting. In the Italian Court, for instance, we all of us saw the old Etruscan jewellery, necklaces, and bracelets, as perfect as the day they heaved upon white bosoms, or clasped the delicate wrists of maidens of a race about whom history itself is silent.
In our own Museum again, the Etruscan vases, as perfect as when they came from the hands of the artist, are to be seen by the hundred. The mind can scarcely believe that these precious works were made long before the appearance of Christ upon earth. They look rather, in their modern glass cases, like the stock in trade of Minton’s shop, especially the Greek rhytons, or drinking horns, terminating in an animal’s head, one of which, shaped like a mule, is probably one of the most delicately designed and the most perfectly preserved work of art of its kind in existence.
It would seem as though Nature treasured up the features of the past in her bosom, in order to show to the children of the present, that our toys and geegaws are but reproductions of those of the most remote generations. We should recommend all those who seek to dive deeper into ancient history to study well before they write, what the spade has brought forth from the depths of Mother Earth. Can it be denied that Mr. Layard has made us better acquainted with the public and private life of the Assyrians, than all the historians who have written about them? How many eyes have gazed upon the sand mounds that covered ancient Nineveh, in ignorance that beneath them history itself lay buried! If the historians who wrote in their hazy way about the nations of antiquity, in the last century, had been told that Assyria lived beneath those mishapen mounds, or rather slept like the enchanted princess in the fairy tale, and that one day she would come forth and speak—tell us her tale, graven on enduring marble, and would show us through her royal halls, and take us to the steps of the throne of Sennacherib himself—would they not have smiled incredulously? What Rollin of the pen could tell us a hundredth part of what Layard has written for us with the spade? The stranger tired with his desultory wanderings in the British Museum, at last loiters into the long low gallery in which the spoils of Assyria are ranged. If he happen to be of an imaginative turn, he finds food enough around him to lire his flagging spirits. These sculptured slabs discover to him a picture history of one of the greatest eastern empires. He may see the very throne upon which Sardanapalus sat, and the sceptre he used, and,—we say it in order to show that we need not despair of having presented to us even the minutest details of the past,—we find the very studs, and buttons, and pins, that that mighty monarch probably wore, for they were discovered in these royal halls. Need we despair that the earth will yield up thousands of secrets equally curious with those she has so long kept silently in the sand beside the swiftly flowing Tigris? Let us salute those human-headed winged bulls, for they guarded the portals through which monarchs and slaves have passed, whose deeds and sufferings the sacred historian has chronicled in the Great Book.
But what shall we say to our Mother Earth not only handing down to us the belongings of the past, but often preserving for our curious inspection the very attitudes of terror, and the passing notions of a despairing people who perished long before the birth of Christ? Pompeii has been famous as the one startling example of a petrified past, if we may be allowed the expression. Destroyed in a moment, as it were, by the overwhelming fall of dust and ashes, it presented to us an ancient city with its full tide of life suddenly arrested. The wine stains upon the counters of the vintners, the bread just broken at the meal, the tools of the mason and the mound of mortar beside the wall in the act of being built, and the most perfect collection of the appliances of a great city, and of the furniture of houses of every condition, have long been shown to the public in the National Museum at Naples. Amid all these relics of the overwhelmed city, thus like a fly in amber so carefully preserved, to us, there was, however, wanting some memento of human terror to make the picture complete. It will be remembered that Pompeii was not so suddenly destroyed as Herculaneum—that the rolling waves of liquid lava did not reach the former city and destroy it at once; but that timely warning was given by the fall of the fine dust and pumice stones, and it is supposed that the inhabitants had time to escape; at all events, very few human remains have been found within its walls.
A discovery within these last few months has been made which will give a ten-fold interest to that ghostly city, which cannot now be said to be deserted, at least not by its silent dead. The chief of the works of excavation, M. Fiorelli, has lately been pushing his inquiries in the neighbourhood of the Temple of Isis; one day inside a house amid fallen roofs and ashes the outline of a human body was perceived, and M. Fiorelli soon ascertained that there was a hollow under the surface. In accordance with a plan he has adopted of taking casts of any hollow he may find, he made a small hole into the cavity, through which he poured liquid plaster of Paris until it was filled up; the result was a cast of a group of human figures transfixed as it were at the very instant of their agony, and petrified for ever in the last attitudes of their terrible death. The first body discovered was that of a woman lying on her left side with her limbs contracted and her hands clenched, as if she had died in convulsions. The bones of the arms and legs were slender, and from the richness of her head-dress and the texture of her robes, it was evident she was of noble race. The plaster had given the impression of the hair with the greatest minuteness; on the bones of the little finger of this lady were two silver rings, and close to her head the remains of a linen bag of pieces of silver money and some keys: she was evidently the matron of the house. By the side of the Roman lady lay an elderly woman with an iron ring on her finger; from her large ear it was supposed that she was a servant of the family. A girl was found in an adjoining room. She had fallen in her terror, and it was evident that she was running with her skirts pulled over her head. Pliny the younger, in his account of the catastrophe, tells us that the inhabitants escaped with pillows bound over their heads, in order to protect themselves against the shower of stones that poured upon them. This poor girl wandering in the total darkness of that day, having taken the like precaution, must have been suffocated as she tried to escape. The other personage was a tall man lying at full length. The plaster had taken with the utmost minuteness the form, the folds of his garment, his torn sandals, and his beard and hair. The family appear to have remained within the shelter of the house, hoping that the dreadful fiery tempest would soon cease. In this hope they remained until the fine dust, which penetrated everywhere and completely filled the interior of the house, suffocated them. The dust continued to fall, however, and completely buried them, hardening in the course of ages into a perfect mould, the impress of which the Italian savant took two thousand years after it was made, and presented the world with such a posthumous group as it had never seen before.
In another house just uncovered, all the furniture was found in a very perfect condition, and in the triclinium or dining-room, a most completely served table covered with the remnants of dishes filled with food. On the table-beds around, made of bronze and adorned with gold and silver, several skeletons reposed. The guests had evidently been suffocated by some noxious gas, while partaking of the meal, and thus we have preserved to us a dinner-party of the antique world. Elegant statues adorned the board, and many precious jewels were scattered around. About the same time a baker’s oven was discovered with eighty-one loaves within it. They retained their shape perfectly, which is identical with that of loaves now made at Palermo and Catania.
From these cultivated people of Lower Italy, let us turn for a moment to the rude inhabitants of this island at the time of the invasion of the Romans.
History gives us the most unsatisfactory accounts of their habits and customs. The child is taught to believe that they tatooed themselves with woad, like the Australian savage; but the earth has disclosed to us remnants of this so-called barbarous people, which lead us to doubt their being so extremely barbarous after all. For instance, in the department devoted to Ancient British Antiquities, the first thing that strikes the eye is a shield of bronze, so beautifully and boldly designed that we do not believe it could be better executed in the present day. Its centre is inlaid with different coloured enamel. It was found a few years since in the bed of the Thames, at Battersea; its owner probably perished in some battle with the Romans whilst contesting the passage of that river.
But Mother Earth has preserved to us tokens of the aboriginal inhabitants of this country of an earlier and later period than was the chief who owned this curious shield. The traveller, in the lonely wilderness of Exmoor, comes upon the circular foundations of the huts of the ancient Britons, of a very remote period, and the marks of their hearths are yet observable stained with smoke. Perhaps there is no period of the history of our aboriginal islanders—at least within the historic limit—that is so dark as the time which immediately succeeded the withdrawal of the Roman Legions, and the brief attempt of the Romanised Britons to stand alone. History confines itself to a few lines in which they are described as attempting to repel the savage Picts, who finally overwhelmed them.
The future historian who dwells upon this stage of history, must dig his facts, not out of these threadbare and untrustworthy records, but out of the ground. Not far from Shrewsbury, on the banks of the Severn, underneath some fields of turnips and wheat, the very facts of which the historian was in search lay hidden. Within these last few years a perfect Roman city (as far at least as its ground plan was concerned), has been disinterred, streets, halls, market-places, baths, houses,—a perfect British Pompeii—in fact, has been laid open to the public eye. Among these ruins vast numbers of articles of daily use were found; half-finished stag-horn work, such as the Germans and Swiss are so fond of making, was discovered in an old workshop; a supply of charcoal, in the shop of a baker, the stoke-hole still covered with the soot of a sweating-bath, and tesselated pavements without number. But relics such as these are plentiful enough in the world. The ruins of Uriconium have an interest far surpassing the possession of even these curiosities; it was evidently the scene of one of those terrible conflicts between the half emasculated Briton and the Pict who destroyed him. It is pretty evident that the fair and beautiful Uriconium was destroyed by fire, and that its inhabitants were put to the sword. In one of the hypocausts the skeleton of a man, hiding in the corner, was discovered, and a little heap of money, together with the fragments of a money-box, lay immediately beneath his hand. He had evidently crept into the place for security, in the moment of peril, and the conflagration must have prevented his egress. The coins bear the effigies of the Constantines, thus marking the period of the city, as about the end of the fourth century. Immediately outside the walls, upon some irregular ground being examined, it was found to contain numerous skeletons lying in all directions, and entombed, possibly as they lay on a field of battle. There had evidently been a great struggle at this spot, which was immediately beneath a water-tower guarding a ford across the Severn. Here there is every reason to believe Mother Earth has preserved to us, together with many implements of battle, the veritable invading Picts themselves, as the configuration of the skulls was entirely different from those found within the city itself.
Here is a culminating point in the past history of Britain. Sealed and preserved to the present time—put away, as it were, under the verdant turf, and the feet of beasts, and the golden crops to be exhumed by the chance stroke of the labourer’s pick. There are countless such treasure troves as these, however, yet to be discovered. The Danes have left innumerable marks of their invasion of the island; not so very long ago, the skin of one of these sea-kings was to be seen nailed to the door of the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster Abbey; and on some of the doors of the old Lincolnshire parish churches may yet be witnessed the epidermis of captured and flayed Vikings of old. But may we not go back ages and ages, and yet find Mother Earth preserving for us the story of the past? was she not busy in making the moulds, and taking off the delicate impressions of a chain of life that was not destined to reach to the period of man’s appearance on this globe? The many pages of the great stone book preserved in the geological department of the Museum come to our recollection as we write. What texture so delicate or perishable, the impression of which she has not preserved to us by means of the soft mud which afterwards gradually hardened into stone? The scales of fishes, the forms of the softest insects, as well as the skeletons of the most tremendous creatures that crawled, and swam, and walked the splashy earth, ere yet it was fit for the foot of man, are to be found in this museum, and may be dug out any day from the lias of the Weald of Kent. Nay, the earth and the waters are yielding up the relics of man himself of the stone period, which it is estimated must have been at least ten or twelve thousand years ago. On the banks of many of the existing Swiss lakes, have been found the indications of the pile-built habitations of this ancient people. Like many of the South American races at the present day, they built over the water, and the soft mud of the lakes has preserved to us their skulls and skeletons, the remnants of their food, including even their bread, the stone implements of the chace, and others of domestic life. The further that science examines, however, into the secrets of our great mother, the more quaint are the records she brings forth from her bosom. In the limestone caves of Belgium, the bones of man have been discovered, together with those of the larger carnivora and pachydermata that roamed this earth, possibly a hundred thousand years ago. Who shall say what a depository, thus faithful through such long ages to its trust, may not yet bring forth to elucidate the history of the past? Madame de Stael used to say that if you scratched the Russian, the Tartar appeared;—it may be said, with still greater truth;—You have but to scratch the earth, and there you will find the records of man.
- See Vol. ii. p. 39.