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The Future of the Past

The Future of the Past

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by Alexander Stille

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An engrossing look at the cultural consequences of technological change and globalization

Space radar, infrared photography, carbon dating, DNA analysis, microfilm, digital data bases-we have better technology than ever for studying and preserving the past. And yet the by-products of technology threaten to destroy--in one or two generations--monuments,


An engrossing look at the cultural consequences of technological change and globalization

Space radar, infrared photography, carbon dating, DNA analysis, microfilm, digital data bases-we have better technology than ever for studying and preserving the past. And yet the by-products of technology threaten to destroy--in one or two generations--monuments, works of art, and ways of life that have survived thousands of years of hardship and war. This paradox is central to our age. We use the Internet to access and assess infinite amounts of information--but understand less and less of its historical context. Globalization may eventually benefit countries around the world; it will also, almost certainly, lead to the disappearance of hundreds of regional dialects, languages, and whole societies.

In The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille takes us on a tour of the past as it exists today and weighs its prospects for tomorrow, from China to Somalia to Washington, D.C. Through incisive portraits of their protagonists, he describes high-tech struggles to save the Great Sphinx and the Ganges; efforts to preserve Latin within the Vatican; the digital glut inside the National Archives, which may have lost more information in the information age than ever before; an oral culture threatened by a "new" technology: writing itself. Wherever it takes him, Stille explores not just the past, but our ideas about the past, how they are changing--and how they will have to change if our past is to have a future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Great Sphinx of Giza, "part lion, part pharaoh, part god," is slowly dying. Large chunks of limestone crack off each day, the soft middle portion of its body is vulnerable and, eventually, the head will become unstable. Though Egyptologists try to restore and preserve the great monument, much of their work does more harm than good. In the disturbing words of one archeologist: "You study it, you kill it." That comment best captures the paradox at the heart of Stille's splendid book: scholars work feverishly to study and preserve precious monuments, rare species and ancient manuscripts, relying on ever more advanced forms of technology in their efforts, while the accelerating rate of technological change industrialization, population growth and pollution threatens to destroy these treasures. Hence, a cycle of preservation and destruction perpetuates itself. Stille (Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic), a lovely storyteller, brings to life the passionate and forceful personalities of preservationists, dedicated scholars, bald opportunists, looters and other key players in the world of conservation and preservation. He examines the dying traditions of canoe making and oral poetry on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea; the tombaroli (tomb robbers) of Sicily who have helped to make illicit antiquities the third most valued item in the world's black markets; devastating levels of pollution in the beloved and holy Ganges river; and one man's ultimately scandalous attempt to modernize the 550-year-old Vatican library. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker (where parts of this book were previously published), Stille consistently offers a powerful narrative, rich with anecdote, detailed description and lively dialogue. This is a must read for anyone interested in the preservation of our world's decaying treasures. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A writer living in New York who often takes up Italian subjects, Stille here ponders the double-edged impact of technological change on physical and literary artifacts of the human past. He focuses on some specific places, among them Egypt, China, Sicily, India, and Madagascar. He also deals with the technology of writing and the libraries of antiquity, the Renaissance, and the present. Some of the chapters have been published separately. There is no index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
On deteriorating masterpieces, disintegrating temples, declining Latin, and other markers of the race to save history from humanity. "Our society is in the midst of a fundamental rupture with the past," writes New Yorker contributor Stille (Excellent Cadavers, 1995, etc.). This break, he adds, isn't a result just of the historical amnesia born of a television age but is also a result of disappearing antiquities themselves: our knowledge of the past, of earlier peoples, and even of nature increases exponentially while the objects of study themselves are disappearing, whether to the tomb, the robber's shovel, or Taliban cannons. Stille's 11 pieces here, most previously published in the New Yorker, address this loss while looking at varied attempts by individuals (and by a few organizations) to reverse it. The author writes, for example, about American primatologist Patricia Wright, who, "great at politicking," all but single-handedly created Madagascar's Ranomafana National Park, a preserve for lemurs and other endangered species; about University of Chicago scholar Mark Lehner, who is laboring against all odds to prevent further destruction of Egypt's Giza pyramid complex; and, most entertaining of all, about the American expatriate priest Reginald Foster, who has launched a highly influential if idiosyncratic movement to restore Latin to the status of a living language. Individually, the pieces are pleasures, bearing all the hallmarks of New Yorker-style comprehensive yet accessible approach to the weightiest of matters. But they're not equally successful at adding up to a sustained argument, a weakness revealed clearly in the ill-advised concluding chapter, which attempts to tie it alltogether with a string of truisms about the deleterious effects of modern habits on things and ways of the past. Even so, Stille is an exemplary reporter, and he offers here just the thing to add to a history buff's stack of bedside reading.

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The Sphinx — Virtual and Real

Sitting at a computer terminal in Santa Monica, California, I watched the Great Sphinx of Giza take shape before my eyes as a scholar's careful measurements were transformed into an elaborate wire-frame model, then grew a "skin" that showed not the half ruined statue that now lies in the sands of Egypt but the Sphinx as it may have looked at the time of its creation forty-five hundred years ago, with its nose, royal beard, and headdress intact.

Just a few miles away at the Getty Conservation Institute in Marina Del Rey, technicians have compiled data from a fully automated, solar-powered monitoring station placed behind the Sphinx, measuring wind direction and velocity and relative humidity in order to study erosion patterns of the ancient world's greatest surviving colossal statue. In the basement of the institute, men in white lab coats were testing perfect airless environments for the preservation of the body of King Tutankhamen and his fellow mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the institute has sponsored the virtual reality reconstruction of the tomb of Queen Nefertari so that anyone with a ten-thousand-dollar Silicon Graphics computer can "walk through" her final resting place sixty-five hundred miles away in the Theban necropolis in Luxor.

Although these technological marvels are helping to transform the way we study and preserve the historical past, the reality on the ground in Egypt looks rather different. When I first saw the Great Sphinx in 1996, it was covered in scaffolding as Egyptian conservators worked to protect its lion body by encasing its bottom half in newly cut limestone blocks — the latest in a series of attempts to save the Sphinx. Several years earlier, a two-ton chunk had fallen off the chest of the Sphinx, and the soft middle portion of its body continues to flake and chip in pieces that turn to a dust as soft as talcum powder when you rub them between your fingers. Slowly and relentlessly, its body is being eaten at by wind and moisture, aided by the smog of Cairo, which now rivals Mexico City's as the worst in the world. Behind the rump of the Sphinx, the Getty's solar-powered monitoring device stood disconnected, tangled up in its own wiring, looking like a space-age music stand alone on a stage without an orchestra. The Sphinx still stares impenetrably across the millennia but instead of contemplating the mysteries of existence its gaze is now trained at the Pizza Hut and Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants that have opened just two hundred yards in front of it. The urban sprawl of Cairo — which has grown from two to seventeen million people in the last forty years — has reached the feet of the Sphinx and the Pyramids, bringing with it cars, sewage, air pollution, and fast-food culture.

"You have arrived in Cairo at a very bad time," an Egyptian voice explained to me in an ominous tone over the phone the day of my arrival at the Nile Hilton. "There has been a theft at the Egyptian Museum. They have just fired the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I'm not sure very many people will be willing to speak with you." A thief had hidden inside a sarcophagus, snuck out after closing time, stolen several gold objects from the collection of King Tutankhamen, and hidden them in the bathroom. He was arrested trying to smuggle something out the next morning. The incident was seized upon by the minister of culture as an excuse to sack the director of antiquities, who was considered an open, likable person who had worked well with foreign archeologists in Egypt. His successor asserted his power by revoking many recent decisions and thundering against foreigners using their work in Egypt to "give their students Ph.D.'s." But how else, the archeologists wondered, are we supposed to train a new generation of Egyptologists?

As I was to discover in the next few weeks, the deterioration and conservation of antiquities is an extremely delicate subject in Egypt, and nowhere more so than at the Sphinx-national symbol of Egypt, tourist attraction, and world icon, in which almost everyone feels they have a stake and a say.

I headed out to Giza with Mark Lehner, a scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago and who may know more about the Sphinx than anyone else alive. We started in the confusion and traffic of downtown Cairo, crossed the Nile onto its west bank, and drove about seven miles south and a couple of miles inland from the river. "This all used to be farmland when I first came here in 1972," Lehner said as we drove along the Pyramids Road. Now the road is lined with cheaply built cement high-rises that are already badly dilapidated and black with soot. Although they are less than twenty years old, they are in considerably worse shape than the Pyramids, which begin to appear, majestic as ever, over the roofs crowded by satellite dishes.

Not only has the population nearly doubled in the twenty-five years Lehner has been coming to Egypt, it has become infinitely more Cosmopolitan. "When I first came, I recall people collecting outside store-front windows where you had a few imported things, silk ties maybe from Italy or a little can of Nescafé," Lehner said. "Now we have McDonald's, Pizza Hut, satellite dishes, CNN, and David Letterman." As Egyptian society has opened up on some fronts, it has turned inward on others. Just in the last several years, there has been a sudden proliferation of the chador — the veil traditionally worn by Islamic women — which had been gradually disappearing from the streets of Cairo in recent decades.

During the 1980s, Lehner was the field director of something called the Sphinx Mapping Project, the first full-scale attempt to scientifically survey and record the colossus with photogrammetric cameras that record and measure the volume of objects with mathematical precision.

The data and images from the Sphinx Mapping Project became the basis for the computer reconstruction of the Sphinx that I had seen in Santa Monica.

For five full years, Lehner worked full-time studying, tracing, photographing every inch of the Sphinx. "I spent weeks on top of the back of the Sphinx just doing hand mapping of the outlines," he said. "I spent weeks on top of the paws, mapping all the stones in that area. I knew the Sphinx so well at that time I could go home at night and run all of this detail in my head like a video and think about it."

When we met, Lehner was forty-six, a relatively short, slightly built man with round, thin tortoiseshell glasses, and thinning grayish hair that gave him a scholarly air. But he moved around in his blue jeans and boots with the light and agile step of someone who has spent years working outdoors, clambering in and out of excavation ditches, climbing up and down pyramids with surveying equipment, crawling in and out of narrow passageways. He wears a somewhat rakish green felt hat with a leather band that his academic colleagues kid him about, saying he is trying to look like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Despite twenty-five years in Egypt and in academe, Lehner has retained his flat, plain North Dakota accent and the colloquial informality of someone who grew up in the 1960s.

During his years mapping the Sphinx, Lehner would eat a stale cheese sandwich in the shade of the south side of the monument and watch as large potato chip-sized chunks of limestone flaked off and fell to the ground. The flaking is due to salt crystallization. Dew condenses on the Sphinx in the cool of the night and early morning. Salt within the stone is drawn to the surface by the moisture and dissolves. When the dew burns off during the day the salt crystallizes again, expanding greatly in size and pushing at the surface with explosive force. Sometimes as the morning dew evaporates in the sun, you can actually hear a popping sound as the salt hardens, pushing off layers of stone that then blow off in the wind. The Sphinx as it exists today, Lehner said, is in many ways no longer the same monument as it was when he began working on it: "So many of the details have changed." The surface modeling has suffered not only from erosion but, in large areas, from the cement, mortar, and limestone that have been added to support and protect the statue.

The Sphinx, part lion, part pharaoh, part god, stands guard over the entrance to the pyramid complex in the valley of the Giza plateau. Although gigantic for a work of sculpture — some 66 feet tall and 240 feet long — when seen from a distance it is dwarfed by the three massive pyramids that loom over it in the background, lined up in a row. Throngs of tourists thread their way along the road between the Pyramids down to the Sphinx as Egyptians in long robes follow alongside selling Coca-Cola, postcards, Egyptian papyri, T-shirts, and camel rides. Bobbing above the crowd are the brightly colored umbrellas of the tour guides trying both to ward off the desert heat and to prevent their charges from becoming separated from the group.

As you face the Sphinx, the first and largest pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid, appears over its left shoulder. Standing almost five hundred feet tall, nearly eight times as big as the Sphinx, it was built by the pharaoh Khufu in about 2600 B.C. The other two pyramids, built by his son and grandson, sit on a diagonal line in diminishing size along the ridge, creating an architectural complex that is of unprecedented scale yet surprising harmony. It is thought that these enormous mountains of stone built in the desert were meant to symbolize the ancient Egyptians' creation myth, according to which life came into being as a mound of earth rising out of the waters of chaos, like the land reappearing after the flooding of the Nile. Originally cased in hard granite — almost all of which has been stripped off and reused in recent centuries — the Pyramids were meant to glitter in the sun, evoking perhaps the association in ancient Egypt between the pharaohs and the sun god Ra. In fact, it was during the fourth dynasty, when the Pyramids were built, that the pharaoh assumed the title of Son of Ra, a god on earth.

Copyright (c) 2002 Alexander Stille

Meet the Author

Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic and Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and lives in New York City.

Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Benevolence and Betrayal, and The Future of the Past. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times.

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