Recently, I attended the oral defence of a master’s thesis, The Practice of Wrapping in Tutankhamun’s Burial in a Comparative Perspective, at the University of Copenhagen by Ziff Jonker whom I’d once worked with.
Speaking of ancient Egyptian burials, she mentioned the phrase wrapping, unwrapping and re-wrapping. How the person or object that was wrapped, using certain rituals and values that we no longer know of, takes on another persona when unwrapped in a museum, and that museum attempts to re-wrap a mummy today would never achieve the same result, thus leaving the wrapped up body or object in a kind of limbo. A liminal space. At least, this is how I understood it, from her ensuing discussion with her two examiners.
This made me reflect on history. On reconstruction. On re-enactment. We unwrap history, and we re-wrap it, but what we uncover can never be what was once wrapped away. The past is gone. It occurs once. And nevermore. Yet, traces remain. We carry them within us.
Biologically, we know that the past lives on in us. For, in our genes lie those of our earliest ancestors.* And our memories carry not only past events in our own lives, but also memories of the lives of others. Not through reincarnation but through collective memory.
At our town’s local archives, where I occasionally volunteer, I once overheard a conversation between a visitor and our archivist. The visitor, an elderly gentleman was pointing at a photograph, saying, you remember, the old water pump, and the archivist nodded his head in agreement. But while the visitor had grown up in our little town, and had seen the pump daily in his youth, i.e. it was his own memory, what our archivist, who grew up elsewhere was saying was, yes, I know it was there, in the sense that it was part of the town’s collective memory, that he’d once heard of or read about, and thus knew.
Memory traces are a huge topic in itself, and one that I’ll write more on when I’ve reread Ricoeur, but here, I’d just like to mention a related theme. In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur explores the conundrum that Augustine faced, that the past and the future are only present, in the here and now, in our present, so to speak. And this presence of the past can only be present in our present as a trace.
Thus, in unwrapping the past, what we present to the world’s gaze can never be exactly what once happened, but as historians, we endeavour to make the best and closest approximation of what may have happened, and why.
*In various news media, Lee R. Berger, the leader of the team that works with the Homo nadeli finds is quoted as saying: “This is like opening up Tutankhamen’s tomb…It is that extreme and perhaps that influential in this stage of our history.”