Time reversed

by Michał GAWLIKOWSKI (Delta 11/1979).


Is the past cognizable? Time running in one irreversible direction, one might think at first that the only thing we can observe and investigate is the present, for only the present is directly accessible to us.


Anyone who is a little familiar with astronomy knows, however, that because of the limited velocity of light, all the knowledge we can gather in this area of science relates to the past, while the present state of any heavenly body is beyond the reach of our direct perception. Nevertheless, due to differences in distance from Earth the data we get belong to different epochs, and assuming invariance of some general laws, we may on this basis conceive hypotheses concerning changes occurring in the universe around us.


On Earth, however, things look quite different. Material facts accessible to us today are derived from processes that took place in a more or less distant past. Assuming some constant laws of physics and chemistry, we are able to formulate hypotheses about processes already accomplished, i.e. about the past. This is what geology rose out of. The present shape and structure of rocks that form the Earth's crust, may serve to deduce models of their origins, their interrelations in time, as well as to measure in years the time elapsed. Again, our knowledge of human past is also possible mainly due to material remnants of distant epochs, like documents, scrupulously analysed by historians. Archeology is a particular case of history, too. Here the researcher scrutinises relicts of the past himself, instead of analysing observations done by others and contained in old texts.


Nevertheless, contrary to so-called natural history, i.e., the past of the Earth as a planet and the history of biological evolution, human history is not subject to such general and generally valid laws as animate or inanimate nature is. Instead, we have to do with man, who, since his appearance as a species, is accessible through cognition of a different kind. We know his psyche by our own experience, we have conscience of his needs and his extraordinary ability to adapt to most varied conditions without altering his own biological construction. This introspective knowledge about man is one of the foundations of historical investigations. The other consists of traces of his activities that survived.


An archivist-historian has at his disposal written documents. However, even the richest collection of such texts is not yet history. No doubt a document may inform us of the events, the customs and the ideas of the time and place of its creation, but only in the way they were seen and understood by its author (assuming, of course, that he meant to tell the truth, which was not always the case). It is our task to translate it into the language of our own epoch - and this is why it must be undertaken by each generation anew. Therefore the history of writing history includes not only accumulation of knowledge, but also a history of ideas used by historians. The same is seemingly valid for every branch of science.


Archeology is, as I said before, a particular case of history. It finds its sources by itself and uses them to reconstruct historical processes. Sometimes the sources are just new written documents or new pieces of art, treated in the same way as those that have already been placed in archives or museums. There is also information of an absolutely different type, though.


 Remains of buildings, objects of everyday or festive use, houses, graves, remainders of farm fields, canals and innumerable other traces of the activity of ancient communities, were not conceived as information sources for future generations. Nevertheless, they often convey data on things that neither the writer nor the artist thought of immortalising, simply because he saw them as either obvious or not worth mention. The aim of excavations is not only to discover objects, but also to use them as a source of information on people. We can very rarely, however, learn anything about an individual person. The further we look on the time scale, the more general are the data we find; we can reconstitute the way of life of hunters or farmers, craftsmen or town residents by their tools, lodgings, adornments and garments. If those people had no knowledge of writing, we shall learn nothing about their language, their names, and almost nothing about their beliefs, rituals and the organisation of their community. To what extent can the information we do have provide a basis for a model adequate to the reality that existed once upon a time? What would the model leave out? We shall never know of things that once were obvious to everyone, but we may instead reveal things of which there was no conscience at the proper time. It is the distance in time that makes possible a more general point of view, unavailable to contemporaries.

 Let's consider the following hypothesis: inhabitants had suddenly deserted one of our towns and several centuries later scientists who know nothing of our civilisation initiate archeological investigations at the place. This is a very theoretical hypothesis indeed - not only because of its historical improbability, but also because scientific concern about the past is something quite characteristic of our civilisation and need not be true of another. If I invite you to dwell upon it here, it is just to get a grasp of the limits of outsider's knowledge, using an example we know best.

We assume, of course, that our future scientists belong to our species, so by their own experience they have some general knowledge of man. It's no use to take other cosmos inhabitants into account, even in theory. In fact, besides the very low probability of their existence, we are quite unable to imagine other ways of acquiring knowledge than our own. All the stories about visitors from the outside universe, so fashionable today, are heavily marked by anthropomorphism: we always endow those creatures with human features. It seems that no author of this kind of literature can conceive anything really original.

So, the forces of nature have turned our houses into ruin, erosion has covered them with a thick layer of earth; perhaps here or there a concrete or brick wall stands out of the ground.

Most probably there will be no problem in establishing the outline of the street system, at least where it had been designed in the traditional way. Loosely scattered blocks of the new housing estates have now become easy hills, very much alike in dimension. And here is the first puzzling issue: what aim could these constructions, irregularly scattered over an empty wide area, serve? Excavations will certainly reveal, first of all, the cellars in the blocks; small, uniform cells along systems of corridors. These systems are not easy to discover anyway, since piles of huge concrete slabs bar the access. Were they tombs, catacombs with enormous, high monuments commemorating the dead? Not very probable, for no bones have been found. Then maybe people lived there? But then one of the better-preserved blocks discloses the design of the ground floor, perhaps even the first floor survived. Similar complexes, each consisting of a couple of rooms, must have served for human habitation. Therefore the basements were certainly storerooms.

There is almost no trace of furniture. Instead, there is a lot of glass debris, particularly near openings in the walls. The explanation seems to be clear. We also have some metal objects. Although destroyed by corrosion, the shapes are still recognisable: spoons, forks, keys…There are also, I assume, a few small plastic things. Of all the garments only buttons survived. Obviously no papers remained, so there are no writings left. However, brass plates once hanging on the now non-existent doors support the thesis that writing was known, although its interpretation is quite another story. Other things we can analyse are the water and sewage-pipe systems or the electric scheme.

It seems that it will be particularly hard to establish the destination of mechanical devices. Those numerous tin boxes must have been used for some specific specialised purposes. Unfortunately, if totally different technical instruments are used in the times of the investigators, there may be serious problems in identifying e.g. the fridge. It may happen by a fortunate chance, however, that the inhabitants had forgotten to take their supplies out of one those boxes. Then chemical analysis would reveal traces of organic substances, presumably food, exposed to some special process, as the existence of electric connection suggests. But will the scientists know anything about cable electricity? If they do, they will be able to solve the question of artificial light. Radiators supplied each room with some kind of liquid or gas, distributed within a closed circuit. The scholars will probably not fail to infer that they were used for heating.

Systematic investigation will include not only houses, but also their immediate environment. Today an archeologist can find much interesting information in old refuse-heaps. However, we remove our garbage far away from where we live. Therefore there will be very little pottery, so helpful in excavation research. There might only be some faience shells left in the rooms.

What image of a community can we derive therefrom? If the housing estate has been built upon old demolished houses, their basements would certainly come out. It will not be hard to see that old constructions had been levelled to earth and their wreckage covered by newer buildings. An evolutionary change in house building would become clear: the end of the brick epoch is marked by a complete demolition of houses and is followed by the concrete block epoch with a totally different way of building.

Had the population remained the same? The violence of changes may suggest that an entirely new people invaded the land, a people living in large groups (the count of concrete slabs would lead to an estimation of the number of floors), in very similar flats, served by common lighting system, sewage pipes and heating. All these data indicate a high degree of organisation and some level of technology.


No doubt the inhabitants of the house must have formed a very close social group (although we are aware of the fact that quite often we don't even know our neighbours next door). What was their occupation, how did they make their living? Nothing is known. A complex organisation system must have existed, there should have been some production going on, agriculture…At this stage of research labour organisation and distribution of goods produced would remain a matter of speculation. The puzzle of a large settled population with seemingly no source of income may long wait for a solution. Did the members of the community work where they lived? And if they had to go away for work, how did they do it and where did they go? At least asphalt-covered pavements would disclose the road system.

With the progress of research, more answers may come forth. It is doubtful, however, that the scientists would ever learn of the existence of literature, printed press and movie… The traces of so-called spiritual culture amount to a few memorial plates. Cemeteries are the only places where noticeable quantities of inscriptions in durable material can be found.

Thus our hypothetical researchers' conclusions would mostly be reduced to the design of flats (vast or confined - who knows? No information on the number of people living in one flat is available), to the reconstruction of some objects of everyday use, to an evaluation of the level of technology attained. Clearly technical questions will open best research possibilities, the entire study would certainly revolve around them. Some more synthetically minded investigators may attempt to construct a model of the society under scrutiny; it would be very general and contain many unproven hypotheses, but it might go much further than what I have just sketched above.


Such are the problems that one usually meets in real research. Only when inscriptions survive on stone or clay tablets, as in Babylone, or on papyrus, as in the particularly favourable climate of Egypt, or thanks to a chain of copyists, as in the case of Greek and Roman literary heritage, can we learn more about other fields of life. Only then can the description be more detailed. While reading a book on history, it is good to remember how much of history is still unknown to us and how much are we able to learn about it.