We become the ephemera of history: ‘Only the privileged few of us get to be fossils’

From “Whose father was he?” a four-part essay on tracking down the story of three children whose photograph was discovered on the corpse of a Union soldier killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863:

Perhaps more than any other artifact, the photograph has engaged our thoughts about time and eternity. I say “perhaps,” because the history of photography spans less than 200 years. How many of us have been “immortalized” in a newspaper, a book or a painting vs. how many of us have appeared in a photograph [32]? The Mayas linked their culture to the movements of celestial objects. The ebb and flow of kingdoms and civilizations in the periodicities of the moon, the sun and the planets. In the glyphs that adorn their temples they recorded coronations, birth, deaths. Likewise, the photograph records part of our history. And expresses some of our ideas about time. The idea that we can make the past present.

The photograph of Amos Humiston’s three children — of Frank, Alice and Fred — allows us to imagine that we have grasped something both unique and universal. It suggests that the experience of this vast, unthinkable war can be reduced to the life and death of one man — by identifying Gettysburg’s “Unknown Soldier” we can reunite a family. That we can be saved from oblivion by an image that reaches and touches people, that communicates something undying and transcendent about each one of us.

And the footnote, number 32:

[32] I had an opportunity to visit the fossil collections at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. It was part of a dinosaur fossil-hunting trip with Jack Horner, the premier hunter of T-Rex skeletons. Downstairs in the lab, there was a Triceratops skull sitting on a table. I picked it up and inserted my finger into the brain cavity. (I had read all these stories about how small the Triceratops brain had to have been and I wanted to see for myself.) I said to Jack Horner, “To think that someday somebody will do that with my skull.” And he said, “You should be so lucky. It’s only the privileged few of us who get to be fossils.”

See Errol Morris’s whole series, “Whose father was he?” at the New York Times blogs:

  • Whose Father Was He? (Part Five)
  • Whose Father Was He? (Part Four)
  • Whose Father Was He? (Part Three)
  • Whose Father Was He? (Part Two)
  • Whose Father Was He? (Part One)
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    2 Responses to We become the ephemera of history: ‘Only the privileged few of us get to be fossils’

    1. Oblivion is the fate of all of us, so it’s interesting to read about people for whom it is forestalled or revoked.


    2. NYC Educator says:

      Maybe I’m just simple-minded, but being alive and kicking, to me, has it all over being a fossil. I realize it’s a great honor and all, but I think the allure is overrated.


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