Amateur archaeologists tracing ancient trails in the Arabian desert recently found the location of an ancient city in Oman using photos taken from the Challenger shuttle during its last flight in 1984.
Ubar, as it was listed on ancient maps, had been covered so completely that many historians were skeptical whether it ever existed.It was the same with Troy, when, in the 1800s, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, with crews of laborers, cut broad bands in a mound of earth about six kilometers inland from the Dardenelles in northwestern Turkey. They found Troy's ancient gates under 20 feet of earth. Subsequent excavations revealed at least nine separate cities built on the same site, each over the ruins of the one preceding it. Yet, before Schliemann came, the site was so hidden that it was regarded as just an insignificant mound of earth. Just a hill.
You'd think if a city or even a house were abandoned it would basically remain at ground level - even after a thousand years. Oh sure, it would become overgrown, but time in itself would not cover it completely - would it?
The concept of civilizations becoming covered with earth hit me hardest when we were in Ribe, a small city in Denmark, just north of the German border.
In the early middle ages, a huge cathedral was built at Ribe. Positioned on a small rise about 7 feet to 10 feet above its surroundings, it made a spectacular impression when first completed. Today, however, though still impressive, its foundation is 5 feet below street level. You actually have to go down several steps to enter the front door. Around the edges of the cathedral a narrow stone retaining wall separates the lower level from the traffic that passes on the asphalt above.
While we were at Ribe, I asked myself where all the dirt came from. Could dust settling from seasonal windstorms create that much depth in 800 years? Could it have accumulated from mud tracked into town on the wheels of farm carts and carriages? Surely that would add up. But five feet?
To help me comprehend this dirt dilemma on a more personal scale, my thoughts settle on things a bit closer to home.
When Alpine was first settled in the early 1850s, as with many early Mormon towns, walled embankments were built around the fledgling community to protect against the possibility of Indian attack. The journal of William Goforth Nelson records:
"During the summer of 1854 we built a wall around the fort. . . . It was built of mud . . . taken up by wheelbarrows. We built three-fourths of the wall 12 feet high while the balance was left at 8 feet." (Some speculate the wall was actually 14 feet high.)
In 1855, an even larger wall was constructed with bastions on the northeast and southwest corners, "with two portholes in each so the guard could see outside the wall in all directions."
Alpine isn't a large town. When I was growing up in the '40s and '50s it was even smaller, and we kids had a pretty good grasp on every nook and cranny of it. Even then, any trace of the old fort wall was not to be found. I know, because I looked for it. Everybody talked about the old fort but always in the past tense. It seems remarkable that a feature of such prominence could so completely vanish in less than a hundred years - part hauled away, no doubt, part crumbled; the rest covered.
At Troy, caches of gold masks and ornamentation were found that gave vital clues to the people who lived there. At Ribe, it was everything from silver coins and amber to pottery. In the front yards of our own pioneer homes, pennies, glass bottles, bayonets and forks leave a hidden testament. I remember finding in the newly tilled soil of a garden beside an old home in Alpine the tiny porcelain leg of a doll about the size of a caterpillar.
How swiftly our creations expire beneath a matrix of earth that covers so slowly we barely notice it happening.
Woven from fine grains of sand carried aloft by summer breezes, and from rivulets that form during spring rains, a coverlet of earth slowly masks our identity in time, binding us to our humanity in the moment, part of an ever-shifting landscape in which we each play our own subtle part.