Archeology 201, September 28th 9847 CE
A brief consideration of what we know about those who lived at the very end of the Late Roman Empire
Welcome to you all, class of 9847. Please take your assigned places and get ready for what’s surely going to be an interesting lecture. We’re lucky to have professor Jeanne Picard as our special guest on campus today, here to describe for us the findings of her latest research trip to the northern Isolated Lands.
For the few of you in this class who may not be aware of the fact, professor Picard is our pre-eminent expert on pre-collapse Indo-European civilization. She’s spent more than four decades in the field, uncovering artifacts from that long-ago time and trying to piece together some idea of what their civilization was like. Whether you agree with all of her conclusions or not, her findings are without doubt utterly fascinating.
And so, without further ado, I’ll hand over to professor Picard herself to tell you all about her work.
Thank you, professor Kirk. Well, it’s good to see so many of you have come to hear what I have to say. I’ve always believed that the past can hold important lessons for the present, if only we can discover enough about long-ago times.
Archeology is a difficult discipline. It’s amazing how rapidly vegetation over-runs even the tallest buildings and causes them to crumble and fall. Given sufficient time, almost everything decays. We have scraps from ancient Mesopotamia, Athens, and Egypt. We have a little more from early Rome. Then there’s the Middle Period about which we know so little. Finally we have proportionately more from the Late Roman Empire but these are still just fragments compared to what we’d like to have.
We use these fragments to try to assemble a coherent picture of what the Romans of this late period were like, but our picture relies entirely on chance. What artifacts happened to survive versus all those that perished? Time is not a curator; what it leaves us may be unrepresentative of the whole. But it’s all we have.
Most of what we’ve assembled has come from enormous refuse collections buried deep under eons of soil. As best as we can tell, the Roman Empire gradually shifted its center of gravity north as the discovery of coal meant that formerly peripheral outposts such as northern-central Continentia and the Isles of Rain became more economically important, enabling the Romans slowly to move from a slave-based economy to a coal-based economy, albeit one predicated initially on revenues generated from moving inhabitants of the Grand Southern Continent to the north-west Isolated Lands and their southern semi-tropical islands where we believe certain crops like sugar and cotton were cultivated.
As best as we can tell, the Romans seem quickly to have relied on both coal and petroleum. We know from artifacts that have survived the passage of time that the people of this period often worshipped coal, calling it quite overtly their King and in the Isolated Lands they blackened their faces for rituals involving song and dance. The competing god was the god of Oil. At some point the Roman Empire seems to have split, with the Romans of the Eastern Desert exerting economic pressure on the Romans living in Continentia and the Isolated Lands, perhaps as part of a classic religious feud. But these two branches of Rome then seem to have become reconciled after a short time. We can tell this was the case because the great shrines of the Isolated Lands also appear all over the Eastern Desert and indeed some evidence suggests they spread all across the globe. These shrines were monuments to the power of their gods, reaching hundreds of meters up into the sky and perhaps they partially symbolized the rejoining of coal and oil in harmony. Whatever the case, the fact is that these shrines existed all over the world and in extraordinary numbers.
No, really. I see you smiling and shaking your heads, but it’s true. Although we have only the fragments of a few structures and these fragments are less than three meters in height, we now believe that many of these buildings could have exceeded two hundred meters during their heyday. The fact that these buildings have no practical use tells us they were shrines, and the fact they appeared all over the world during this period tells us that for the first time in history all people worshipped the same gods wherever they happened to be living. They probably had different names for coal and oil depending on regional languages, but it’s clear that worship of these two important deities formed a key element of their late-phase religion.
We’ve uncovered tantalizing hints that an extraordinary series of roads, albeit poorly made and thus no longer visible, linked the shrines. We believe this enabled the Romans of this period to congregate regularly, no doubt to blacken their faces with coal dust and cover themselves in oil and sing their ritual songs and dance their ritual dances. It’s unclear, however, how or why the Romans lost their former skill in road-building and degenerated into building things that could barely last a few years before requiring expensive repairs. Perhaps — though this is purely my own speculation — the feebleness of their roads was intentionally symbolic of the fragility and impermanence of life, and thus formed an external element of the whole, being a complementary contrast to the tall shrines that would have endured for far longer.
This period in history coincides with another mass extinction event. As we’ve found to date no indication of either volcanic upheaval or asteroid impact to trigger the Great Dying, we now ascribe it to the activities of the people at this time, which is why we call them not only Late Romans but also, in a more catchy and perhaps appropriate way, the Death People. In less than a thousand years 90% of all species on Earth were lost. We think this indicates that the religion of the Death People, despite its worship of fossil fuels, was primarily focused on the mystery of non-existence. We hypothesize that their priests exhorted the ordinary people to go out and kill as many animals as they could, chop down as many trees as they could manage, and seed the soil with all manner of death-dealing chemicals. We have fragmentary evidence that they took their religious duties so seriously that they even built great ships that could ride the ocean waves and destroy all the life they encountered below. They must have known they were thereby dooming their own civilization, which is how we are able to conclude their religion was focused on death and dissolution into nothingness.
Perhaps the blackness of coal and of oil was the primary reason the Death People worshipped these two things, and the fact they could be used to power machinery was simply a happy accident. Although that’s the conclusion I’ve come to, the truth is that we’ll likely never know for sure.
Some of my colleagues have convincingly shown that the early-period Roman ritual of crucifixion persisted right up until the end of late Roman civilization. Every year, in each urban center, they would select ritual victims who would be dressed up in red clothes, made to wear a false white beard, and then nailed to a cross beneath which the Death People would exchange symbolic gifts that represented the futility of material possessions in the face of non-existence. We think this annual ritual provided great cathartic relief to the Death People and perhaps enabled them to imagine for a moment or two that their tenuous existence was not entirely without purpose.
We also believe that such annual catharsis was insufficient to carry the Death People through the entire year. We have evidence to suggest that there were other lesser rituals whereby certain individuals would volunteer — or be forced — to disfigure themselves hideously so as to symbolize the terrible fragility of life in the face of inexorable vicissitudes. There is some, though hardly conclusive, evidence to suggest that near the very end of the Death People’s civilization they had technologies that could transmit images across great distances. If so, then pictures of those who disfigured themselves would have been able to reach perhaps tens of thousands of people, thus providing a large-scale catharsis not dissimilar to that achieved by the Isolated Southern People with their ritual slaughter of infants at the apex of their ziggurats. One of my colleagues published a paper, based on fragments discovered two years ago in one of the rubbish tips in the northern Isolated Lands, that the term for such disfigurations was Kard-dash-N, perhaps obliquely referring to the dash of a scalpel across a helpless face, with the final N symbolizing the purposelessness of Nothing.
Inevitably, the focus on death, nothingness, and the futility of life resulted in a contrary impulse. As some of you may be aware, my doctoral thesis was based on discoveries made nearly fifty years ago in the northern Isolated Lands. We have enough artifacts, both partial and nearly complete, to show that late-period Death People worshipped a deity we now call the Risen Elvis, whose ample body is symbolic of superfluity and consumption without restraint. We think the overall myth was that the god Elvis over-ate himself to death, rose as a red-garbed white-bearded elder, and was then crucified to appease the gods of coal and oil that symbolize permanent death and darkness. Support for this thesis comes from evidence that the crucified red-clothes victims were universally depicted as being old and fat; thus the underlying themes of consumption and death are merged in an intellectually satisfying whole that is rare for any religion to achieve.
Some of my younger colleagues have speculated that the tall shrines which appeared all over the world during the last decades of the Death People were symbolic of this temporary resurrection, and they speculate further than large gatherings would assemble at the very tops of these buildings where they would gorge on a variety of foods in homage to their principle deity, the Risen Elvis, before throwing themselves off the building to sacrifice themselves to the Dark Gods of coal and oil. My own feeling is that the acolytes merely ate themselves to death, perhaps while dressed in red garments, in the hope of resurrection later.
Moving now to the topic of the scant records that have reached us down the ages, I have to admit that in all the years I’ve been studying the Death People I’ve never understood the collapse of literacy at this time. One of my hypotheses to explain the near-total disappearance of written texts in their end period is that their priests, for whatever reasons, forbade ordinary people from learning to read and write. We may never know why, within the space of a few hundred years, they abandoned the printing-press entirely and became a post-literate society. Yet there are, here and there, a few scant clues. We believe they revered a man called Einstein who discovered the universe is an ever-expanding torus; in his later years he abandoned science and began baking torus-shaped breads all across the northern Isolated Lands, perhaps so his followers could participate in what was obviously yet another abstracted cannibal cult. This rejection of science in favor of bread and unreason was part of the puzzle we now find ourselves unable to complete.
The end of the Death People remains shrouded in mystery. For those of you who may go on to study this subject in detail and perhaps one day write your own doctoral theses, there are many hypotheses. One is that they literally ate themselves to death, voluntarily consuming all manner of toxic foods that killed them both quickly and slowly. Another, conversely, is that they succeeded to such a great extent in harming their environment that the food chain collapsed and, rather ironically, they starved to death. Today we can only speculate, but perhaps the archeologists of tomorrow will be fortunate enough to find evidence that enables us to resolve this enigma.
In closing, I want to offer an observation about our own time. There may be seated here among you some who believe we should attempt to emulate the Late Roman Empire. For those who believe this, the fact that there is no coal and no oil we can extract to enable the development of machinery is nothing less than a tragedy. As has been the case throughout all of human history, we the rulers must rely on slaves to perform menial tasks so as to be free to cultivate our minds.
While it is true that we will never be able to construct vast shrines rising hundreds of meters into the sky, it is also true that we will be unlikely to repeat their mistakes. As best as we can tell, their wondrous technologies — most of which we now believe to have been fictional and intended only as metaphors — merely amplified their natural follies. We live now in a happier time in which our follies are of necessity constrained.
And in the end, that is perhaps the greatest wisdom to which our species may ever aspire.
Thank you for attending this lecture. I wish you all well in the years ahead.