Monday, February 13, 2006

The currency of the past

Anglo-Saxon coin
Coenwulf, King of Mercia, feeling spent

Everything that has survived more or less unchanged from the past is a time machine.

Sometimes the "time trip" can be quite spectacular. In Rome, in the Church of Santa Prassede, you can walk into a small room called the Chapel of St. Zeno. In the chapel you are surrounded on all sides, and the ceiling, by mosaics from the ninth century; other than some unobtrusive lighting, everything is as it was.

But the fascination of objects from the past doesn't depend on size. Pictured above are the front and back (or obverse and reverse, if you're of an academic mind) of a coin that was minted in 805-810 during the reign of Coenwulf, whom The Telegraph describes as "the King of Mercia, East Anglia and Kent, the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time and a significant figure in the gradual unification of England."

Besides the £357,832 that the British Museum shelled out to acquire the coin, it's impressive for being remarkably well preserved, which is possibly down to its high gold content. Here, too, is a tiny peep-hole into a long-ago age. The Western Roman empire had ended centuries previously, yet its memory or traditions lingered in wild-and-woolly Britain: King Coenwulf might not have been recognized names like Virgil or Plutarch, but he knew how to style himself like an emperor on the coin of his realm.

And how about that inscription on the back — DE VICO LVNDONIAE ("from the trading place of London"). Would anyone who handled the coin soon after it was made have imagined that 1,200 years later, it would be an object of wonder in a settlement still called London, and still quite the trading place, buying and selling commodities and equities from the entire world?

We have no idea, of course, by what mischance the coin was lost. The universe seems to run a mysterious lottery that determines if an object created for purposes practical or transcendental arrives at the far shores of time or vanishes without trace on the journey. More often than not, it re-emerges from lost time by accident, like the Venus de Milo, which was found in pieces by a farmer on the Aegean island of Melos, who hid it in his barn until the Turkish ruling authorities got ahold of it.

Every now and then, someone makes an effort to ensure the survival of an article that would otherwise return to the uncreated. The Egyptians of antiquity went to incredible trouble to see that the bodies of their royalty were proof against decay; they had occult knowledge or intuitions of immortality, but confused eternity with perpetual existence in time.

John Aubrey (remembered today as the author of Brief Lives) was walking through Newgate Street in 17th century London where he found the head of a statue that had recently been mostly destroyed in the Great Fire. Aubrey salvaged the what was left as a fragment of history. He wrote, "How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle fellowes as I am put them down!"

Archeologists excavate known ruins, but are unlikely to turn up artifacts outside of their "digs" whose existence is unsuspected. More likely these days than disinterested scholarship is the self-interested quest for profit. (It's not clear from the Telegraph story whether the man who found Coenwulf's coin using a metal detector was deliberately searching for valuables he could sell, but many amateur artifact hunters do just that.) Still, if the net result is that something of historical interest is brought to light rather than continuing to be unseen, we should hardly begrudge them the financial fruits of their labors.

Why does nature retain intact some goods from centuries or millennia past, while the personalities who lived in that time vanish, in most cases the very memory of their existence obliterated? Are mere material objects of more account in the great scheme of things than reasoning, feeling human beings? Or is it the other way around: Does everything material dissolve, quickly or slowly, but certainly eventually, while Spirit — incapable of being permanently imprisoned in matter — continue through countless forms and then beyond form?

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