Saturday, September 08, 2007

Look on my works, ye mighty

I have a favorite pin-up.

He's been my favorite pin-up since I was a kid, when I first got a copy of C.W. Ceram's Gods, Graves and Scholars. I've always been interested in archaeology. I suppose 20th century western children came in three main brands – dinosaur kids, airplane kids and Ancient Egypt kids. I was the latter. I loved Ceram's book and currently have two editions in English, one in German and one very similar book of his with more pictures in it. I reread one or more of them every now and again. This photo, more than any Egyptian stele or Assyrian frieze, is an image burned into my imagination.

Click on the small picture for a larger picture. The smaller is from a paperback edition; the larger is from the German hardback edition. I believe the hardback is the original and the ppbk is the flopped copy. (Giles G Healey)

The photo is of a Lacandone Indian, standing against the walls of Bonampak. The photo is credited to Giles G. Healey, which means it was taken in 1946.

Ceram published the photo to show the similarity of the modern jungle dweller's profile to the silhouette of the ancient city dweller. The man, who could well have been called Na Bor, is a descendant of the Maya who built Bonampak. He, Na Bor, lived in the jungle on subsistence rations of cassava, maize, sweet potato, tomatoes, beans and the occasional monkey shot with a flint arrowhead. His family also grew tobacco. His relatives still live there today – I hope. Eleven hundred years before this photograph was taken, his ancestors built stone cities, reservoirs and observatories. They had a written language and studied astronomy and mathematics.

I've always found the picture moving. Na Bor is beautiful. When you see the other photos of him standing next to Giles Healey himself, you realize he is not a tall, dark hunter but virtually a hobbit – probably about 5' 1" tall. He's barefoot. Na Bor looks so serious as he emulates the warrior's face in the plaster. In other photos, the local Lacandone families have open, cheery grins on their faces. They are dressed in identical grubby single-piece shifts, woven by the women from locally grown cotton, giving one the impression of complete inability to buy or trade any goods whatsoever. They are still smiling. They love their world and apparently they were happy enough to see Healey or Tozzer or later travelers to come by and chat with them or photograph them, as long as the white men didn't offer them any of their god-awful food. [1]

I believe I've discussed Ozymandias here before – and the melancholy feeling that comes with understanding that great civilizations fade away. Na Bor is a different teacher, because he is not looking on his ancestors' great works and despairing, either from awe or from regret at what he's lost. The ultimate impression is that he can't comprehend the changes. Maybe I'm wrong, but...

Looking at it, I can never shake the eerie feeling that one day our children, six inches shorter than us, armed with bows and dressed in cotton shifts, will be standing outside our dead cities trying to look serious.

Except our cities won't last eleven hundred years.

[1] The Four Suns, Jacques Soustelle, p. 26

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