The Parable of the Dates

Speaking of resurrection, a news story I saw on Agade, apparently originating in the New York Times, tells of dates.  The kind you eat.  These dates were newsworthy because they were grown from seeds two millennia old, found in an archaeological dig in Israel.  The story shows just how tenacious life can be.  Seeds dead for centuries came back to life and bore fruit.  Things like this fill me with an optimism about this thing we call life.  Two thousand years is a long time to be buried.  These seeds nevertheless came back when the conditions were right.  There’s a parable here.  The parable of the dates.

Tardigrades are remarkable.  Sometimes known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” they are actually microscopic animals.  Google them and take a look.  The amazing thing about tardigrades is their ability to survive.  Although they are animals, they can go three decades without food or water.  (Not quite the same as two millennia, but trees have their own remarkable abilities.)  Tardigrades can survive temperatures as low as absolute zero and higher than boiling.  Scientists study what makes these little critters so sturdy, but the takeaway for me is that life is remarkably resilient.  Given that Republicans and their ilk seem set on destroying the planet, it is comforting to know that life will continue, even if without our particular species to appreciate it.

The idea has been expressed in many ways over the years.  Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park says “Life will find a way.”  Stephen Jay Gould wrote in Bully for Brontosaurus that when we talk of the destruction of the earth what we really mean is the end of our own survival.  The planet—life—can and will persist.  The funny thing is that we don’t really have an accurate understanding of what life is.  If a tardigrade can be revived after thirty years without water, isn’t this an exuberant expression of what life can do?  And what about the Galapagos Tortoise, surviving a century-and-a-half?  If we leave them alone, sea creatures can live even longer.  Bowhead whales last two hundred years while at least one Greenland shark doubled that.  And the news story about dates raised from two-thousand-year-old seeds indicates something wondrous about life.  It persists.  These dates are from the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire.  Some trees, such as the bristlecone pine, have been continuously alive for double that span.  We should be in awe of life.  And we should act like it, for it will outlive us by a long stretch.

Mummy’s Daddy

Now that I’ve broached the subject of the Agade listserv, I’m bound to find some interesting stories therein.  The title of this blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World” is an artifact that demonstrates eleven years ago I was still keeping up with Ancient Near Eastern studies.  I was calling it “Ancient West Asian studies” then, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that shifts in terminology are frowned upon by those in an industry that moves at a glacial pace.  (Just remember that the tortoise wins in the end.)  In any case, one of the recent articles on Agade had to do with the “curse” of Tutankhamen’s tomb.  This is an idea that goes back to the 1920s and was in some respects expressed in the Universal monster film The Mummy.  In pop culture the idea lives on.

Photo credit: The New York Times (public domain)

It seems that some, but not all, of those involved in opening Tut’s tomb died in unusual ways shortly thereafter.  The deaths were not concentrated within a day, let alone a week or a month, and some of them were natural but premature.  The ideas of curses, however, fit the spiritual economy of the human psyche so well that they suggest themselves in such circumstances.  A run of bad luck may last for years, causing the sufferer to think they might be living under a curse.  It is, in many ways, the pinnacle of magical thinking.  No matter how scientific we become the idea never goes completely away.  Just when Mr. Spock seems in control of the Enterprise Harry Potter beams aboard.  Our minds are funny that way.

The particular article I saw was one that had clearly followed on an earlier piece that I had missed.  It mentions “the documentary” but doesn’t say which one.  I suppose there are many such filmed attempts to make sense of memes such as the Pharaoh’s curse.  From my teaching days I have documentaries about a number of weird things that the History or Discovery channel, and maybe A&E, spun out back in the Dark Ages.  I’m not convinced that scientific thinking is really under any threat from such journeys down the paths of speculation.  I’m also not sure that there really is any connection to the various deaths surrounding the Carter expedition in 1922.  In just two years’ time we’ll be at the centenary of the discovery of the tomb and I’m sure there will be plenty of information on offer then.  As long as the curse doesn’t get us all first.

Agade

The word “listserv” feels abrupt to me, as if someone couldn’t be bothered to type one more “e” to give the reader a sense of satisfied completion.  Technology terms are often like that—not really descriptive of what they are and leaving us older folks wondering about the words and not quite comprehending what they’re supposed to signify.  Back in the early 1990s I joined a listserv that eventually came to be known as “Agade,” since it carried news of the Ancient Near Eastern variety.  Since I seldom have the opportunity to work in that field any longer, I long ago ceased to be on the Agade listserv and consequently have lost track of what’s happening in real time.  Or at least close to it.  An author with whom I was working recently asked me to post about his book on Agade so I had to resubscribe.  It’s nice to see the listserv, whatever that is, still alive and kicking.

One of the articles posted recently had the intriguing title “Burnt remains from 586 BCE Jerusalem may hold key to protecting planet.”  I’m not sure, beyond evangelicals chomping for Armageddon, who doesn’t want to protect the planet, so I read on.  Archaeologists, I know, sometimes feel put upon to defend their work.  Yes, it’s sexy and cool, but it’s also expensive and not as well funded as it needs to be.  It does occasionally lead to real scientific breakthroughs.  This particular story is about Earth’s magnetic field.  It is vital for life as we know it, and we know that it is constantly shifting.  In fact, some pundits are fearing a flip in magnetic poles which, for a guy who can’t even understand listserv, sounds really catastrophic.  The article, however, is about the fact that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by fire that led to a trapped picture of the magnetic field at the time, and we know the date.  Magnetic materials under high heat preserve indicators of the Earth’s magnetic field, whether it had been discovered or not.

Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons

The book of Genesis says nothing about the creation of the magnetic field that makes life on our planet possible.  Knowing that we understand so little about something that makes our existence possible, I suspect, indicates that there are many factors of life we haven’t even begun to comprehend.  There are further discoveries to be made.  We’re not even sure if our definition of “life” is entirely accurate.  One thing our history has taught us, however, is that if we build great structures there will be those eager to burn them.  As we sift through the rubble we might discover something about the direction in which we’re going.  And a listserv will be there to share the news.