History’s Scariest Story

Last night I scared my wife telling her about the horror movie I’m outlining. She couldn’t sleep; I felt bad. But that’s not the scariest story I know. The scariest story I know starts like this:

Well-wrought this wall: Weirds broke it.
The stronghold burst…
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths, mouldereth.
Rime scoureth gatetowers
rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershield, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them—gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed….

Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran,
high, horngabled, much throng-noise;
these many meadhalls men filled
with loud cheerfulness: Weird changed that…

Thus begins “The Ruin,” a poem written in Wessex around the year 950 CE. Thought to be an elegy on the ruined town of Aquae Sulis (Bath, UK), which, like all ancient Roman ruins, was imagined by the Anglo-Saxons to have been built by God-like Giants who existed eons before them.

Consider the horror… The Ancient Roman technology that built the town of Bath  was so beyond the grasp of the poet that he assumed Gods built the buildings. The poet probably lived in a mud hut. Yet four hundred years before him, somebody lived in multi-story stone homes, with running water and vaulted roofs. Who else but The Gods could build such a place?

It would be 300 years after that poem was written that Britain would produce stonework of Roman level again. In civilized ancient Rome, the government provided daily bread to all citizens. 300 years after the fall of Rome, in the dark ages, humanity regressed to the point where bread itself was forgotten and many people were eating gruel. This reveals the fallacy of chronological progress. That is the scariest thing about history…

How Fast We Fall

During the Spanish conquest of the new world, a pair of Dominican friars, Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, and Bartolomé de las Casas, ministered to the natives in the jungles of the Yucatán. The tribes lived in small mud huts next to the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque. De la Nada recorded the conversation when he asked why the tribe didn’t live inside the abandoned multi-story buildings, with solid stone architecture, with fresh water served by graded gutters and recessed sewers. The natives answered that whoever built the giant pyramid and palace buildings had lived there long before the tribe ever arrived — it was sacred, untouchable.

Later, another Spaniard, Pedro Cieza de León, chased the Inca along the Andes. He passed through Tiwanaku, an enormous empty city with megalithic architecture and perfect stone canals. When the Conquistador tracked down the Inca king in the mountains of Peru, he asked about the intricate and empty ruined cities they had passed in the chase. King Atahualpa replied, “Those cities were long deserted when my people came down from the north. The Gods had lived there.”

In 1696, local guides presented the deserted ruins of Tikal, the largest ancient Mayan city, to a Spanish friar named Andrés de Avendaño. The Guatemalan rainforest had swallowed much of the sprawling metropolis since the desertion of the buildings 1000 years earlier. Judging by the number of empty buildings, at the metropolis’ height, population had been between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. But when Avendaño visited Tikal, locals lived in tree forts beside the city. The local tribesmen believed the stone cities were evil because the perfect square shapes and the straight lines of paved streets were utterly unnatural, and therefore evil.

Obviously these buildings were not the work of ancient aliens or Gods. In each case, the tribe’s own ancestors had built those cities. How, you may ask, could a people who inherited megalithic architecture so quickly forget how to build and maintain it?

“Having lost the practice of construction with stone, people had lost the memory of it too, over the generations, and having lost the memory, lost belief in the possibility.” — Jane Jacobs (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1985)

Here’s where it gets scary again. Jane Jacobs didn’t write that about Mesoamerica, she wrote about modern America.

Even Recently

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs wrote about an isolated small town in North Carolina where her aunt was sent in 1923. One of her aunt’s jobs was to build the “hillfolk” a church. Her aunt suggested that the church be built from the many stones that were just lying around. Not possible, the folks of the hollow replied,  you can’t make buildings from stones!

As Jacobs wrote, “These people came from a parent culture that had not only reared stone parish churches from time immemorial, but great cathedrals.” For instance, Exeter Cathedral, where in a locked vault, “The Ruin” and virtually all the Old English poetry that has ever survived is preserved in a salvaged thousand year-old book that at one time during the dark ages had been used as a cutting board and beer mat.

Jane Jacobs recorded that these hillfolk in North Carolina, in the 20th century, had forgotten candles. Children were never shown how to make candles. Cash-strapped so long, the making of candles became a luxury and they simply made do with firelight. Without practice, the skills to provide basic staples for themselves disappeared, depriving future generations of even the awareness of how or why to use candles. It was like this for item after item. Dairy was completely gone from the diet, for example. The people in these mountain towns had a poorer, thinner and more primitive life than that of their own forebears who had come to the U.S. from England only 100 years earlier.

These forebears crossed an ocean on massive ships, landed in ports made of stone and cement, lived at least temporarily, in a coastal metropolis filled with brick and stone buildings. Then they bought frontier land and began to build a town, they probably tried to build stone buildings. But after hard times their descent turned terminal and they found themselves, only a few generations later, living as if in the dark ages. And they were completely unaware of how far they had fallen.

This should terrify us. Highly advanced ruins from our distant past should make us mindful of the future — and how tenuous our grasp of civilization will always be.

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