How do we decode the past?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


Bonus question: this photograph was taken on Tybee Island. Is it sunrise or sunset?

Take a look at the Smithsonian Institution’s online lesson plan about archaeology.

It’s instructive for anyone.

It’s named “Decoding the Past: The Work of Archaeologists.”

On the first page, the text begins:

Whether you’re ten or one hundred years old, you have a sense of the past—the human perception of the passage of time, as recent as an hour ago or as far back as a decade ago. We are all explorers of this past, seeking the meaning of today from what happened yesterday. The past stretches far beyond our own experiences; it takes its shape from those who have come before us.

The text on the next page goes on:

The human past is like a vast, uncompleted jigsaw puzzle with many scattered pieces. To a historian, the pieces of this puzzle are letters, journals, books, and maps—in short, the whole host of written documents that have survived over time. …. An archaeologist searches for different pieces of this same puzzle. However, rather than seek what has been written, he or she looks for what has been left behind—in the form of artifacts (human-made objects) and other evidence of past human activity.

That’s enough to whet your whistle; go on and click a link!

By the way, the issue of time is interesting to those studying the past. A French historian named Fernand Braudel (b. 1902–d. 1985) believed that we can consider the rhythms of the past as having three time breadths. The shortest is the time it takes for events to happen: to brush your teeth, to drive downtown, to read this story…. The middle length is, basically, what you can observe over longer periods, up to approximately a lifetime. The longest he called longue durée, meaning the long duration. Braudel meant there were patterns to the human past that had such long cycles that they basically cannot be observed during the human lifetime.

And these long-duration cycles are very important if you seek to understand the human past in its broadest sense.

Like archaeologists do.

There’s a further implication to examining the past through the lens of the longue durée. That is, if we implement policies that ignore the longue durée, we will affect the long cycles, perhaps in ways that are counter to our intended consequences that are merely based on the very short term or the medium-term (as defined by Braudel).

What do you think of Braudel’s division of time?