Deep Time: The Realms of Discovery

By Harrigan, Anthony | Modern Age, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Deep Time: The Realms of Discovery


Harrigan, Anthony, Modern Age


STEPHEN JAY GOULD, writing in An Urchin in the Storm (1987), used the term "deep time" to describe the vastness of geologic time. But the term is applicable to other depths of time experienced by human beings. The human mind envisions time at all its levels, psychological as well as that evidenced in layers of rock.

We may look back on the life of a half century past and regard that period as deep time. We may so regard the time of early settlement in North America, ten or a dozen generations past, in a similar manner. Or we may treat the eleventh century, the dawn of a new millennium, as true deep time in our civilization. Again, we may regard the beginning of the Christian era, as authentic deep time.

Others may regard the time in which Stonehenge was built as the deepest time in prehistory. Finally, the archaeologist may regard the age of cave painting in France and Spain--20,000 years ago--as the greatest depth of time we can conceive of, with man in a creative mode, that is. Of course, we are able to hold these various concepts in our mind at the same time, shifting our personal, historical or prehistorical emphasis according to our need to explore and ponder what lies beyond our current functioning in what some style real time.

Many people live in a single dimension of time, the present. Millions, however, give thought to the past, whether personal or historical. They measure current events and experiences against what has gone before. They search the past for understanding and reconciliation with the perplexities and hardships of the present. Each searcher of the past seeks a particular level of time, depending on what he or she wants to discover. And, at various times, different levels of time are sought out for exploration. We know that this has been practiced in our civilization for at least 2,500 years.

Herodotus, for instance, sought to understand how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. During much of history, life was short and brutal, and we cannot be sure to what extent ordinary people, the poor and illiterate, gave any thought at all to the past--beyond, let us say, their fathers' time. The habit of speculation about deeper levels of time surely was largely restricted to the educated and privileged. In our own technocratic age, the tendency is for the technically "educated" to be absorbed in strictly current matters of information.

Bringing past time to life has been a major activity of the human mind since the dawn of history. The classical world thirsted for the discovery of deep time as evidenced in the works of Homer and later, the formal historical works of Herodotus and Thucydides. The Romans were very mindful of the tracing of their roots into deep time.

From this stemmed the historical consciousness of Western Europe. The Renaissance sought deep time at the level of the newly rediscovered classical world. And with Napoleon's adventures in Egypt came the fascination with Egypt and Egyptology, which continued well into the twentieth century. The new century also brought with it a fascination with the neolithic world, the world of the megaliths and stone circles, and all the mysteries associated with these.

Then, about the time of the Second World War, came epochal discoveries of the vast decorated caves of southern Europe and a realization that people, once considered to be almost hairy apes, were people of extraordinary artistic accomplishments. As a result of this, moderns are able to identify with human beings who lived 600 to 700 generations ago.

As archaeological work continues and the world of 50,000 years ago comes alive in our imaginations, the process of human identification most probably will be extended to even this vastly lower level.

There is so much to learn at every level of time. To cite only one short period in human history, the period of the Black Plague in Europe in the fourteenth century, we begin to understand today that we know very little of the vast ramifications of the plague, which killed perhaps one third of the European population.

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