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Tim Burke's picture

Motel of the Mysteries

The thing I find interesting about Benford is the basic fun of the challenge he sets: could you intend, as an agent, to communicate across many millennia to future "story-tellers", sentient minds. I like that he's seriously considering the problem of meaning, which (no offense) I find that a lot of natural scientists who want to address cultural representation, interpretation of texts, communicative action and so on tend to take an end run around. Benford isn't just satisfied to imagine a construct that could communicate that its builder was sentient: he wants it to reliably mean something across deep time, and he's savvy to the fact that meaning is slippery even in contemporaneous communications or representations.


Archaeology strikes me as very "good to think" about this problem. I'm always uneasy when archaeologists (or paleontologists, for that matter) make claims about meaning from artifacts where almost all we have is the artifacts found in a particular location of a particular site. That cave paintings or ornate knives or wine jugs with phallus-shaped spouts meant something, I don't doubt. But I know very well that the African art objects which we today look at in museums either as evidence about a particular ethnic culture or for their aesthetics weren't made or intended to serve either of those purposes. I can make up a lot of very plausible just-so stories about cave paintings and still readily concede that there's others that I can't even imagine.


One of my favorite deceptively funny meditations on this issue is David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries. The basic schtick is that it's about an archaeological dig in mysterious Usa, where the ancient Yanks once lived. The dig uncovers the artifacts of a roadside motel, but the archaeologists imagine that they're in a royal tomb instead. (There's a lot of sly humor at the expense of Howard Carter, discoverer of Tut's tomb). It's very light, but it lays out the hubris of thinking we can know meaning across deep time. But we want to--and not just so we can warn our descendents away from radioactive waste.


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