In the January, 1940 issue of Museum Echoes, a publication of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society now the Ohio History Connection, the Director of the Society, Henry Shetrone shared a conversation that took place between an unnamed “member of the staff” (Im guessing it was Curator of Archaeology Richard Morgan) and a visiting scientist. This encounter took place in late December, 1939 a year before the United States would be drawn into the inferno of World War II.

Henry C. Shetrone, Curator of Archaeology and later Director of the Ohio History Connection.

Henry C. Shetrone, Curator of Archaeology and later Director of the Ohio History Connection.

I think parts of Shetrones account are worth repeating here for the insights they offer into how an anthropological perspective might contribute to a broader understanding of the “human experiment.” Note: Shetrones use of “man” for humankind and “he” and “himself” for anthropologists may be a bit off-putting to modern readers, but in 1939 those sexist conventions were not questioned. _______________ “On the occasion of the recent convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a delegate from an eastern city visited the Museum to inspect the archaeological exhibits. In the course of conversation with a member of the staff, he explained that although his professional concern is with natural science, he is not unaware of the threat to human civilization which inheres in the existing world chaos and turmoil. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘do anthropologists believe that the future holds for human culture? Do they feel, as do a good many people with whom I have talked, that the widespread conflict in the Old World may extend to include the New, and that the existing order is doomed to destruction?’ The discussion which followed was too lengthy to record here; but since most readers of MUSEUM ECHOES have at least a lay interest in anthropology, a brief synopsis of the conversation may not be amiss. The anthropologist attempts to divest himself of racial, national and social prejudice, and from human egotism; he essays to remove himself to some distant vantage point where he can view dispassionately the human drama, and evaluate it as a whole, through space and time. He thinks in terms of millions of years which presumably mark the elapsed time of man upon the earth, and realizes that during 990,000 years of this period humans were little more than savages Anthropologists are at least hopeful and optimistic and that while their generation may not witness much progress toward Utopia, they are proud to play a part in the great human experiment, despite its attendant travail.” _______________ Archaeologist Karl Butzer recently reviewed the archaeological and historical evidence for the collapse of five Old World civilizations. He wondered whether there were any lessons to be learned about the ultimate fate of our own civilization. In spite of the grave threats posed by global climate change, pandemics, and unsustainable lifestyles, Butzer concluded his analysis with a reprise of Shetrone’s hope and optimism. Modern states have significant advantages over ancient civilizations that potentially could help us avoid catastrophe and collapse. In particular, Butzer pointed to three factors of crucial importance: “administrative experience, information, and an increasingly educated and engaged citizenry.” So, still no Utopia yet, but in spite of unleashing a Pandoras Box full of potential disasters upon the world, there is still hope that our civilization can survive as long as we learn the lessons of the past. Brad Lepper

Posted July 4, 2014
Topics: Archaeology

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