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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Do We Know?

Earlier this summer there was a new flurry of internet activity about Stonehenge — the site which I’d recently written about: A sophisticated survey of the terrain near the stone circle yielded another, and previously unknown, circle of something (not clear yet what stood in the postholes and pitts — timber or stone). And just this week I learned that Mike Parker Pearson, the archaeologist who let me join his crew, had won Archaelogist of the Year, and Project of the Year, for finding Bluestonehenge — the circle of bluestones erected right next the river Avon (not Shakespeare’s Avon), where the avenue from Stonehenge meets the river bank. Great for Mike — but, you might ask, how come we are suddenly finding new stuff left and right near Stonehenge. Similarly, I hear tell that astronomers are about to come out with new planet count for our solar system, not 9 — as we used to think, not 11, but…well I’ll let them announce that. But again, how come we went from being fine with nine to suddenly having new counts popping out like bugs at a picnic?

The answer in both cases is less about now than before. Or, to put it differently, the question shouldn’t be — why so many discoveries now, but, rather, why did things seem so settled before? Because all that is happening is that we are letting cats out of bags — we are admitting that the kind of settled information we passed along in book after book, talk after talk, was hardly knowledge it was the muted current state of guess work with all the the real questions brushed off to the margins. We are starting to let the world know just how little we know — and thus how much room there is for complete changes in our understanding.

For example, one of the more interesting moments in ancient history was the period in the 2000s BC when the people of Sumer were trading with the people of the Indus Valley — these very early contacts between the civilizations that would lead in a sequence via Egypt, Greece, Rome to the West and the civilizations that, after many shifts and invasions, would become what we think of as South Asian. The people from the Indus Valley left traces of something, which might well be a written language — just as the Sumerians left us cuneiform inscriptions — which we think of as some of the earliest forms of written language and numbers. The problem is, we cannot be sure what those Indus Valley tablets are, if they are even writing, So here we have this crucial contact of civilizations, way way early, and at this point we simply cannot say whether we have a written record of it from the South Asian side or not. Indeed, the most recent claims to have “proven” the tablets are language has been seen by some as a product of very recent nationalist sentiments in India, 

What’s going on now is that we are being willing to let folks know how provisional our knowledge is — which means, of course, how much room there is for new discoveries. I can’t think of better news to give young people — we know only a very lit bit, which leaves much for them to find, reveal, and explain to us.


  1. So true, Marc! I remember touring kids who had never been to a museum before during an exhibit on the Nubian pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty. There was one section of the tour that included samples of Meroetic writing and one of my favorite moments with the kids was when I would tell them that no one has ever figured the complex language out and that perhaps one among them would grow up to crack the code for us. There was usually at least one kid in the crowd who started looking at the writing with renewed interest. It IS an exciting time…

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    sure and the more gaps we point out to them, the more doors we invite them to open