Semester Reflections – Experimental Archaeology Seminar

Over the course of this semester, the FSEM-180 seminar students have performed a variety of tasks that mimicked the methods of human survival used in the past. From baking bread, to making clothing, to building oil lamps and forming mud bricks, we’ve sampled living a simpler life. And yet, though the tools and methods were simpler, the work was far harder. “White Collar” is not a valid description for any job that ancient humans would have performed. And, at the same time we were spending hours grinding barely enough grain to make a Ritz Cracker, we were living the rest of our week secure in the modern life of the 21st century. You simply can’t simulate the urgency of real survival and still have the University allow the course to be offered.

But, these limitations hardly detracted from the experience of the course. In fact, they served to emphasize the stark contrast between ancient living and modern humanity. Making cheese came with neat foil packets of ingredients, plastic jugs of milk, and printed books with guidance and illustration on how to make the cheese turn out exactly as intended. We used oil both for our lamps and baking (frying?) bread, yet never came within 100 yards of an actual whole olive. The oil was delivered in glass bottles with glossy labels depicting pastoral fields of olive trees instead. Looking back, it’s truly remarkable that there is a modern human race in light of all the work that had to be done to stay alive and healthy in the past.

One of my personal favorite TV shows is Jericho, a show about the struggles of a midwestern town totally cut off from the 21st century after a series of nuclear attacks decimates 21st century America. With the world outside gone, and uncertainty the only common feature of every day, how would civilization keep itself afloat? It’s a sobering thought- even the fictional town of Jericho, with a scant few thousand residents in the nation’s “breadbasket” region, suffered loss of life and tragic consequences. What would happen to a city Los Angeles, with it’s towering skyscrapers of people living and working, relying on trucks of goods and legions of workers all around the globe to provide the basics necessary to life, if the outside world were suddenly wiped off the map? Tragically, even in a scenario where everyone was in perfect harmony and working for the good of each other, the population would be downsized drastically due to the forces of nature, the environment, disease, and hunger.

Over thousands of years, we’ve built for ourselves a civilization from the very dust into gleaming skyscrapers of technology. No one in the FSEM-180 class would conclude that living as ancient humans did would be sustainable for modern humans, and yet in every other course (especially in classes with an environmental focus) we’re taught how modern civilization is not sustainable. Our government spending, our consumer culture, our dependence on oil, and our love of the dollar menu are all going to be our downfall, we’re told. And thus, we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, unable to return to the lives which our ancestors lived, and our future filled with danger on every side. Nothing can stay the way it is, and we can’t go back to the way we were. I think this is the most valuable lesson that could ever be taught to a first year student at USC.

– John Timms

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