Those of us who grew up with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (and, more recently, devoured the remake with Neil De Grasse Tyson) cannot forget the story of the Library at Alexandria, unequaled repository of knowledge in the ancient Mediterranean, destroyed by a mob drunk on devotion to dogma and proud of their own ignorance, the librarian murdered in the street, irreplaceable and priceless works of all disciplines lost forever. The point, of course, was that knowledge can be lost to humanity. The accumulation of knowledge over generations and across geographical and cultural barriers is not guaranteed. It is vulnerable, and must be protected.
The loss of knowledge does not, however, require a horrific catastrophe like the destruction of the Library. It happens, on a smaller scale, unintentionally, all the time, and an awareness of that is one more reminder that history is not linear. Sources are lost; Boston’s customs records were left dockside in the chaos when the Royal Navy evacuated in a hurry during the Revolutionary War, and that was the last we know of them. Artifacts from ancient Persia were destroyed by war in Iraq.
In the history of technology, loss of knowledge can and does occur more quietly; it can pass unnoticed until someone goes looking for it. And it happens quickly.
The most powerful vehicle ever built by humans was the Saturn V rocket—the one that put us on the Moon 53 years ago. It was built by the richest society on Earth, with the most advanced and expensive technology in existence. In fact, just as with military technology during The War, if the technology didn’t exist, they invented it—fast. So fast, in this case, that even with all the detailed plans and spec sheets and memos and whatever else is in the reams of evidence left over from the building of something just a half-century ago, there is not enough information to actually build a Saturn V rocket. We cannot, in 2023, build the same rocket they built in 1969. We would have to reverse-engineer it—take one apart and copy it carefully—to do it.
Why? With all those records? With all that “coverage”? Because of the ephemera that goes into actually producing something like that under those circumstances. Work-arounds to unforeseen glitches were literally scribbled on napkins or paper lunch sacks. Those are lost. Other little bridges from plan to product only ever existed in the brains of the engineers who worked them out, and those engineers died.
Nobody alive knows how to build a fighter plane from the War of 1914—18. Those who have restored them have had to figure out how they were built. They have re-learned parts and processes. This is a form of archaeology, as surely as digging for pottery shards.
When Nick Burningham and his colleagues decided to build a replica of the 1605 jacht Duyfken the way the Dutch built her, they had to re-learn how. They couldn’t steam-bend the curved timbers, the way shipwrights did it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because the Dutch used fire, not steam. Their early attempts just burned the wood. They kept at it until they figured it out. Then they had to learn how to sail her; no one has known, from experience, how to sail a seventeenth-century ship since the beginning of the eighteenth century. They learned through trial and error that the best way to “shorten sail” in stronger winds was to half-lower the top-sails—something counter-intuitive to a modern sailor. This, too, is archaeology.
Plans in an archive may tell us one thing, and the product of those plans dug up by an archaeologist may tell us something different. To interpret material culture is to fill in gaps—gaps that are guaranteed to be there. To understand how people in the past—whether the past of our own childhood or before the Pyramids—made and used what they did, and why, we have to start by assuming that knowledge has been lost, and then set about trying to find it again. To do that, all over the world, over and over again, is to keep the collective human experience from slipping away—to keep it as complete as possible to pass down to the next people.