After wandering through galleries of spectacular history at the British Museum, I stop and stand in awe, transfixed by a broken window pane. The grayish-blue glass is scratched and missing four fragments, yet it’s intact, still clearly a window pane. This thin square of glass was found in Sussex, England, and dates to Roman times, the 1st or 2nd century BC. A bath house window that somehow managed to survive millennia. How can that be?
As I write this, sitting at my desk in Minnesota, I glance out the century-old windows of my house, seeing golden leaves swaying in the autumn sun. Might any of these windows endure for another 2,000 years? I look down at the travel photos on my modern phone, a shiny glass screen that shows me a fractured pane from the 1st century BC. A window from the past giving 21st century people a window to the past.
The image of that old grayish-blue pane stays with me, more than the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, the heralded stars of the astonishing British Museum. Yes, I saw the Marbles and the Stone, and yes, I was impressed. The Rosetta Stone stands as a testament to the power of language. The massive stone, dense with inscriptions written in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek—gave modern scholars a key to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone helped people today learn what people long ago had written. We can see their stories, even if we cannot hear the original voices.
The museum presents the history of the world, artifacts amassed by a once powerful empire. The collections describe gods and royals, as well as ordinary people. For me, it’s the mundane objects that reveal glimpses of people who lived long ago.
I see iron scissors from the 16th century and wonder who held them, and what was cut. Textiles, paper, hair? Did some young man trim his red beard with those scissors, as my son trims his beard? Did a weary woman sit by the fire, sewing, with those scissors by her side, just as I, occasionally sit and mend? I see wooden combs and metal tweezers, toiletry items akin to those in modern purses and homes. The bronze and silver Etruscan handheld mirrors would fit in on a 21st century vanity. I see myself reflected in a mirror, first polished in the 4th century. I conjure the woman who owned this mirror, seeing her face.
What did she think when she looked at herself? Did she reach for her metal tweezer, her wooden comb? Did she hold this mirror as she applied kohl, black makeup that helped shield her eyes from strong sunlight, much as my sunglasses do? I stare at her mirror and want to know her story.
I walk into another gallery and stare at old shoes, Roman boots from 25 BC, found in ancient Egypt. The examples of footwear range from a foot-shaped lump resembling burnt leather, cracked at the mid-foot; a taupe swath of what seems like a moccasin; and a sorry sole with several holes and a few leather straps, a shadow of a shoe. The sign explains that these military boots were probably caligae, meaning little soldiers, worn by soldiers under the Emperor Gaius.
I know the soldiers’ shoes are just a footnote of history, not the main meat. But the boots bear traces of the soldiers who wore them, average people whose collective footprints shaped history. Their everyday stories, more than the epic battles and ornate coronations, are the history I long to know.
The soldiers who strapped on those boots, the people who used the scissors and toiletries were, in some ways, like us today. They spoke other languages, lived on other continents, yet their lives mirrored in some ways, our lives. They looked in the mirror, combed, cut, or tweezed their hair, laced up their shoes, went to where the powerful people told them to, and maybe, looked out a window, daydreaming. Seeing historical artifacts reminds me that, no matter the differences of time, language, and geography, we are all people, more alike than not, one species sharing one planet.