SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
October 20, 2014
Past is Present
36°31.9’ N x 006°17.2’W
Docked in Cádiz, Spain
Visiting different places in Spain by boat gives us a great perspective on the diversity of this nation. In Barcelona, they spoke Catalan rather than Spanish. In Palma, they lived on island time and had villages and agricultural terraces built into the cliffs. In Cádiz, they speak with an accent that sounds like a gentle lisp, and a short bus drive inland reveals deeply colored rolling farmland and bulls with big horns. Tomorrow, we leave the dock and head for Madeira, a Portuguese island!
Today, we visited the archaeological site of Baelo Claudia, a Roman port that reached its height in the first half of the 2nd century AD. At that time it was home to around three thousand people within its walls. They had an aqueduct, a central forum, and temples to Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, and the deity Isis from Egypt, reinterpreted as a patron goddess of maritime trade. Thinking back, Devin said that “Baelo Claudia is by far the most historically and culturally significant place I have ever visited. Walking through the ancient Roman ruins and imagining a bustling city around me was a truly amazing experience. We essentially had our own private tour: the director of the site opened it especially for C-255. We were accompanied by the director of CEI-MAR, and shown around by a specialist in Roman amphorae and a Phoenician archaeologist. They were full of specific facts that helped bring the place to life.
Right inside the door in a glass case was a white round block that upon further inspection proved to be a whale vertebra, less porous than wood and more useful as a cutting block for fish. In nearby cases were bronze fish hooks; they didn’t look that different than what we toss off the stern of our own dear ship in hopes of catching the same tuna sought by the Romans.
The city’s most important economic industry was processing the fish that were caught off the coast. Total lack of refrigeration meant that all the work of fishing would go to waste if they couldn’t get it salted. The value of salt was so great in ancient times that Roman soldiers could be paid in it, the origin of our word “salary.” Nearest the beach are still large round holes in the ground from the factories, made by ancient Roman concrete. Did you know the Romans invented concrete? It always impresses me to remember just how advanced their technology was. They used these factories to create various fishy, salty pastes including garum, a product so highly prized that it was shipped to and consumed in the imperial halls of Rome, the capitol city.
Exploring the ancient site, students were struck by the continuity of the human experience. Rudi said that, “as we were standing there on those roads or buildings we were standing where, two thousand years ago, other people living lives (different from ours of course) still had thoughts, hopes, dreams, just the same as we do.” Walking (and sitting) on an original Roman road, Rudi thought about how, “for us, this time that we have here on earth is so small compared to history.”
Making eye contact with a statue framed by ancient columns against the crashing waves, Maya remembered an experience her mom had had in Greece many years before. Maya told me that “it was something she mentioned offhandedly but it really stuck with me. Visiting Greece, she was so immensely struck by standing on these temples, especially the ones on the ocean, in the exact spot an ancient person could have stood. She was struck by the feeling she got being in that place, looking at the same tides, same waves, same cliffs. She couldn’t see power lines, she couldn’t hear chatter behind her, she was listening to the wind whistle and the waves crash and the gulls and the sounds of nature there that have been existing since the beginning of time, all those things that would go on even without the existence of humans. I remember her being so awestruck; that was such a moment for her because she just felt so connected with the people from back then, it was like she was in a different time.”
Standing at Baelo Claudia, Maya felt the same human connection through time, down to the simple truths of every day existence. “Where we were walking today, there was probably another twenty year old girl there in ancient times, having the same concerns as us standing there today. She probably thought her nose was too big, or she was being excluded from her friends, or she was worried she would never get married. We really don’t, humans don’t really change that much. It’s inspiring when you’re alone on that spot and you’re looking at the waves crash and you can’t see the kite surfers and you can’t see the power lines, someone was looking at a view just like this and it hasn’t changed that much. It was such an incredible experience. It brings together humanity, it’s very connecting. I can have the same thoughts as someone back then even though it’s a different world.” The ancient stones of Baelo Claudia still hold the stories of the people who lived there thousands of years before.
Before visiting the ancient site, we had gotten some free time to eat our lunches and poke around the outskirts of Tarifa surrounding the site. I walked on my own along the beach, just enjoying the chance to sink my bare feet into the sand. The sun was beating down through a cloudy sky as the wind blew hard, pulling my hair out of its ponytail. Kite boarders skimmed the waves, their colorful wind catchers swooping above. As my footsteps along the waterline disappeared behind me, I thought about a Roman from Baelo Claudia walking over the same ground, only two thousand years removed. The waves pulling at my feet are the same as those that erased the footprints of that person, so distant but so close.
After walking for a time, (and enjoying my peanut butter and Nutella on homemade bread, thanks Becks!), I was surprised to look up the beach and see the ancient site itself, the mottled reconstructed columns rising sedately from the sand dunes. They were framed by an expensive modernist boardwalk put in by the regional government to attract tourists, and a thatched roof bar with teetering power lines holding on to its lease. Archaeologists, holding back the waves of time to look beneath the surface for a moment, can only do so for a moment. New layers of time and sediment are constantly added to what already exists. Without being valued by people today, the site would be gently covered by the sand already encroaching on its borders. Blown from the beach and dropped by visitors, broken beer bottles and a flow-away plastic flip-flop were there on the same side of the fence as the temples to Minerva, Juno, and Jupiter. This contrast illustrates how we do not exist only in our own time; everything surrounding us was made in the recent or distant past as we move relentlessly forward. Sitting by the ruins, looking out at the waving beach grass, I was reminded of two of my favorite maxims: there is nothing new under the sun, and, change is constant. There can be no other place that displays this supposed dichotomy better than an ancient concrete salt factory on the edge of a beach filled with kite boarders, churning and flying through waves that never cease.