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Mummies, marbles and the ultimate pandemic artifacts

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 12, 2021 5:00 am

Two magnificent events comforted us recently, reminding us that another intolerable fortnight of ECQ is merely as long as a butterfly’s life compared to the world’s long history.

Last week’s “Pharaohs’ Golden Parade” of Egyptian mummies — which traveled from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo to the newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization — reminded us that the glittering splendor of these 18 kings and four queens still rule supreme after several millennia. (The Egyptian government brushed aside gossip that a thousand-year-old Mummy’s Curse had jinxed the Suez Canal and overshadowed news of this stupendous caravan.)

Five thousand years hence, we ask ourselves, what exactly would archaeologists find when digging through our cities, as they tried to piece together life in the time of the Great Pandemia?

Across the Mediterranean, an astounding exhibition of a relatively youngish trove of Roman marble statues dating “only” from the 5th century B.C. is still on view at the Museo Capitolini in Rome until June 2021. (With any luck, you will have gotten both of your vaccine doses before it winds down.)

Named after the Torlonia family, which painstakingly collected them and then had them diabolically hidden from public view for almost 200 years, the collection points out once again that our concept of time is purely relative.

  “Mummies on the move:” 22 Egyptian mummies travel as if through time.

Five thousand years hence, we ask ourselves, what exactly would archaeologists find when digging through our cities, as they tried to piece together life in the time of the Great Pandemia?

Perhaps, one of the first artifacts they will find in the Philippines is a string of 34 cast-iron markers that the National Historical Commission will have planted along Magellan’s route across Visayas and Mindanao on the occasion of the Quincentennial of his rather ill-fated expedition to the Philippines.

Cast iron is a curiously Victorian material — the same used for the dome of the US Capitol (overrun of late) and the Eiffel Tower (marooned by another Parisian lockdown). As the restoration committee for San Sebastian Church can tell you, however, metal is no guarantee of indestructibility.

Still, we can expect these markers, topped with cement globes and installed in granite, will pass the so-called test of time, the salty Pacific Ocean breezes notwithstanding.

  The Torlonia Marbles from the 5th century BC are youngish compared to other treasures.

Certainly, in the case of Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s voyage, we know this book has survived long enough to make it to this year’s Quincentennial of the Circumnavigation of the World.

The same goes for the Sto. Niño, the wooden icon of the Child Jesus given to Humabon’s wife, baptized Juana. It is now enshrined in Cebu memorializing the 500th year of the arrival of Christianity to these shores.

Incidentally, the oldest book in the world is from Bulgaria and was engraved on gold sheets, keeping them fresh as daisies 2,500 years later.

The oldest wooden sculpture, on the other hand, is 12,000 years old from the last Ice Age although it is not clear if being frozen in the Russian tundra — at temperatures needed for the Pfizer vaccine — will give the material a leg up in terms of longevity as opposed to the Catholic statue being in a Philippine basilica behind bullet-proof glass.

More good news: A 5,500-year-old shoe has just been discovered. And while “it’s no Manolo Blahnik,” according to scientific news, the technology to create it is still astonishing.

Made from a whole piece of cowhide, it is stitched together along the front and has survived in wonderful form, thanks to grass that was used as a sort of shoetree to retain its shape. That shoe, incidentally, is said to be 500 years older than Stonehenge and antedates the Pyramids of Giza by a thousand years.

  Take heart, these Hermès handbags should be good for another 5,000 years.

The same goes for linen and cotton clothes — surely a polyester component will now make them fairly eternal.

Both these developments give new meaning to the small fortunes certain politician’s wives spend on Hermès bags and Natori caftans.

We can expect them to be handed down to the next generation five millennia from now — even as anthropologists theorize why almost all of the female population dressed exclusively in caftans and the peculiar singlets and leggings that will be unearthed from the time of the worldwide pandemic of the 21st century.

On second thought, there will also be a mountain of flip-flops to ponder, if they’re fashioned from synthetic rubber, and even more sneakers if they’re like Nike Michael Jordans.

Nobody has actually said it, since the refusal to wear masks is now not just life-threatening, it is also downright unpatriotic, but synthetic masks are expected to survive for at least 450 years.

Scientists sifting through the garbage 5,000 years from now would also find plenty of evidence of a certain long-gone e-culture — that is to say, items which used the quaint concept of electricity — that would be of mysterious origin but not be so easily destroyed.

These would be the iPhones and androids, desktops and laptops too, smart TVs, LED lighting and all the curious gadgets like universal remotes that will no doubt torment their discoverers much in the same way that the Mayan calendar and the Sphinx confound us today.

They will marvel at the technology used for handheld UV wands and air purifiers, but agree that the glass bottles with traces of soap and lotion are still very viable old-tech. Would they realize that all these were lifelines that made the quarantines bearable?

 Will archaeologists figure out what exactly these air purifiers are?

Nobody has actually said it, since the refusal to wear masks is now not just life-threatening, it is also downright unpatriotic, but synthetic masks are expected to survive for at least 450 years. Plastic shields will, of course, unless shredded or singed, also be immortal.

If you put the population of the Philippines at 100 million, and presume only half wear masks, then we’ll have 50 million masks multiplied by 365 days or an outrageous 18 billion face coverings out there, washed into the ocean’s waters, lying in wait to give the aquatic population a giant-size and deadly tummy ache.

  What will scientists make of these universal remotes five millennia from now?

Then there is the matter of the vaccination needles and vaccine bottles. Needles are fashioned from stainless steel and like the glass vials may be expected to be completely un-biodegradable.

The numbers in question begin with 50 million needles multiplied by two doses that total to 100 million instruments of ecological despair. When you consider that these should rightly be classified as bio-hazardous (meaning they contain bits of blood and skin) and that we will all be subjected to yearly inoculations — it makes for suspenseful sci-fi speculation.

Unfortunately, what they won’t find, as with Lapu-Lapu’s fire-hardened spear or with the valiant doctors’ PPEs, is the nerves of steel and the stout hearts that have made it possible to survive until now.