Today, catacombs. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I've been reading a
remarkable old volume on Antiquities from 1882 —
almost a thousand pages with wonderful romantic
illustrations. What really gets my attention is the
long section on Tombs and Catacombs. How
far from our thinking this lies!
Tune into all the fine educational TV shows, and
you'll see an endless march of sunlit programs on
excavating tombs, X-Raying mummies, finding ancient
relics. Computers reconstruct the face of an
ancient Mongol princess or an Egyptian aristocrat.
We learn what grains were used in their last bowl
of gruel. The ancient dead become wonderfully
demystified and human.
Now this nineteenth-century view of ancient burial
sites offers a glimpse into the hidden reaches
below the surface of our souls, as well as below
the surface of Earth. No X-ray images here; this is
pure Indiana Jones — death swathed in mystery.
So much attention was given to dramatizing death
during the nineteenth century. Funerals were major
productions. The departed was laid out and placed
on view — often photographed in the coffin. The
hearse was drawn by black horses, bedecked in black
plumes. Now this old book reminds us how much has
changed, as we try (perhaps vainly) to replace
grieving with celebrations of
Think about the way the word catacomb
drifts in modern usage. You and I might use it to
describe any underground system of tunnels. In fact
it means an underground cemetery, and the
vast catacombs of Rome form the centerpiece of this
book. The author claims that they run for nine
hundred miles, and house seven million dead.
Well, those are huge exaggerations — high by at
least factors of ten. He writes, "Woe to the man
whose boldness leads him to venture alone into
these dark depths." Enter them without a guide, he
tells us, and you'll certainly become lost and die
He dwells on inscriptions, both from the early
Romans and the Christians who followed them:
"Primitius in peace: a most valiant martyr after
many torments," or "Navarina ... a soul sweet as
He provides drawings of coffins, corpses, mummies,
and the precious things buried along with them. We
can practically hear the sputtering torches, as the
smell of rancid smoke mixes with the odor of death
and decay. These are places where ghosts live —
places where Orpheus, or Aeneas, descended to the
River Styx to negotiate with the boatman Charon.
You and I have left these dark celebrations of
death, yet this book reads like the storyboard for
any of the spate of movies now trying to recapture
it. As Tomb-Raider Lara Croft and Indiana Jones
pursue greater mysteries than can be found above
the ground, they echo the comic strips of an era
much closer to the nineteenth ce ntury. They, like
this old book, remind us that death is shrouded in
mystery that we will not easily shrug off.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
L. W. Yaggy, and T. L. Haines, Museum of
Antiquity: A Description of Ancient Life ...,
New York: Standard Publishing House, 1882, "Tombs and
Catacombs," pp. 833-910.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.