The longer a custom or tradition has lasted, the more hallowed it becomes. Even the most seemingly senseless customs have some fundamental purpose behind them. For instance, the tradition of kissing that stupid rock at Blarney Castle has provided a living for countless denizens of Cork over the years.
And so, by transference, value is attached to anything old on principle. A little town in New Mexico where I used to live, called Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid by the denizens, who are known as Madroids) was a coal mining camp back in the fifties. The town is dotted with dilapidated old shacks without plumbing or electricity - their major attraction to me at the time was that the rent was free. Some of the local "entrepreneurs" learned that, if you disassemble a shack, stack the worm-eaten planks on a flatbed truck, and drive them to California, they become Rustic Lumber, and can be sold for indecent sums to yuppies from San Diego to San Francisco.
A well crafted silver tea-service commands a respectable price. The same tea service, produced in colonial era New England, sells for an enormous sum. If the service was smithed by Paul Revere, it becomes priceless.
On a darker note, a simple glazed pot crafted by a prehistoric cliff-dweller in the southwest US, illicitly excavated and sold to a collector in New York, is worth quite a bit of money. Realize that the collector will usually be, at best, a dilettante who can derive no useful information from the artifact. Even if the pot is later turned over to serious scholars, it will be almost meaningless in terms of the archaeological record, having been shorn of its context. Some of these grave robbers, or "thieves of time" as author Tony Hillerman is pleased to call them, excavate with rented backhoes and loaders. They will certainly never provide to their customers any accurate information on where the find was made.
Granted that an artifact illicitly obtained is useless as a source of historic information, why is a collector willing to pay so high a price to attain it? Certainly not for its intrinsic beauty; much more finely made pots are available for lower sums from contemporary pueblo dwellers. It is valuable because it is ancient, crafted by a man or woman who lived and died centuries ago, and because we attach automatic value to what is ancient and rare. The impulse affects us all. Who among us could spy a stone arrowhead, or a rolled bead lying on the ground, and forbear to pick it up and carry it away with us? And for no other reason except that it is old, a fragment of a mysterious past, and for this reason awakens our respect, admiration, and a desire to possess it.
The lure of the ancient finds its greatest expression in our regard for the remains of humanity's oldest and most impressive civilization - Ancient Egypt. Attitudes toward this culture range from awed respect to obsessive silliness, and this has been the case for centuries. Adolf Erman (1854-1937) is one of the fathers of modern Egyptology. In the introduction to his famous work Life in Ancient Egypt (published in 1894), he writes:
"...[The ancient Greeks] had a feeling of respect for this people, who with their ancient civilisation looked upon the Greeks as children; there might be a deep hidden meaning in those strange deities and temples, and it was possible that those bald-headed priests possessed a secret wisdom unknown to the ordinary human understanding. Many a Greek scholar made a pilgrimage to the Nile Valley in the hope that these priests might help to solve the great riddle of the world...they tried eagerly to grasp the meaning of the old religion, which was so carefully shrouded in mystery..."Erman relates that this awe, wonder, and dread has lasted through the centuries, and that rosicrucians and freemasons used hieroglyphics and Egyptian symbols as talismans. Indeed, freemasonry, which seems to have originated with the guilds of medieval Europe, has claimed for itself a far more remote origin, and was ostensibly a going concern during the early Egyptian dynasties. Erman further comments:
"...Now that we have learned to understand the monuments, to read the inscriptions, and to study the literature of ancient Egypt, the old glamor has departed, and in place of the "dim religious light" of past time, the pitiless sun of science has risen, and we see the old Egyptians as they really were, neither better nor worse than other folk...In one point only...do we of the modern world regard the Egyptians with the greatest admiration, viz. in their art, which rose to a greatness and individuality shared by few other nations..."If Adolf Erman thought that the revelations of archaeology would lift the veil of superstition from this ancient civilization, he was mistaken. We have, in fact, invented new legends and fables to replace or augment the old. We learn that ancient Egypt was the staging area for a vast extraterrestrial project of inscrutable aims, that alien spaceships descended on the Egyptians, endowed them with secret knowledge, assisted them in the building of the pyramids, and whisked away again into space, occasionally to visit rural New Mexico. I'm still waiting for a new pyramid to go up at Roswell. I've always thought those people were a little strange, anyway.
A consequence of our veneration of the ancient is a tendency to ascribe extreme age to items, activities, and institutions which concern us. Some devotees of chess and go claim incredible antiquity for these games, holding the usually unacknowledged notion that this greater age makes them somehow...better, superior, and more respectable. Using similar reasoning, believers in various divinatory methods such as tarot and astrology do the same. People research their family trees with the idea that this will affirm their place in the world, and for all that I know it may. Artwork, texts, and buildings are subject to prolepsis.
Not even respectable scientists are immune to the age game. In archaeology, finding the oldest remains of humanity in any given area is the holy grail of field work. Paleoarchaeologists will bicker like children over the primacy of their finds, and react with extraordinary fury to any challenge to the dates they claim for their discoveries. It may be necessary and desirable to establish and confirm the lineage between, say, A. afarensis and H. habilis, but glory goes to those who discover the remotest ancestor of humanity. Fortunately for the progress of knowledge, the scientific community is not willing to take any scientist's work at his or her own estimation for more than, oh, 40 or 50 years.
Having established, using scattered logic and random anecdotes, the apparently ingrained tendency of humanity to revere the old and ancient, it follows that legions of con artists would appear to take advantage of this compulsive behavior, and so it has been. One of my favorite stories is the case of the "Count de St. Germain", as related by Charles Mackay in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (published in 1841). This plausible and winning gentleman, who frequented the court of Louis XV, had claimed to have discovered the elixir vitae, the "water of life", that conferred immortality, and allowed it to be believed that his age exceeded 2,000 years. Writes Mackay:
"St. Germain had a most amusing vagabond for a servant, to whom he would often appeal for corroboration, when relating some wonderful event that happened centuries before. Upon one occasion, his master was telling a party of ladies and gentlemen, at dinner, some conversation he had in Palestine with King Richard I...Signs of astonishment and incredulity were visible on the faces of the company; upon which St Germain very cooly turned to his servant, who stood behind his chair, and asked him if he had not spoken the truth? 'I really cannot say,' replied the man, without moving a muscle; 'you forget, sir, I have only been five hundred years in your service!' 'Ah! true,' said his master; 'I remember not; it was a little before your time!'"Today's con artist tends to less flamboyance, which I suppose is better business, but is not half so entertaining. Nevertheless, we have more than our fair share of fakes and pretenders here in Santa Fe. "New Age" philosophy is very popular in this town, and the basis for most of it is latter day revelations and expansions on ancient dogma. "Channeling" for various types of spirits is also very popular, and practitioners have learned that the more ancient their subject, the more successful their enterprise.
While I'm sure there is a lesson in all of this, which I would like to extract and present, I think I'll stop here. The subject is getting a little old.