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Kirby: Ancient ruins reveal our own destiny

Published January 16, 2013 9:06 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I was standing atop the Temple of Masonry Altars in Belize last week when it suddenly occurred to me that I was dirt. Not immediately. But one day for sure.

Looking out over the ruins of the Mayan city of Altun Ha, I thought about the thousands of people who once made the place bustle, and who are now gone and forgotten. All that's left is dirt.

Note: Yeah, I know. Some of it is really hard dirt in the form of stone. But you get the point.

I had come a long way to stand in the place where Stone Age astronomers once mapped the night sky; countless miles and nearly 60 years.

Altun Ha was inhabited until about 1,000 A.D. when the bottom fell out of the Mayan housing market and they wandered off. That's just my own theory.

For centuries, people just like me lived and died in this remote place in the jungle. They took pride in their accomplishments while simultaneously fretting over stuff that in the long run didn't matter.

Thousands of years isn't a long time in the vast reach of the universe. It's a blink. The 20 or so I got left is nothing. I'll be joining the ancient Maya before I even turn around. So will you.

That's probably why I find ruins comforting — Mayan astronomers, newspaper hacks, you and your dog, all traveling in the same inexorable direction. Personally, it's difficult to be terrified of something that comes to us all.

Realizations such as this are, for me, the entire point of visiting ancient sites. I didn't always know that. When I was younger I never really put myself in the place of the ancients. I couldn't. I was a kid. Kids live in the moment.

So, standing on some ancient battlement in Europe, all I was really capable of pondering was how bad would the old man beat my ass if I dropped a half-eaten banana on some fat lady corking up the line far below? Pretty bad as it turned out.

Things changed. With most of my life behind me now, I can better appreciate abandoned temples and the people who once worshipped in them. I feel a kinship because wherever they went, I'm going too.

Not everyone finds this connection satisfying. Frankly, it's easy for a technologically advanced people to feel superior to a race that didn't use the wheel and worshipped bloodthirsty gods.

On the ferry ride back to the cruise ship, I eavesdropped on some people lording modern society over the Maya. The difference, said one guy, was that we aren't superstitious.

According to him we are a society based on science and reason. That's how we cured diseases and traveled to the moon and back, and why the Maya society collapsed.

Proof of our logical superiority over the ancients was perfectly evident in the fact that they built temples that didn't really do anything while we built enormous cruise ships like the one we were preparing to board.

I was wishing I had another jelly sandwich. Turns out that I didn't need it. Someone else was listening in.

New guy: "If we're so much more enlightened than the Maya, how come this boat doesn't have a 13th deck?"

Good point. Later that night I stood out on the bow of a multimillion dollar floating temple and gazed up at the same stars the Maya saw from the tops of theirs. Our time to be the ancient ones is coming.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.




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