History and Truth

11 02 2011

Napoleon is credited with saying, “History is a myth men have agreed upon.” I have always found this quote to be curious on several levels.  A related quote, uttered by Winston Churchill proclaims that, “History is written by the victors.”  Again, multiple levels of meaning in this quote.

I proudly confess to being a hopelessly addicted history junkie.  If I knew then what I know now I would have majored in American Studies and then gone on to Law School with the hopes of teaching Constitutional Law at the college level rather than majoring in English.  I’m still giving strong consideration to going back and getting another Master’s Degree, but this time in American History.  My wife and I have talked about how interesting it would be to blend our travel plans with research trips over the three or four years it would take to earn the degree part time.  As an adjunct faculty member I can take classes at half tuition.  We’ll see what happens over the next year or so–but I digress.

The fascinating thing to me about history or should I say histories is that in the present day we do not have the total and complete truth of events.  That is not to imply that current day historians/authors are being intentionally deceptive; I just don’t think we have all the facts.  Quite often we view the past based on the evidence we have and from that evidence we draw conclusions that may be logical but not necessarily accurate.

A prime example of this disconnect between history and truth was uncovered back about four years ago in my home county.  As part of the process to plan and build a bypass around the county seat of Salem, a required archeological survey was conducted on the land that would be used for the roadway.  This is a normal procedure and was simply a formality, another hoop to jump through, before federal and state approval and funding would be granted.  Well, guess what; that archeological survey turned out to be anything but a formality.

After surveying over 95% of the land that would be used for the bypass, the final location to be surveyed was the area for the proposed interchange between the new bypass and Indiana Highway 56 that connects to the interstate. In that less that an acre area, the archeologists found all sorts of artifacts in their core samples, including bones.  Suddenly, this mundane procedure that everyone assumed would be completed in a couple of months turned into a major archeological dig lasting nearly three years that challenged “the myth men have agreed upon.”

See, according to the widely-held belief of most Native American historians, Southern Indiana was not a location of permanent residency for any tribe.  The common belief was that Miami, Potawatomi, Kickapoo and Shawnee tribes all hunted in and passed through the area but none claimed the territory as their own and agreed that it would be common hunting grounds.

The first white settlers came into the area in the pre-Revolutionary War era. According to their accounts, Native Americans only passed through the area and did not have permanent villages or communities established.  The discovers at the location of the proposed interchanged blew that “historical fact” right out of the water.

According to the chief archeologist in charge of the dig and several university professors of archeology, this find was one of the most significant in Indiana’s history.  It completely debunked the dominant thinking of pre-European-contact indigenous peoples and would cause the experts to go back to other digs across the Midwest to reassess their conclusions.

I wrote extensively about the dig and the implications of the discoveries when I was a feature writer for a Southern Indiana paper and won’t go into all the fascinating details of what was discovered except to say that carbon-dating placed the artifacts of a settlement estimated at over one thousand inhabitants somewhere in the 13th-14th centuries.  None of the artifacts matched with tribes previously thought to be in the region.

More will be done at the site that extends outside of the area to be used by the bypass but that will have to wait for additional funding.  Only the southern-most part of the ancient settlement was excavated by the archeologists to make room for the interchange.  Literally, thousands of artifacts were unearthed and catalogued.

On another interesting writing assignment I tagged along with historian, Dana Olsen, and a independent film crew producing a documentary for National Geographic.  We were exploring an area along the Ohio River as part of research into the Welsh prince, Madoc, and the possibility of him and/or his followers/descendants establishing a fort overlooking the river in the 11th-12th centuries.  As we treked through the underbrush, I struck up a conversation with another member of our group, a professor from Ohio University, who apparently is an expert on the Mound Builders. He said something that put the whole history and truth relationship in perspective for me.

He said, “In archeology, there is evidence and there is proof.  Proof cannot be disputed; it is what it is.  Evidence can be interpreted and, therefore, subject human error and bias.”  He went on to say, “Thus far, carbon-dating and DNA are the only two things that are proof, everything else is evidence.”

When I think about history, both as an observer and a participant, I believe that most of what we take as historical fact is based on evidence, not truth.  That does not mean that the conclusion we have come to based on the evidence is in error, just subject to revision when either new evidence is presented or proof is provided that disputes the previous conclusion.

I think this litmus test of truth is something that I have been going through over the last five years in regards to my past life (I’m not using the term in the sense of reincarnation but I do find that an interesting and plausible theory) when I viewed the world and myself in a way based on the evidence I had at the time.  The fact that not all the evidence was made available to me because of my parents’ desire to protect me and the Catholic Church’s efforts to act as a travel agent for guilt trips, I came to erroneous conclusions about how things were and would be.

Without revealing all the details of the incident for reasons I’ll reveal some day down the road, five years ago I lost my temper in a way that I could not explain.  I did not lash out physically but I knew at the time that I had never experienced that level of rage in my life; my anger was over the top.  I knew I needed professional help to sort it out; my feelings were totally disproportionate to the seriousness of the incident.  After telling my wife about the incident and my quandary, she agreed that I should probably see a therapist.

It only took three sessions–I was willing and the therapist was good–to sort it out.  Up to that point, I had always described my life growing up as a Leave it to Beaver experience.  After a few targeted questions from the therapist, I had my Come-to-Jesus moment.  Hell, no!  My life growing up was not what I thought it was.  Once I understood what it was, I understood why the first four decades of my life were so unfulfilling as far as my own self-worth and my lack of an objective self-esteem. Damn, the lights went on!

For many years before the day of that epiphany in the therapist’s office I had changed the way I looked at the world, myself and the people in my life.  I think that is one of the things I am most thankful to my wife for–she helped to save me from myself.  I knew that what I was doing in the early part of my adult life was not working and if I wanted to succeed I had to change; I just didn’t know how.  I found out from Linda that changing my behavior would change my attitude and that, in turn, would start a flywheel effect resulting in personal satisfaction and happiness.  I just compartmentalized those early years along with the pain and sense of failure that went along with them.  I guess it all erupted in that incident when I went into a rage. I am still struggling with objectivity and trying not to be resentful as I view those early years but I am more comfortable with the truth about them.  You cannot correct your mistakes if you don’t think you are making any.

The last five years of my life and my future have been and will be dedicated to reconciling my personal history and my personal truth.

-gw-

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