Writer in Residence · 09/01/2010

Excavating the Ancient City

At the site of the Ancient City – now a barren valley – soil and rock and bits of grass grow over and under the past. The natural world segments and flattens and finally buries the City’s stories like layers of sediment. Of course, the City itself is one vast story. It is in fact the same history that every city shares, that every city eventually sheds along with inhabitants, structures, and finally even the land it sprang from. It is the story of civilization itself. Of a whole world bubbling, born, and eventually burned up; it is a world folded up on itself like an old newspaper, lost as the elderly and new-found as infants.

But each city is also unique, is also its own body of stories sliced open on the dissection table. As we cut deeper into bone or bedrock we find shorter and sharper stories, narratives grown wild and strange. These stories are buried deep in the earth at the site of the Ancient City. It is up to the writers who’ll appear here through September to piece together the tales that make up the city – not through the people, who are long gone, but through the objects and artifacts they left behind.

The excavation of the Ancient City is not a fixed event: not in time nor in place. It symbolic, ongoing, the constant unearthing of the stone walls and battlements of a very old place in the world or maybe in the world’s consciousness only; it is the always-discovery of a thing that was once a city and is now the collective shuttered memory of a forgotten people. Indeed, we will be the City’s forgotten people someday, only our bravest buildings and basest metals left to mark the spot like stains.

On the original mound of the first City, our Ancient City, the following successive settlements have been discovered: an early prehistoric settlement with a wall built of small stones and clay; a city built in a mid-classic period with a large public square, temples, and a massive colusseum; a heavily fortified medieval city, with strong ramparts, a palace, and a village; a sprawling and heavily industrialized city built from the ground up after the older portions were destroyed by earthquake; and finally the city, modern, at the height of technological achievement, and completely destroyed by a massive and devastating fire from the sky–man made or natural, we do not know.

Each object, or artifact, found at the site of the City dates back to one of these five periods, so labeled:

Agriculture & Discovery:  Prehistoric Village
Trade,  Craft, & Art:  Classical Capital
Nobles, Peasants, & Priests:  Warring Kingdom
Industrialists & Explorers:  Golden City
Technology & Sky Fire:  Ruined Land

This is a collection of those artifacts and their stories, meant to shape the broad outline of the Ancient City, to give it a face and a history that, though perhaps entirely fictitious – based as it is on guesses and mysteries – represents a kind of larger truth about the City. Indeed, it represents a larger truth about the world; it tells us about how we live and die and and yet we go on, always, ever, just the same since our history sprang up on the surface of the world.

Please visit tomorrow for the first artifact and an accompanying piece by Robert Kloss, and on Friday for another artifact-inspired story by Anne Valente. We’ve got lots and lots of amazing writers lined up to help excavate and catalogue this City, throughout the month of September – some who you know, and some who you’re going to be glad to discover. And at the end of the month we’ll unveil a website with the entire collection of stories and artifacts for you to peruse and absorb and uncover.

Welcome to the Ancient City!


posted by Amber Sparks