Robert Witcher
2020 Antiquity  
One day, hundreds of years in the future, archaeologists digging an early twenty-firstcentury rubbish dump will come across a sharp stratigraphic interface between a thick deposit of disposable paper cups and a layer of vinyl gloves and plastic aprons. What events might have caused such an abrupt cessation of coffee consumption and a new concern for personal protection? Looking further afield, the archaeologists might observe other contemporaneous changes such as increased mortality and reduced
more » ... rtality and reduced levels of CO 2 in the atmosphere. Was this rapid and global-scale change the result of political collapse, warfare-or pandemic? Over the first months of 2020, the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has transformed our lives and lexicons: self-isolation, social distancing, shielding and curve flattening, key workers and home workers, lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders and social bubbles-the new normal. At the time of writing (early May), more than a quarter of a million lives have been lost and large parts of the world's population remain under various restrictions on their freedom to travel, work and socialise. While some countries have 'passed the peak' and have begun to reopen shops, factories and schools, others have yet to experience the full force of the virus. Everywhere there is great uncertainty about the myriad implications of COVID-19 for the future. As a society, we could seek insight into our predicament by looking back to historical outbreaks of disease and their consequences. The most obvious example is the 1918 flu pandemic, which struck in the aftermath of the First World War, ultimately claiming many more lives than the war itself. Our collective memorialisation of pandemic and war, however, are very different. The many monuments to fallen soldiers contrast sharply with the sparse commemoration of those lost to disease; high-profile events to mark the centenary of the armistice far exceed those recalling one of the most deadly pandemics of the twentieth century ( Figure 1) . Hence, although 'plague columns' were once a common sight in European cities, today our collective memories concentrate on moments of national origins, greatness or sacrifice. For example, the events planned-although now scaled back-to mark the 400 years since the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, are unmatched by similar events recalling historical outbreaks of disease. Will the bicentenary of the second cholera pandemic of 1826-1837 be as visibly marked as this year's 250 th anniversary of Cook's arrival in New Zealand and Australia? The victims, and the lessons, of previous pandemics are not at the fore of our collective consciousness. With politicians and the public understandably anxious about the present and concerned for the future, archaeologists worrying about how we maintain our study of the past might easily be dismissed as myopic. Yet now is precisely the time to seek a long historical perspective on the evidence for earlier pandemics and other societal shocks, and to evaluate both the immediate and enduring effects for social organisation, economic inequality and health.
doi:10.15184/aqy.2020.94 fatcat:rmkc5g6chrhjpdvmpiidf5cpda