Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved? – Odysseus (from the movie Troy)
On my desk before me sits a small bronze coin. It’s no bigger than a dime, but this coin knows more than any dime alive today. This coin has traveled for 1678 years to reach my desk and in holding it, I am transported through time. My coin was minted in 335 AD, by order of Emperor Constantine II. His likeness, now faded, embellishes the front along with the inscription: CONSTANTINVS IVN NOB C (Constantine, son of Constantine, of the noble class, imperial prince who may one day become Caesar). On the reverse, two soldiers holding spears and shields are wreathed by the words: GLORIA EXERCITVS (the glory of the army). This particular type of coin was minted as a propaganda, to insure the support of Constantine II’s army, should the need arise.
My coin is not especially rare. It was given to my father by a friend who found it on holiday in Europe and Dad gave it to me last evening.
“What is this for?” I asked him, beaming.
“Because you are a collector of the past,” he replied with a smile.
Dad is right, of course. I have been fascinated by archaeology and paleontology since I was four years old. My first hero was Mary Anne Anning, a pioneer in the field of paleontology who discovered the first skeleton of the icthyosaur in 1811, when she was only twelve. From the moment Mom read me Mary Anne’s story, I wanted to follow in her footsteps and unearth ancient treasures of my own. Throughout my life, I’ve collected arrowheads, fossils, and even have a few shards of pottery dating back to the Early and Middle Woodland period (1000 BC – 500 AD). Most of my fossils are small: Tiny sea creatures and snails called ammonites that lived in this area when it was an inland sea, but my best find to date is a fossilized horse tooth, dating back more than 2 million years.
Why do I treasure relics of the past? It has nothing to do with aspirations of fame or fortune. Most of my finds are relatively unremarkable – common in the river rocks and flint beds of the Missouri Ozarks. Even my coin is only worth about $25, so people often ask, “What’s the point? It’s just old rocks and a dirty coin.” On a certain level, I suppose this is true, but for me they are time machines in miniature, portals to the past.
When I hold my little bronze coin, I am joining hands with every man, woman, and child who ever held it in their grasp and, for a moment, we are connected through time. This coin was held by a Roman citizen, perhaps even Constantine himself, during the glory days of the Roman Empire. It could have gone with a man who fought in The Crusades, been cached in the home of a peasant or carried by one of the leaders of the Reformation. My coin has seen history unfold, traveled over continents and oceans, been treasured, spent, lost, and found an infinite number of times. It has been touched by commoners and nobles, sinners and saints, and now by me, weaving the thread of my life to the tapestry of time.
So why do I care about my rocks and my coin? I care because they are my inheritance, my gift from those who have gone before. I honor the life of the tiny sea creatures from whom all life has come. I honor the life of the great, paleolithic horse whose tooth I found by the river, for from her thousand-times-great grandchildren my horse, Rain, was born. I honor the life of the woman who, three thousand years ago, wrapped cords around a vessel of wet clay because she wanted her work to have a beauty of its own. I honor the lives of all who have carried my coin across the shifting sands of time.
This is the meaning of immortality: To be remembered, to have your life go on in the people and the belongings you touched, that touched you. It isn’t about being lauded or praised, being famous or infamous, being immortal is knowing your time on earth was worthy of remembrance. I will keep my coin and my other tokens as long as I remain, then share them with others with the hope that, one fine spring day, twenty centuries from now, another may find them and be overcome with the thrill of reaching back to touch my hand.
Photo: Cord-Marked Pottery circa 1000 BC)