(Review by Andrew Vasicek)
In his book, Heaney utilizes an easy, conversational style to tell an interesting and surprising tale of the life and adventures of Hiram Bingham. The reader is treated to Indiana Jones-like stories of the explorer’s travels throughout Peru and of the wonderful discoveries he made. Heaney’s use of original sources is at times inspired and always appropriate. The little tidbits about Bingham and his family are often poignant and truly create a feeling in the reader that one knows the man himself.
At the same time, the reader is shown the sometimes shady underbelly of the profession of archaeology (or perhaps just “exploring”) and its connections to the mistreatment of indigenous people, the illicit artifact trade, and much more. Sadly, these practices date back hundreds or thousands of years, perhaps as far back as humanity has existed in a form resembling that of today.
In many cases, Bingham represents a sort of “renaissance man” that belongs to a different era. He lived a highly varied life, spending time on isolated islands — at sea and in the jungle. He met a great number of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. However, as Heaney writes, Bingham was the hero of his own life.
Bingham treated the world almost as his personal plaything; he expected to get what he wanted and to make use of it as he saw fit. He ostensibly followed the rules, but felt few qualms about bending them as it suited his needs. When the rules became too strong to bend to his will, he simply changed games, moving into politics instead. As a man of experience and pedigree, he found early success in this venture as well. It is this sense of “easy” success and entitlement that shines through the story most of all, not merely of Bingham personally, but also of the “civilized” world in general. For much of human history (including perhaps our own current time), humanity has divided itself into segments. To the extent that they are aware of each other, each segment feels free to judge and place a value on the others.
It is this sense of “easy” success and entitlement that shines through the story most of all, not merely of Bingham personally, but also of the “civilized” world in general. For much of human history (including perhaps our own current time), humanity has divided itself into segments. To the extent that they are aware of each other, each segment feels free to judge and place a value on the others.
In Bingham’s time, this was most definitely the case. Theories such as Social Darwinism and Eugenics came and went, but always the “civilized” nations felt they were the best qualified to care for humanity’s history. In fact, they often felt that they needed to care for humanity’s history. This feeling extended even over artifacts and locations where the local countries were actively fighting for their right to control their own cultural discoveries. Thus, the people with sufficient power and motivation felt they were the only ones who cared enough — the only ones who could care enough — to properly preserve historical items. Unfortunately, this attitude led to the widespread removal of artifacts from their homelands to be displayed (or hidden in storage) in far-flung museums and galleries. This practice became something of a competition amongst the wealthier nations of the world. In one sense, the reader sides with the explorers and researchers as they are at least preferable to unsupervised and rampant looting simply for personal gain. We want to see the museums of the world display artifacts and sites in such a way that the viewer can truly gain an understanding and appreciation for all that has come before.
However, as Heaney points out, this viewing need not take place in Bingham’s New Haven, CT. In fact, many times, such a viewing might be more effective if the items could be studied closer to home, providing the opportunity for the most interested parties to see and appreciate them. Sometimes this might even include people who can trace their remote ancestry directly to those who hail from the era of a cultural site. In the end, the book represents a fascinating and at times gripping story of Bingham’s life. In terms of what this amazing man’s experiences can teach us about the discovery and study of antiquities today, Heaney only touches briefly upon the topic, picking up the theme throughout the overarching narrative of Bingham’s movie-script of a life. He helps the reader understand what it is about humanity that might make us seek to make discoveries, to possess ancient objects at whatever the cost. Heaney does not, however, go far enough in elucidating ways to reign in these exuberances. In fairness, this was not the focus of the book, but Bingham provides such fertile soil, that the reader justifiably might expect more.
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