On Saturday, as part of the East Oxford Archaeology Project, I took part in a sorting session, sifting through bags of soil samples which had been filtered, sieved and then divided up according to the size of the fragments they contained. I was given 4 bags of the larger size fragments which in the main were between 4mm and 10mm in size with some bits (mainly stones) larger than this.
The idea was to sort through the bags, using tweezers to pick out various things – such as bone fragments – which one would then place into dishes according to what they were (other catergories included, iron, charcoal, mortar, organic matter, glass and flint).
My best finds were a tiny, well-preserved seed pod, some splinters of glass and a human tooth but it was the whole process which interested me; the very fact that countless numbers of lives lived so very long ago had been reduced to these tiny, inconqequential fragments which, bit by bit, I sorted through and placed into dishes ready for further investigation. At the end of the session, having sifted through 4 large bags, I was left with a few tiny fragments, and yet, from these fragments, one can – with the aid of the imagination – find oneself back in the world to which they once belonged.
Entropy, as defined (one of several definitions) by dictionary.com is “a measure of the loss of information in a transmitted signal or message” and as I sifted through my box of fragments, I began to see the distinction between the past and present as one which is essentially entropic. I always try to remember how the past was once now, but in fact there is only now, a span of time which we might divide, not into days or nights, years or centuries, but into varying degrees of entropy.