One day, the face mask will be a relic of the Covid era
Some time in the distant future, when Covid-19 is as remote a memory as the Black Death, a builder putting an extension on a pub will unearth two mysterious artefacts.
One will be a piece of jawshaped cloth with two little elastic loops on either side; the other, a scrap of torn paper with five words, barely readable: “Please keep 2m apart ...”
It won’t take the archaeologists long to unravel the history of these two relics. The virus of 2020 will leave such material reminders long after we have all passed on. The personal story of most of them will never be known.
But they will be real relics of a past calamity — one an individual’s guard against a lethal infection, the other a warning posted by a bartender.
Historic calamities have all left similar human footprints: the hideous beaked masks worn by doctors in earlier European plagues, stuffed with sweet-smelling aromatic herbs to block the smell.
The little plate of tasty-looking patisseries unearthed at Pompeii preserved in the great shower of ash from Vesuvius in 79AD.
The postcard found on the body of a Titanic victim (written to his mother the day before the great liner sank: “If all goes well, we will arrive in New York on Wednesday am ...”).
The handwritten name of a six-year-old Jewish boy inside a shoe on display in the Auschwitz museum; he perished in the gas chamber.
For the last two years, I have been immersed in documents for a book co-authored with my wife, Ann MacMillan — documents that are the most vivid reminders of moments of spectacular drama in the history of the world.
They are artefacts like the Covid mask and Auschwitz shoe — but documents have the added impact of being the words and thoughts of people from the past.
Our choice of 50 documents that best illustrate world history include the well-known Magna Carta, Dead Sea Scrolls, Declaration of Independence and Anne Frank’s diary, but also less familiar manuscripts that reflect both disasters and times of transformational change.
The most eloquent testament to one of history’s great catastrophes is a gloriously illustrated document that lies in the Bodleian Library in Oxford: the Codex Mendoza. It records the history of the Aztec empire in Mexico that was obliterated by the Spanish army of Hernán Cortés in 1521.
The Aztecs were illiterate, so had no written record, but the Spanish governor of newly conquered Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, had the enlightened idea of getting the Aztecs to pass on their history orally to Spanish
The Aztec storytellers then illustrated the accounts by drawing pictures of life in their empire. The result is a document that is an astonishing eye-opener to two centuries of history that would have been lost forever.
Another of the documents we feature in the book is a scrap of paper Winston Churchill passed to Stalin at the Moscow summit of October 1944 as Soviet armies stormed across eastern Europe. Churchill’s attempt to secure Western influence in post-war Europe throws a fascinating light on the management of a catastrophe.
It reads: “Romania: 90% Russia, the others 10%, Greece: Great Britain in accord with the USA 90%, Russia 10%. Yugoslavia: 50%/50%. Hungary: 50%/50%. Bulgaria: Russia 75%, others 25%.” Stalin gave the paper a large tick and passed it back to Churchill, but it didn’t get him very far: only Greece emerged entirely free in 1945.
Our choice of documents covers 4,000 years, from the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi’s legal code to a 21st-century map of the universe. Inventors like the Wright Brothers are represented by the excited telegram they sent to their father in 1903 when they finally got their aircraft to leave the ground for 57 seconds. Our scientific choices include pioneers such as Copernicus, Brunel and Tim BernersLee. There are literary and political landmark documents, too, not all of them so widely known.
Take Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century British philosopher who would inspire feminists around the world. In her famous work, A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, she argued that men and women were both rational beings, equal in the eyes of God and therefore should be treated in the same way. Sadly, her book fell into disrepute after she died in 1797 giving birth to a daughter, Mary (who later became Mary Shelley, author of the classic novel Frankenstein).
After her death, Wollstonecraft’s husband wrote a book about her unconventional life, scandalous revelations that undermined her reputation and stopped people reading her book. It wasn’t until the suffragette movement 100 years later that Wollstonecraft’s pioneering thoughts about women’s rights re-emerged.
The final act of the Berlin Conference of 1885 is a document that records the carveup of Africa only a little over a century ago. It outrageously divided Africa among the imperialist countries of Europe without one African present. Only two of the delegates had ever visited the continent before.
Records of key moments in history appear in many forms. We came across an envelope covered with the names of cities in North America. Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, had used it to scrawl a planned schedule for the group’s first North American tour.
In 1964, The Beatles were already a sensation in the UK, but they remained relatively unknown across the Atlantic. That suddenly changed after John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on The Ed Sullivan
Show. A record 73 million people watched The Beatles perform five songs including She and Loves You I Saw Her Standing
There. North Americans were hooked. The city names Epstein wrote on the envelope resulted in The Beatles’ legendary tour across the US and Canada.
No doubt there will be many written accounts of Covid-19. I wonder how many will echo the apocalyptic words found in the diary of John Clyn, who died in 1350 when the Black Death ravaged Ireland. “I, seeing these many ills, and that the whole world is encompassed by evil, waiting among the dead for death to come, have committed to writing what I have truly heard and examined; and so that the writing does not perish with the writer ... I leave parchment for continuing the work in case anyone should be alive in the future ...” —