Archaeology After the Pandemic

Blog Post: 20 Nov 2040

Janus Yuen '21, Contributor

Michael J. Lam is the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology at Yale University. An alumnus of the Loomis Chaffee School in the Hartford District, he writes about his experience excavating the campus he once called home.

20 years after we boarding students moved out for the last time, I have finally found my way back to the Island. Led by the auspices of a kind shepherd, I battled the tangled brush that had reclaimed the area until, at last, I reached the front door of Founders.

I looked for a door handle before remembering that all of them had been dismantled due to fears that they would serve as vectors of transmission. Until my team arrived, I had no way in.

I decided to survey the rest of the campus instead. I wandered into the Meadows, where I found the ground littered with millions of plastic forks, plastic cups, and plexiglass dividers: waste generated by the desperate feeding practices of the final months during which campus was inhabited.

The grass and the trees grew through these obstacles, winding around them in their quest for sunshine. They were evidently artifacts of the brief, though prolific, Corona Culture (2020-2032 CE) of the Connecticut River Valley. Similar sites dating to the same period can be found throughout the region.

However, the object of my study is the Golden Age of the Pre-Corona Culture (1900-2020 CE), which is characterized by the use of sturdier materials and more intimate, collective social practices. Uncovering artifacts of this era would require excavation, since oral narratives report that during the cataclysmic Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 — commonly agreed to have caused the end of the Golden Age and precipitated collapse of culture — most shared utility items, such as subway trains, ballot boxes, and door handles, were buried in last-ditch attempts to stem transmission of the virus without the use of a mask mandate.

A few hours later, my team arrived. We were all Loomis alumni from the Class of ’21, and we had all settled on the same, burning research question: Why did the Batchelder and Howe dormitory renovations take so long, and what might we find that informs us about the ending of the Pre-Corona Golden Age? We were more than ready to finally find out.

We approached Batchelder first, metal detectors in one hand and machetes in the other as we slashed through the vegetation. We found the door without a handle. Bob took a battering ram and forced his way in. When I stepped inside, I was once again reminded of how much had changed.

Inside the common room, in one corner, a horde of face masks was piled high. There were piles of panic-bought toilet paper in another and of hand sanitizer bottles in all the rest. In the middle of that room, however, my metal detector started beeping rapidly. I called for Bob. He came back with a sledgehammer and broke up the floorboards. What we found underneath was breathtaking.

In the final months of the Golden Age just before the advent of Corona Culture, it seems that the school administration, fearing a student uprising that could have arisen from their mismanagement of the pandemic response, buried all of the precious items that the pandemic had rendered dangerous and which would have been prime targets for looters.

We found metal forks that didn’t break when stabbed into FLIK broccoli, porcelain plates that didn’t sag when filled with FLIK food, those hard plastic cups from Walmart, all the hundreds of salt and pepper shakers, massive Gatorade water jugs, the hand-press toilet handles, and all the delectably smoochable water fountain heads (I can’t be the only one who loved to put my lips directly on them when I drank).

The scale of the find marks the Island as one of the greatest sites of the Pre-Corona Golden Age, offering stark and immediate contrasts between the material culture of a society enjoying the fruits of prosperity and of one facing an existential crisis.

Not all had changed, however. When I visited Kravis Hall, I stood in the common room and could still detect –– through my gas mask –– whiffs of that locale’s distinct scent: a mix of body odor and stale pizza. Brush also still stands. I wrestled my way inside, up the mouldy stairs, and found the desks in the exceedingly well ventilated study rooms still 3 feet apart, with Katherine Brush’s magnificent 9 feet tall portrait still looming heavily over the Eastern side of the library.

I looked up through a sagging hole in the ceiling where rain had broken through and saw an albino pigeon –– identical to the one Dean Donegan had found two decades ago and posted on the Daily Bulletin — except now, there were seven. It seems like the lil’ guy had started a family.