This past weekend, I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams when I visited the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Some children dream of a trip to Disneyland, but as a youngster I yearned to wander the halls of the sprawling, 160-room Victorian mansion constructed non-stop over a period of 38 years by Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of “The Gun That Won the West.”
Standing in front of the Winchester Mystery House. My glasses are straight - it's the house that's crooked! (right?)
Convinced that if she ever stopped expanding and altering the structure for even one day her life would be forfeit to the angry spirits of the restless multitude slain by bullets from the barrel of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, Sarah hired a dozen workmen to labor around the clock, at astronomical cost, building and rebuilding according to designs delivered directly to her by the spirits during nightly seances. The fruit of those bizarre labors is a gorgeous but stunningly confusing structure with third-floor doors straight to the outside, closets that open into elevator shafts, and narrow stairs that climb multiple flights only to reach the beams of the ceiling. During my hour-long tour that covered more than a mile, all of it inside the walls of the mansion, I was reminded of another, more famous, labyrinth that I visited a few months ago: the Minoan palace at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete, long claimed to have been the royal residence of the mythical (though perhaps also historical) king Minos, as well as the prison for his wife’s freakish half-man, half-bull offspring, the flesh-eating minotaur.
Looking down on part of the "labyrinth" at Knossos
At both of those historical sites, it is difficult to fully appreciate the labyrinthine nature of the construction. Only a fraction of the palace at Knossos is open to the public. What is visible was reconstructed with a famously heavy hand by the British archaeo-adventurer Sir Arthur Evans in the early 20th century, permanently obscuring or even destroying some original details. The Winchester Mansion has been damaged in several earthquakes and as a result of both this and of its massive size, its caretakers have also opened only some sections to curious guests.
Clearly the Minoan labyrinth and the Winchester Mansion are different types of things. The complex at Knossos is of greater historical importance because it is the richest existing source of our knowledge about an extinct civilization. Still, the modern house is impressive, especially noteworthy for having been built entirely based on the designs of one woman, and by a team of only 12 workmen (one wonders why Sarah did not hire 13 laborers, obsessed as she was with the spiritualistic importance of that number, which she incorporated in every possible way in the design details of the house; perhaps she considered herself the 13th workman – the spiritual foreman?). The point of this post is not to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two very different sites, but rather to ruminate on the nature of historical mysteries.
The so-called Throne Room at Knossos
There are many things we will probably never know about the palace at Knossos and about its builders and inhabitants, though it seems certain that it was a hub of an advanced culture; it’s possible that it was a mercantile and administrative center rather than a royal residence, as was originally thought. But despite the best efforts of archaeologists and other researchers, we have unfortunately lost much of the cultural information created by the inhabitants in the form of written texts and records, works of art, and other tangible and intangible remains of their daily lives. The advance of Greek peoples into the area millennia ago gradually erased knowledge of the Minoan written language, so even some of what does remain has to this point proven inscrutable.
The Winchester house, in clear contrast, was constructed within living memory of my grandparents’ generation, and we have a wealth of information on its history and development. Despite this, many questions remain about the details of the structure, the answers to which Sarah Winchester took to her grave. Walking through the house I couldn’t help but think what an archaeologist investigating the site hundreds or thousands of years in the future might make of the astonishing, illogical structure. This question reminded me of David Macaulay’s 1979 book “Motel of the Mysteries“, which I loved as a child and would probably appreciate even more as an adult (note to self: a trip to the bookstore is in order). That satirical book reports the results of the discovery in the year 4022 of the long-dead civilization of the country of Usa. In a classic moment that I think I am recalling correctly, the intrepid archaeologist Howard Carson enters a 20th century “throne room” complete with porcelain “throne” and interprets the toilet seat, long since detached from the base, as a ceremonial necklace.
Macaulay’s book issues an amusing challenge to all of us to consider the conclusions to which we sometimes leap in the excitement of discovery and out of a desire to make things make sense when dealing with partial information, in this case in an instance in which basic cultural knowledge has been lost. What my visits to both the Minoan palace and the Winchester mansion have compelled me to contemplate are the incredible changes in social memory that have taken place over the last 3000 years, a shocking amount of it in the last two decades. Consider the fact that very little about our modern and contemporary culture will remain mysterious for future generations, barring some type of awesome cataclysm in which every form of record-keeping, physical and digital – yes, even the ever-present “cloud” whose name always evokes a stir of science fiction-fueled paranoia in me – were eradicated. Most terrifying to contemplate, a complete loss of cultural information would also require that all personal experience be wiped away before individuals had the chance to pour it once more into the great pool of collective knowledge.
Modern visitors tour the partially-restored Minoan "palace."
I assume that the Minoans never imagined a future in which their culture and its “secrets” would be largely lost, but perhaps it is more than mere hubris to suggest that for such a thing to happen now would be, barring the complete annihilation of the human race, effectively impossible. This is true in a much broader sense than it ever has been. We lovers of the past have often lamented the loss of the details of silent lives, the millions of “unimportant” individuals who have always made up the greater part of societies, but who have often lacked their own voices, their data (to use the modern term) going largely un-stored. But now, even those aspects of society are carefully archived and shared in almost obsessive detail. Yes, we Tweeters and Bloggers fall, by and large, into the category of the “unimportant” masses of our own generations (though we hate to admit it), but now we have a voice that was long denied to those in our position in earlier historical periods. Of course there are still many individuals who live and die silently in our world, but it’s worth considering the incredible increase in the volume of the voice of the common man in the last decades – the social amplifier of anyone with access to a computer has been turned up to eleven.
All of this leads me to a few questions that I will be considering for awhile, and I welcome your thoughts on them in this forum: How, in modern times, is knowledge stored, and how might it be accessed by researchers in the future? Perhaps more interestingly, how does it degrade and how is it destroyed – is its destruction, in fact, even possible?
It has been popular for some time for archaeologists and historians to muse about how their future counterparts will view the times in which they themselves live, but now the greater question might be: Will we give them any choice in the matter?
A silent statue welcomes visitors to the Winchester Mansion. Don't blink!