I was visiting family in Italy a few years ago when we decided to go for a short outing. Driving through the area, which quickly turns from urban to farmland and back, we noticed a small canyon that seemed to abruptly cut the landscape in two. Passing near it, I noticed something surprising: a settlement built into the rock.
Italy is known for them. Drive through the countryside, through the hills and mountains, and you’ll see dozens of tiny dots in the rock. These cave dwellings, though mostly abandoned now, serve as an ever-present reminder of the area’s past. A few have recently been renovated and are open to tourism, like in the city of Matera, but the vast majority lay unused.
This one was different, however. It was more than a primitive cave- it was a complex carved into the rock. It was such an interesting find! A climbable, touchable piece of history. And so, setting safety aside, we decided to climb down into the settlement.
The stairs were worn smooth, and covered in dust, the walls were smooth with age. Though no other remnants of the people who lived there remained, you could imagine what it must’ve been like to live there, to see it. How smoke from the hearth must’ve darkened the already dim room, the various and pungent smells of animal and food and people and soot. Liveliness, cramped quarters, a myriad of sounds. On the darker side, disease, poverty, the uncertainty of the area, and the time.
Experiences like these are vital to an appreciation of history. There’s more to learning and loving history than reading a textbook, or watching a movie, or even making posters and dioramas. It’s about feeling a connection to the past- understanding that the people who came before us not only made contributions to making the world what it is today, but knowing that they had varied and interesting lives of their own. History is as much a collection of wider trends as it is a tapestry of lives and individual decisions just like those that people encounter daily. And it’s these granular, living pieces of history that are easiest to connect to, as it’s easy to see the parallels in our own lives, rather than in a grand event or process or figure. So maybe one of the keys to developing a love of history is in that- feeling a connection to the past that we study, rather than seeing a lifeless 2-D depiction of it, and that’s an idea that should be considered by anyone seeking to learn or teach about the past.