Photo of blue face mask which has been discarded and is lying on the ground in a dry ditch. The mask has some dirt on it, and is surrounded by dry grasses, dead leaves, and twigs, with the occasional leaf or two growing along the edges of the ditch that are turning green.


The COVID Centennial Public Archaeology Project

A century from now, archaeologists will make sense of 2020 based on everything we left behind. How will the things we discarded define 2020? What experiences and lessons will they illuminate? And how might the archaeologists of 2120 visualize the cultures of the past?

Editor’s Note: How will 2020 go down in history? In the Hindsight 20/20 project from The Colorado Magazine, twenty of today's most insightful historians and thought leaders imagine themselves in 2120, looking back on 2020 and sharing their visions of how that year will stand the test of time.

Dr. Camila Rojas, Colorado State Archaeologist, wipes the sweat from her brow as she sits back on her heels amid gasps of excitement from the fifth graders crowding around her to get a better look. In the reddish-brown dirt before her is the unmistakable baby blue of a twenty-first-century medical face mask. While such masks were in use for decades, they now generally denote the 2020 layer in a stratigraphic profile. She raises her hand to signal her co-PI, Tribal Archaeologist David Little Bison, who with his crew is setting up the HLS—the holographic laser spectrometer that scans the ground to create 3D movies of the past, populated with archival information and oral histories.

The children marvel at how that blue fabric could have led to the Personal Environment Rings, or PERs, they each wear now. Masks were discarded fairly quickly after the Covid-19 epidemic. Still, some Americans continued to use them when they were ill or felt vulnerable to others’ potential illnesses, although never to the extent mask use was adopted in places like Asia. But with the next viral pandemic in 2040, personal hygiene and virus protection technology shifted rapidly. The predecessors of PERs were large bubbles, followed by the namesake rings that sat on the collarbone and emitted eradiated air to kill bacteria and viruses as the wearer breathed. Today’s PERs, of course, are barely noticeable as they create a micro-environment around the wearer and can even be used as a personal communication device.

Photo of an open forest of ponderosa pines in Rocky Mountain National Forest. There are a few large boulders in the foreground, and far off along the horizon are the majestic snow-dusted peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In the valley before that, groups of ponderosa pine trees of various sizes are visible along the green and brown hills.

View of one of the many ponderosa pine forests that used to exist near Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Photo by Charles M. Sauer. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In just a few moments, the eleven-year-olds are shrieking in delight (technology may change, but children haven’t) as David flips the HLS emitter and starts transmitting holographic images of the past straight into to the ocular devices with which each PER is equipped. Just as Camila is mid-sentence in describing social distance protocols of the twenty-first century, they start seeing ghostlike projections of people from other centuries wandering past each other around a wildfire scar. 

A century earlier, this region had been covered in lodgepole and ponderosa pine, before the largest wildfires in Colorado history blazed across the area. Ponderosa is now all but extinct, and most of the children have only ever smelled the trees’ vanilla-cake-batter scent in history programs that use scent for storytelling. Today’s climate is vastly different than when those fires blazed and the “typical” progression of tree replacement hadn’t yet occurred. The aspens had given it a valiant effort, but ultimately the wildfire scars settled into large, dryland meadows, more akin to something that David’s ancestors would have recognized as they roamed the same area hunting and gathering 7,000 years ago during the last altithermal period.

Photo of an area affected by the Cameron Peak Wildfire. In the foreground the brown soil and green vegetation turns to black, scorched earth. In the near distance, a few tall pine trees have escaped the fire and are still green and full. However further back into the distance where the ground is still smoking from the fire, the tall pines are reduced to single blackened trunks, or have branches that are also black with few, if any, pine needles remaining. The sky is filled with the hazy gray of smoke.

The Cameron Peak Wildfire was just one of the massive fires in 2020 to decimate forest vegetation.

Courtesy Mark T. Spring

“Remember to sterilize your hands before lunch!” David calls to the group as they run for the bus, and across the field Camila sees a wave of green lights as the PERs go to work. She winces as two boys run into each other and one’s ocular piece snaps, a common occurrence with PERs. As he pulls a replacement from his pack, Camila laughs silently, wondering what an archaeologist, a hundred years from now, will make of the shattered lens lying in the soil.

More from the Hindsight 20/20 project in The Colorado Magazine

The Lingering Aftertaste of 2020  Before 2020, people just waltzed right into bars, restaurants, and cultural venues to be among other people. But, well, that was before 2020. Decades of isolation and innovation later, what have we gained? What have we lost? What should we try to reclaim?

How Did We Get To Now? Museums Chronicle the Emergent Era in America  A pale blue face mask sits suspended in a slender glass case. It’s analog and simple, delicate even, compared to the environmental enhancement headsets we wear today. But the accompanying text notes that a century ago it was surprisingly controversial. Welcome to the 2020 centennial exhibition.

Burning Truth: The Beginning of the End for Colorado's Forests  In 2020, three Colorado wildfires consumed a combined total of more than half a million acres—dwarfing what had previously been the state’s most destructive fire seasons. It should have been an alarm heard throughout the West, even worldwide. The lessons were right there to be learned. And yet . . .