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Hillside Meditations has a thought provoking post – Grave Robbers spurred on by TIME’s coverage of the recent Thracian finds which may, or may not, have something to do with Orpheus. In a passionate post Christian Renner states “I have always thought that archeology very often borders directly to grave robbery and desecration.” At this point I could be smug and patronising. Archaeology isn’t about finding things, it’s about finding things out. But then it would be obvious that I hadn’t read the Independent.

Wreath from the tomb of Orpheus?
The Independent‘s coverage of the Bulgarian finds.

He also asks:

“Is there a difference between Spanish communists taking dead nuns out of their tombs and dancing with the decaying corpses and an archeologist unearthing lovingly buried remains of ancient kings and putting them on display for the dumb masses?”

You guess it: my answer is a clear “No!”

In light of the above does he have a point?

I’d argue there’s probably a difference. I haven’t met the communists in question, but I suspect that they were intentionally being disrespectful to the nuns. The intent of archaeologists on the other hand is one of respect. Here lies a person what can we learn about him or her? Archaeology really is about finding things out, but headlines like the above don’t help. So what are we finding out about Thrace?

From the historical records is the Thracians would appear to have been backward and primitive. The archaeology is telling a different story. There appear to have been sophisticated Thracian settlements, though not following the Greek ideal. The fine goldwork shows that the rulers of the land, at least, were rather rich. By closer examination of the finds we may be able to show that this region had a stronger influence on the Greeks than we currently suspect. Given much of Europe is indebted to the Greek heritage, this might mean that we finally recognise the importance of these neglected people to our modern heritage. How major an effect could these Thracians have? Pythagoras, who was a spark for a lot of philosophical thought borrowed some Orphic (different Orpheus) ideas native to this area. These finds may show that’s a lot more borrowing than we thought. Rather than being left to rot in time these people may gain immortality, of a sort, in our collective memory. They may be about to get the preservation in eternity they sought when they were buried rather than becoming shadows in the soil. This isn’t going to happen by looking at photos of the pretty artefacts, but by careful study of the grave and its context.

I think Renner is placing his own desires on the past:

“I have a clear vision what I want to happen to my body and the remains of those that I love once we are dead: I want to be laid to rest in a nice grave with a large granite tombstone telling about me and my family and a stone angel to guard our sleep – and I do not want to be taken out there again – neither by a grave robber, nor by cemetery authorities who think my time is up, nor by any archeologist some thousand years in the future.”

Fine. But does he think he has a choice? It would be nice if he did, but grave robbing is a reality in Bulgaria. Check eBay for all those nice finds from “Thrace” which could be Bulgaria, Greece or Turkey making them easy to fence. In some cases there is a race for these materials between archaeologists and organised crime/private collectors. Who would he prefer to have his remains in a thousand years time? The public who could learn about the past? Or would he prefer to be displayed in private for the amusement of a rich collector?

I think he does raise an important point. There is an ethical dimension to excavation. It is destructive. Even from an atheistic point of view, I agree that the remains deserve to be handled respectfully. Not because of eternal rest perhaps, but because treating them as loot upsets people alive today. By treating the dead with respect, hopefully we treat the living with respect too. Part of the respect must be making public not only what we have found, but also we have found out, but when we excavate a grave we destroy a small part of everyone’s past. We need to justify that destruction and show that what remains is more valuable than what has been lost. That may be by a better understanding of humanity, or by a better understanding of the remaining sites, which helps us preserve them more effectively.

So while I wouldn’t agree with his answer, I do think that Christian Renner has brought up a very important question which is worth re-visiting.