Is Orpheus being needlessly torn apart?

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.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Phil Mills says:

    I think that th situ­ation in Bulgaria is even worse (graver?) than you sug­gest — basic­ally most bar­rows ear settled areas have already been ripped into by JCB type dig­gers, not just bar­rows — The roman Fortress at Novae was sub­jec­ted to such an attack a few years ago.

    Meanwhile in Britain there ws the mass clear­ing of the cemetry at St Pancreas for the rail lin devel­op­ment which was only hal­ted and some con­trolled ( and respect­ful) work car­ried out after a lot of protest.…

  1. August 7, 2005

    Is Orpheus being need­lessly torn apart?

    Finding Things (out)

    Archaeoastronomy gives a thought­ful and inter­est­ing reply to my ram­bling on arche­olo­gists “graver­ob­bing” Thracian graves in Bulgaria (and other graves all over the world). Thanks for the reply!
    I espe­cially liked the dis­tinc­tion that w…

    AUTHOR: Tania Winter
    Maybe we should invent a new term: Necrospiel.