The uncommonly decent politics of reburial


To add a little con­text to the pre­vi­ous post: I’ve taken a course in short story writ­ing, and Silencing the Echo might have been an entry for a short story com­pet­i­tion in Wales — but I decided against enter­ing it.

The inspir­a­tion comes from a druid who cam­paigned for reburial of pre­his­toric remains in the UK. Avebury, I think. Reburial was, he said, a mat­ter of “com­mon decency”. As phrases go, it’s a good one. It taps into the British sense of decency and reas­on­able­ness. Or at least it does at first.

When it keeps com­ing up again and again it loses the feel­ing of a sin­cere spon­tan­eous state­ment and starts look­ing like a sound­bite. Looked at closely, it gives away the intol­er­ant nature of some of the campaigners.

Imagine we’re on oppos­ite sides, and I’m cam­paign­ing for com­mon decency. What does this make you? I sup­pose it could make you uncom­monly decent, but the insinu­ation is a moral fail­ing rather than simply a mat­ter of dis­agree­ment, and when the same tag is used over and over then it looks less like an accident.

An unques­tioned assump­tion is that reburial is what the per­son bur­ied would wish for. This is not cer­tain.
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Silencing the Echo


The black clouds unleashed their rain, pelt­ing Adlais’s face. The drops melted into her tears. Now, in the centre of the circle, the priests grip­ping her, she under­stood what happened to her friend Branwen.

Once again the crops had failed. The gods were angry. Someone in the tribe must be anger­ing them and the tribe would have to be cleansed. Adlais had been called to the priests, who had asked if she would sing at the cleans­ing. She had never liked cleans­ings, but it was import­ant it was done right, so she had will­ingly agreed and drank from the horn to sig­nify her sub­mis­sion to the gods. Now, barely an hour later, her head felt like it was split­ting, her ears rang with sound of her own heart­beat and her limbs jerked of their own voli­tion as the priest lis­ted her crimes.

Witnesses came into the circle to testify to see­ing events that had never happened, to spy­ing acts that had never been com­mit­ted. They briefly recited their words, as they had for Branwen last year. Then they scur­ried back bey­ond the safety of the ditch that sep­ar­ated the world from this cursed space. As always, the accused was chal­lenged to deny her crimes, but Adlais’s blood felt thick and pois­on­ous. The words would not come to her tongue. She had been on the other side too many times to hope that people would see her dis­tress. Her silence would con­demn her. Her spasms would be vis­ible evid­ence of the guilt tor­tur­ing her.

The judge­ment came. Adlais filled with fear. Not for her­self, her future was as obvi­ous as the grave in front of her, but for her fam­ily and her friends watch­ing from bey­ond the ditch. They were des­per­ate, hop­ing this cleans­ing would finally rid the land of the blight. But what gods would be appeased by falsehoods?

It was almost a relief when the last act came. The blow to the back of her skull sur­prised her, as she dis­covered the pain in her head could indeed get worse. She stumbled, then fell into the pit dug for her, to the cheers and relief of the watch­ers. Still awake, she lay in her final bed as the priests began to cover her. Adlais cried. Not for her­self but for the friend she had aban­doned a year ago.
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What’s the difference between archaeology and grave-robbing?

HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy
HMS Victory sinking by Peter Monamy

Loss of HMS Victory, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy

The HMS Victory (not that one) is set to be recovered accord­ing to the BBC and many other sites. You could say speed. Archaeology is an enorm­ously inef­fi­cient of rob­bing graves. These days archae­olo­gists can take years to study one bar­row (an earth mound mark­ing a burial) while in the 18th cen­tury aris­to­crats used to go on pic­nics and have the work­men open up one or two in an after­noon for gold.

There is a deeper reason.

Archaeologists are so slow because they want to say some­thing about the people who live there. There’s a great Paul Bahn line: Archaeology is not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out. Obviously find­ing things out is easier if you find arte­facts with people and that’s why sud­den dis­asters are great from an archae­olo­gical point of view.

It doesn’t stop a dis­aster site effect­ively being a grave. If you’re genu­inely inter­ested in find­ing out about people, it’s would be odd if you didn’t give a damn about their grave. Digging up a site is effect­ively des­troy­ing it.* If you’re going to do that you’ll want to go slowly and make sure that the story you can tell about this person’s life is a bet­ter memorial than the one he or she already has.

The news stor­ies this week­end are all about find­ing the ship, along with a brief men­tion of the up to £500 mil­lion value of gold on board. What they don’t men­tion is that the UK gov­ern­ment has sanc­tioned the recov­ery in exchange for 20% of that. Is the gov­ern­ment more inter­ested in the treas­ure, or has it developed a keen interest in archae­ology so that, as Lord Lingfield says: “We hope it will give a unique insight into the world of the mid-18th cen­tury Royal Navy.

The answer can be found in this story from October 2011 in the Daily Mail.

Odyssey said yes­ter­day the UK gov­ern­ment was ‘des­per­ately look­ing for new sources of income’ and was urging it to find more British wrecks. It is also invest­ig­at­ing HMS Sussex, lost off Gibraltar with 10 tons of gold in 1694, and HMS Victory, a pre­cursor to Nelson’s flagship.

There are thou­sands of deser­ted medi­eval vil­lages in the UK. In the 21st cen­tury the biggest defence any buri­als in them have have against feed­ing bankers is that the fin­an­cial pay­off of crack­ing them open is too low.

*Not hyper­bolae. It’s recog­nised by pro­fes­sional archae­olo­gists then if you dig up some­thing it’s not going to be there for someone else to dig. +Kris Hirst col­lects quotes on her site, and a great one from Kent Flannery is: “Archeology is the only branch of anthro­po­logy where we kill our inform­ants in the pro­cess of study­ing them.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

Bookmarks for 16th of November through to 18th of November


These are my links for 16th of November through 18th of November:

  • The Academic Journal Racket « In the Dark
    Telescoper explains how aca­demic pub­lish­ing works. The only thing that would improbe the post would be the theme from ‘The Naked Gun’ in the background.
  • A Case in Antiquities for ‘Finders Keepers’ — NYTimes​.com
    You can make argu­ments in favour of repat­ri­ation of antiquit­ies. You can make argue­ments against. Being on either side doesn’t make you inher­ently fool­ish. But when you write that the British Army took the Rosetta Stone from the French and “returned it to the British Museum” then some­thing has gone wrong. It’s prob­ably a case of moment­ary brain­fade rather than idiocy, but it mat­ters because the whole ques­tion of own­er­ship of the Rosetta Stone is about where it right­fully belongs. Using the word ‘returned’ builds in the assump­tion that all antiquit­ies are inher­ently British.
  • Notes & Queries; Sledges — Theoretical Structural Archaeology
    Geoff Carter con­cluded he didn’t have evid­ence for a stag­ger­ingly early cart shed in Poland. Could it have been a used to house a sledge? I’ve just real­ised I know abso­lutely noth­ing at all about the his­tory of sleds and sledges. Not only that, but I can’t recall much atten­tion being called to them in early pre­his­toric archae­ology other than when people want to talk about mov­ing mega­liths to Stonehenge. Yet Martha Murphy (guest blog­ging) shows there’s plenty of ques­tions to ask about neo­lithic transport.
  • British bank turns to treas­ure hunt­ing via @johnabartram
    Avast me hearties! Robert Fraser & Partners be scourin’ the high seas in search of booty. They be fundin’ Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. ter search the Caribbean fer Spanish gold. Arrr!
  • CRM Problem in Cadboro Bay « Northwest Coast Archaeology
    More on the prob­lems of pre­serving her­it­age in BC. Ancient buri­als have been scooped out of the ground, <em>after</em> an archae­olo­gical assessment.

Bookmarks for 12th of November through to 14th of November


These are my links for 12th of November through 14th of November:

  • Is the new policy state­ment PPS 15 a threat to her­it­age? — Building Design
    I’d love to have a pithy and insight­ful opin­ion on this, but first I’ll have to look up what PPS 15 says. it’s import­ant as PPG 15 and 16 have been the basis of pro­tec­tion of her­it­age in the UK for many years.
  • Pagans for Archaeology: Why reburial won’t work
    It’s all very well me say­ing there are eth­ical reas­ons to be against reburial, but I still haven’t found the time to write them down yet. Now this post hits almost every point I was going to make, espe­cially the point about memory. This won’t stop me from writ­ing up my thoughts when I can find the time though.
  • Identity : Gambler’s House
    Teofilo talks about Chaco and Navajo iden­tity and dis­cov­ers neither is as simple as you might think.
  • 3rd-century build­ing fuels debate over lost coun­try … asahi​.com(朝日新聞社)
    “The cent­ral axis of each build­ing forms a straight line. Each build­ing is believed to have faced the same dir­ec­tion. Such care­ful plan­ning for build­ings was com­mon for palaces and temples dur­ing the Asuka Period from the late sixth cen­tury to the early eighth cen­tury. But it had not been found at sites from the early third century. “

    This is why I need to find an intro­duct­ory book to early Japanese his­tory. There’s a huge amount of fas­cin­at­ing stuff there.

  • Shameful hypo­crisy threatens our ancient shared her­it­age
    “One of the most egre­gious hypo­cris­ies we enter­tain in British Columbia is our cava­lier atti­tude toward the destruc­tion and dis­posal of indi­gen­ous cul­tural land­scapes, arti­facts and her­it­age sites. In any enlightened nation such import­ant his­tory would com­mand pro­tec­tion — here it earns indif­fer­ence and even contempt.”
  • Moai in Captivity — a gal­lery on Flickr
    A great idea for a gal­lery. There’s some­thing about the facial expres­sion that makes even fake Moai appealing.

Blogging and Honesty


A ramble rather than a rant.

How do you put your blog posts together? Photo after erix!

There’s been a spate of ‘Why Blog?’ posts in the Biblioblogosphere. They hap­pen every so often amongst blog­gers. Sometimes they’re insight­ful and some­times they’re navel gaz­ing. Thankfully the dis­cus­sion leans towards the former here. Charles Ellwood Jones has put up a round up of posts at the Ancient World Bloggers Group.

The entries that par­tic­u­larly caught my eye were on hon­esty in blog­ging. Jim West kicked that strand off, you should read the whole thing, but key pararaphs are:

In sum, do we refrain from blog­ging what we really think about this or that or the other because we are unsure of ourselves, or because we are fear­ful of the reac­tion or– and worst of all– because we are afraid we might not be called to serve at Harvard or Yale if someone there reads what we cheekily say?

I find myself, at the end of the day, con­stantly amazed at the unwill­ing­ness of some to be them­selves. I take this as noth­ing but hypo­crisy. Hide your­self, don’t say what you think, play the hypo­crite, and someone may hire you or pub­lish you. As though being hired or pub­lished were more import­ant than hon­esty. Which I sup­pose, for some, they are.

Roland Boer is in agree­ment. There were a couple of other responses. Mark Goodacre com­men­ted on the split between his blogs into broadly pro­fes­sional and per­sonal, because some one might want to read the one and not the other. In a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion Missives from Marx argues that in some cases anonym­ity is neces­sary for hon­esty. I think that MM makes a mis­take. Missives from Marx is not an anonym­ous blog. It’s a pseudomym­ous blog and there’s the con­stant pos­sib­il­ity that someone will con­nect the pseud­onym to the per­son. To be hon­est you may struggle to find people openly blog­ging “Yes! I am a hypo­crite, AND PROUD OF IT!“
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Neanderthal Ethics


Here’s an oddity I star­ted think­ing about fol­low­ing a tweet by Dr Kiki who poin­ted to this art­icle Return of the Neanderthals: If we can resur­rect them through fossil DNA, should we?. The strange thing was my reac­tion to this. The answer seems obvi­ous. I thought I’d missed the boat on this when The Philosophers’ Magazine blog covered it. Again the author, Jean Kazez, missed the obvi­ous objec­tion, so I left it in a com­ment, and it was eas­ily dis­missed — or rather ignored. Seeing as two people see no prob­lem with what I see as an insur­mount­able prob­lem I have to be open to the idea I’m being dog­matic.
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