Timothy Taylor

[ARCHAEOLOGIST]

“BEING KEPT ALIVE THROUGH A HEART TRANSPLANT IS SEEN AS ACCEPTABLE, AND EATING A DEAD ANCESTOR IS NOT.”
Settings of human burial rites:
(in order of evolutionary appearance)
Caves
Under house floors
Under beds
Cemeteries

Human prehistory is an almost unimaginably vast period,” writes archaeologist Tim Taylor, “and it is easy for the dead to go missing.” Archaeology is all about finding the dead—dead persons, dead objects, dead societies—and yet we still want to think of it as a discipline that shows us “how people lived.” Taylor wants to show us how they died. Not only how they died, but why they died, and what their deaths meant to those who survived them. His most recent book, The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, hinges on extrapolating a simple yet fascinating fact of archaeological history: the first stone tools were found to have been made some 2.6 million years ago, yet the first archaeological evidence of a human funerary burial is from just 120,000 years ago (and regular burials, Taylor adds, only began 10,000 years ago).

In his mordant expeditions, Taylor tries to come to terms with not only ancient death, but death in this world as well. He recalls being blamed for the death of his grandfather. In his professional life, death is rendered not only as sifting through ancient sands—“inferring behavior from mute remains”—but as the very work of the present, as he is called to assist in the police investigation of a suspected ritual killing victim found floating in the Thames River.

The Buried Soul is not something one reads casually. Lines such as “From my research… I knew that the ritual killing of children was not all that rare in the ancient world” and “except for fish, man was the most popular of the vertebrate animals used for food”—or even the bit about an island in Fiji where living men were buried alive to serve as the foundation for a building—tend to precipitate a certain engagement. Taylor, who has also written on “the prehistory of sex” and has hosted numerous specials on the BBC relating to archaeology (including a three-part series on cannibalism), wants to bring archaeology to us more vividly, to give life and meaning to old bones, bones that represent—as we have no record of songs nor stories—a society’s lifeblood. In doing so he also wants to uncover, as it were, the mysteries, taboos, and rituals around death that still exist and the “visceral insulation” by which we protect ourselves from the dead. Taylor teaches at the University of Bradford, but he currently is in Vienna, where he serves as a visiting scholar. This conversation began via email just before the opening of the war in Iraq.

—Tom Vanderbilt

THE BELIEVER: You’re now posted in Vienna, which, as you note, is the home of Freud’s thanatos—the death drive. What explains your own fascination, if one can call it that, with death? Is it somehow a prerequisite for archaeology itself, which by necessity involves dealing with death—of people, of objects, of societies?

TIMOTHY TAYLOR: A genuine life must face death without illusion. Whatever else it is, it is an end to this life, and Freud rightly saw (although he perhaps made it sound more complicated than it is) that our vitality (eros) would feel shallow if it had no counterbalance—like a picture without shadows. Archaeology is a unique kind of discipline in that it addresses not only the conscious historical legacy of the dead but also attempts to recover the truth of past out of mind—prehistory. It has two things of massive importance to say in the present: firstly, that the present is a very thin rind on an almost unimaginably long human career. The second is that what is enduring about us is not, finally, our individuality, but our cultural creations. When I view an Ice Age sculpture, a person from 25,000 years ago is actually, genuinely—however you want to put it—communicating with me. That is a magical feeling.

BLVR: I am reminded of your story of the time you were asked to help rescue a dog from a limestone cave in the Yorkshire dales. Climbing inside, you found any number of animal remains, but human remains as well, including that of a baby. These are just part of what you call “the many millions of unaccounted dead.” You added that you were “unsettled” by what you found. I’m wondering if you might elaborate on that, and I’m curious as to whether you get involved in a visceral or emotional way when dealing with the remains you find. Is a bone just a bone?

TT: No, the caver, Stuart Marshall, had already got the dog out. I went down afterward to check for any archaeology. When I found human vertebrae and a piece of sternum, Stuart was surprised and told me that the caving fraternity generally consider all such material sheep bones. Of course, he was able to show me things about the geology of the cave that I would never have noticed. Observation of the environment always depends on prior knowledge, and there are, indeed, surprising numbers of human bones simply lying around the place—we are a populous species. I do get emotionally involved at some level when I find stuff, particularly children’s bones. They are so small, and, as a father, it puts me in mind of my own children. One can feel quite sad at the same time as feeling a bit stupid. Holding the skull of a child who died more than a thousand years ago invokes a special kind of pathos. But it is actually rather a confusing experience. If the child had lived then it would have died a very long time ago, anyway. Perhaps it makes one feel powerless in the face of grief and suffering. Certainly it forces a confrontation of one’s own brief span, and so, perhaps, it is some kind of personal grief that wells up.

BLVR: I was struck by the level of personal candor in your book. It opens with, “I was six when my grandfather died and I was blamed for his death.” Later, you write of cutting yourself with a penknife late at night in a Vienna apartment. You mention that at the time you were reading Herodotus on the burial practices of the Scythians, which included “circular incisions on their arms” among other rituals, but you hadn’t made any connection. It seems to me that the stereotype we have of scientists is of detached people working in a detached manner, but I’m wondering whether and in what ways your own life enters into your work and vice versa?

TT: I have tried to be as honest as possible. We all have our biases and drives. I felt that readers had a right to know about me in consideration of the controversial, unorthodox, and often grisly story of human development I have tried to tell in the book. But the book is not an autobiography, so I tried to limit the very personal to what I thought was strictly relevant.

BLVR: I was just reading about how U.S. soldiers, preparing to enter battle in Iraq, carry ponchos that can be used to cover the remains of their dead compatriots. They also are careful to bury the bodies of their putative enemies with their heads facing East, toward Mecca, reflecting not only Geneva Convention dictates but a code of combat. That soldiers would take the time and effort to observe any kind of ritual in burying enemy dead seems to speak to the cultural power of the funerary rite in modern society.

TT: I think that death-related behaviors are part of what constitutes a proper human. We do not go into battle as animals but with codes and laws, ideas of honour and transgression. Ultimately such behaviour, although it seems at first to have no “function,” may also be psychologically adaptive and, in another way, practical. If you know that the dead are covered, then an uncovered body, though static and injured, may yet be living and able to benefit from medical aid. So such apparent rituals can serve to simplify and structure behaviour during a critical period. Beyond that, though, they provide moments of psychological closure, enabling soldiers to move on to the next task—the poncho rite is a form of abbreviated death ceremony that corresponds exactly with the observations made in 1909 by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep said that funerary rites were typically tripartite: separation from the living, the transitional or liminal middle phase, and the rite of incorporation—the big funeral when the dead went to join their ancestors. The poncho rite is, in these terms, the rite of separation in which the fallen comrade is symbolically labeled as physically dead, though their property and associations are still extant at that point. The body then goes into a kind of limbo—fairly unreverential but publicly screened—during which post-mortem, refrigeration, and transportation procedures take place. Finally the corpse is released back to relatives and morticians for the closing rite: incorporation into the world of ancestors or into the roll call of war heroes. This final rite coincides with the legal resolution of issues pertaining to property and dependents, i.e. the processes that render a person socially as well as physically dead.

BLVR: Let’s go back to the history, or prehistory, of these kinds of ceremonies. In The Buried Soul you make the rather striking observation that although the first stone tools were invented some 2.6 million years ago, the first recorded burial did not appear until some 120,000 years ago. It seems obvious that, more than being just some simple practice for which the tools were readily available, burial had to acquire a whole set of meanings, rationales, and purposes. We seem to go from a situation where bodies simply were left, as they were with chimpanzees, to a situation where bodies are carefully arranged, clothed in costume, and accompanied by “grave goods.” It’s a massive question, but what happened? Wouldn’t burial, in the absence of any mythology or meaning, have made some kind of sense from a hygienic, evolutionary point of view—i.e. to have rotting bodies lying around would attract vermin and disease?

TT: The Wienerwald forest on the outskirts of Vienna is a haven for wild animals, yet it is not exactly strewn with their corpses. Nature is a dynamic system and things get quickly scavenged and reabsorbed at both the macro and micro (bacterial) levels. Hygienic disposal of the dead would not have been an issue for our Paleolithic ancestors—they had no permanent settlement and lived at low population densities. Against this background, deliberate burial appears as something quite odd. It certainly does not presage the sudden onset of intelligence, as we started to reach modern cranial capacity around a quarter of a million years ago, and, even after the first burials begin, they are clearly not a normal event. They remain highly unusual until a mere 10,000 years ago. At that point, when farming began and people started living in year-round villages, issues of what we would today call hygiene must have arisen. From that perspective it is interesting that, although the earliest standardized burial rituals were often under house floors—sometimes, as at Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, under the beds—later on, cemeteries away from the living areas became the norm.

BLVR: Burial, in your account, seems to come about at roughly the same time as the development of landed agricultural societies, when people were putting down roots, literally and figuratively. Do you think this was reflective of some change in meaning of the dead, or was it somehow related to some kind of new relationship with the land itself? I’m wondering if there are cases of funerary burial among ancient nomadic cultures.

TT: There are instances of nomadic burial sites such as at the prehistoric Aborigine burial place at Kow Swamp in central Australia, but they are rare. We should beware of thinking that there is one single “Flintstones” template for all of prehistory—cultures differed greatly from one another and changed over time. Nevetheless, it is possible to say that, as a rule of thumb, big, regular cemeteries are associated with settling down and, in most cases, with a system of religious belief that credits the ancestors with some powers of ownership or protection over the lands around where they are buried. Burial can be seen as a political act: in a society without the concept of private property or land ownership, it is a pretty major step to dig a hole, bury a relative, and then claim the land over it in perpetuity as belonging to you and your family.

BLVR: It seems comforting to think that the arrival of ceremonial burials some 120,000 years ago heralded some new age of humanism, in which societies gained a new reverence for people and the lives they led. Yet you claim that the archaeological evidence suggests that this practice was quite exclusionary, intended either for the wealthy or for social outcasts, and that burials could often be seen as a kind of tableaux mordant, a visible “theater of transgression” in which bodies are meant to tell some kind of story, reflect some kind of ostracization.

TT: Yes, the very earliest phases of burial, long before farming began or people settled down, were very different. We find the bodies mainly in caves. This has led to considerable controversy about whether such finds have to do with deliberate rituals rather than with the accidental result of roof-falls. But most are clearly deliberate. The oldest so far known, at Qafzeh in Israel, was found with a pig’s jaw and a burnt flint tool. These are deliberate inclusions dating to the time of death some 120,000 years ago. Caves are strange environments, out of the normal day/night cycle, and beyond, in my opinion, the normal life and death cycles of the society. I draw on observations from a wide range of disciplines to argue that the sort of cohesion that small bands needed to be successful could only have been achieved by creating social rules, and that process, sadly, required scapegoats or ritual victims. Many of the more elaborate burials we know from the Middle Upper Paleolithic, may have represented deliberately killed individuals. Many are contemporaneous double or triple burials without any signs of fatal pathology or injury. They do show other kinds of pathology, however; the vast majority of buried Ice Age bodies display congenital disabilities of one sort or another. There are almost no women represented, and very few very young or very old people. From this, researchers generally are agreed that the burials represent an extraordinary rather than a normal funerary practice. The difference in my interpretation is that I am inclined to read these exceptions in a negative way, as people singled out to be examples of what society disapproved of rather than of what it valorized.

BLVR: Along those lines, you describe the widespread archaeological examination of the “bogmen,” bodies found preserved in the peat bogs of Europe, from Ireland to Saxony. They often seem to have suffered quite horrible, carefully orchestrated killings—“multiple deaths”—like something out of the movie Seven, in which a man is kept at the very point of death as a ritual punishment. You argue that the ubiquity of the bogmen “reveals the existence of shared conduct, of a known way of dealing with people deemed to be a problem to society.” Yet I was reading recently about the discovery, by Mike Parker-Pearson, that presents, through a “bogman” body, the first evidence that mummification actually occurred in Britain at roughly the same time as in Egypt. The bodies, as I understand it, were dead up to 600 years before burial; one body, a female, held two of her own front teeth in her hands. I’m wondering how important this discovery has been in the whole bog body field and whether this would indicate an act of reverence, rather than exclusion—or was mummification even part of the act of freezing people in the “liminal” environment of the bog?

TT: Mike’s British mummy evidence is fascinating—a good example of how little we still know about past societies. However, I am inclined to see it more in terms of ancestor worship—a corpse that was, to some extent, revered and perhaps considered to have oracular powers, in a similar way to the preserved heads that used to hang in Bornean longhouses. The bog bodies, by contrast, were put out of sight and never meant to be recovered. By being tortured to death through a variety of synchronous assaults, such as poisoning, garroting, stabbing, and drowning, the victims were unable to “own” their own deaths. That means, in terms of ancient Celtic and Germanic cosmological thinking, they could not escape their own bodies and, as these were in turn deliberately placed in preservative environments, they remained trapped in their own corpses. It is clear from their finger- and toe-nails that these were high-status people, not peasant farmers. I argue that they had committed crimes that brought dishonour, and that meant that they could no longer be a part of the society of the living but neither could they be allowed to join that of the dead. Some way had to be found to “limbo” them between worlds.

BLVR: Speaking of crimes, you were recently consulted by the British National Crime Faculty for advice regarding a case of a mutilated torso found on the banks of the river Thames in central London. Why did this happen, what were your own findings, and what happened in the case? I’m also curious about other instances wherein your expertise might have been prevailed upon in a similar fashion.

TT: As a member of the Centre for International Forensic Research, I have worked on a couple of cases involving ritual violence, including giving advice at an early stage on the unsolved ritual murder of a small boy in London. Along with several of my colleagues at the Department of Archaeological Sciences in Bradford, I see assisting the police as a natural extension of archaeological work. It is not just the technical skills that we have developed to deal with highly fragmentary and fugitive excavation evidence that are useful. Also, it is the deep-time perspective on human behaviour that archaeology fosters. I recently worked with a regional police authority in the case of a child murder with West African connections. It involved issues which social anthropologists have of late tended to avoid on grounds, as far as I can tell, of political correctness. When I look at current evidence—mainly obtained by police forensic surgeons or journalists rather than anthropologists—for human sacrifice, including child sacrifice, from northern India, southern and western Africa, or Peru, I am sickened but hardly surprised. The mother in the recent case I worked on is now being held in a secure psychiatric establishment because she is deemed psychotic. In my opinion she was actually acting in response to a different set of beliefs. Her world was and is permeated by intangible forces—witchcraft, malevolent spirits, and so on. She burnt her infant son to death on a makeshift altar because she needed to conduct a purification ritual. Through my understanding of the ritual dynamics, I was able to account for an otherwise puzzling burn pattern on the victim. But these matters were not aired in court. The mother did not deny the deliberate killing and it was ultimately easier for the judicial system to say that she was mad.

BLVR: It’s strange to think something like “political correctness” would enter into archaeology, which, one might assume, with its digging up of relics fixed in place, would be a fairly static discipline. As you note, however, those relics often get dragged into the needs of the present; hence Ralph Solecki’s book The First Flower People, published in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War, posits the Neanderthals as a peaceful, cooperative society (in seeming contrast to what was then on display in the modern civilized world). William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth, to take another example you cite, seemed intended as a modern, culturally relativistic tonic against decades of often erroneous (but often true) Western research on the presence of cannibalism in indigenous societies. Do you ever find yourself tempted to insert some meaning of the present into your own projects or run up against the efforts of others to do the same?

TT: It is impossible to avoid our own interests being reflected through the research we undertake. But that does not mean that archaeological evidence does not exist as a real and ultimately unequivocal record of what once really happened. The key thing is to be explicit about personal motivations, as I have tried to be in The Buried Soul, precisely so that a researcher’s prejudices can be assessed by others when they make their minds up about the interpretation of the evidence. The other important thing is to build interpretations along a number of logically independent lines. When lines of argument from archaeology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and social anthropology all coincide to support a particular conclusion, then we can go back to the archaeological record with a prediction about what we should therefore also be able to find if we are right. Then, if we find that precise, predicted thing, we have grounds for saying that our knowledge is secure.

BLVR: In another case of this cultural bias, you observe that mentions of cannibalism are largely absent from introductory textbooks on anthropology, a result of a concerted attempt by some to reverse what they see as years of stigmatism of “primitive peoples.” At the same time, depictions of psychopathic cannibalism (Hannibal Lecter, Ed Gein) seem to hold a dark fascination in popular culture. I’m wondering if the latter has anything to do with the former—that cannibalism has become so linked to monstrous criminal behavior that it is impossible to see it forming some kind of ritual and perceived-to-be rational, “normal” behavior of our predecessors. To elaborate on this, I was just reading about a recent, highly publicized case in Germany of a man who advertised that he wanted someone for ritual “slaughter,” and indeed got a prospective victim, whom he promptly killed and began eating. The article quoted an expert as saying that “modern cannibals use deep-freezing to extend and ration out their pleasure” while “primitive cannibals used to eat their victims all at one go soon after killing”—as if these two types of activity were driven by the same circumstances or motives. Has cannibalism has become such a loaded concept that we can no longer understand it in any non-Hannibal-the-Cannibal context, the über-civilized man dining on human flesh to Vivaldi?

TT: I think you are right, but the connection goes deeper. I have used the term “visceral insulation” to describe a salient aspect of modern Western culture. By this I mean that we have become detached from the bloody basics of having bodies and needing to eat other bodies to live. Through supermarket and hospital culture we manage to avoid any of the smells or sounds of death, human or animal. Yet at some level this increases our fascination. So we sit at home in the evening and “relax” to ER. In unbalanced people, the fascination can become morbid, as it did in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, spilling over into lurid criminality. The Christian cannibal taboo stems from the symbolism of the Eucharist: Christ at the last supper enjoining his followers to eat bread and wine in memory of him, effectively as an end to earlier blood sacrifice. Dahmer was confused by that as well—his Lutheran grandmother insisted on the truth of consubstantiation (Christ’s flesh and blood being mixed in with the communion host somewhere). What we see in the custom cannibalism of so-called “primitive” people is not so far from established church theologies. A Catholic can be excommunicated for not believing that the host really is, physically and wholly, the body of Jesus the human. Custom cannibals display closely similar kinds of thinking concerning the transfer of power though the ingestion of spirit-imbued flesh. It is hard to protest a fundamental difference in terms of “Yes, but they really do it,” as Catholics are supposed to believe they are really doing it, too.

BLVR: I was reading, in anthropologist Beth Conklin’s recent book Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, about the Wari peoples in Brazil. One fascinating aspect is how different the Wari treat death than we do, say, in 2003 America. According to Conklin, the Wari attempt to help bereaving relatives by removing all traces of the dead—they burn possessions, stop speaking their name, change the look of places the dead person lived. Another important part of this process was, at least historically, to consume the body. Conklin notes that, far from being criminally psychotic behavior, it’s intended as an altruistic, religious act for the benefit of the dead and the survivors. But this doesn’t seem like an easy argument to make: on the one hand, you have those who argue that cannibalism never existed, and, on the other, you have a modern understanding of cannibalism as a horrific, uncivilized act. As you’ve commented quite frequently on the meanings of cannibalism, most notably in a three-part Channel 4 documentary, I’m wondering what the reaction has been to your own theories about the prevalence of cannibalism.

TT: I think my side is winning the argument, but it obviously touches some raw nerves. The 1980s and 90s were the high-water mark of skepticism over cannibalism. But those anthropologists who have had direct experience with those communities never doubted it. The work of the late Pierre Clastres on the Guayaki Indians in Amazonia is perhaps the seminal modern text, but there is now a very wide specialist literature. What researchers such as David De Gusta have achieved in Fiji is precisely what now needs to happen more widely, combining archaeology, folklore, and the eye-witness historical accounts (in this case, of Captain Cook) to provide a robust and detailed analysis of cannibalism that is essentially irrefutable. Through that kind of work, it is increasingly possible for archaeologists to distinguish different kinds of cannibalism “signature,” differentiating, for instance, between reverential funerary cannibalism and aggressive, warfare-driven varieties. In the latter, human bones end up along with the kitchen midden deposits and display the same sequence of butchery marks as hunted fauna, such as deer, on the same sites.

BLVR: Could one interpret such “butchery marks” as something else entirely—say, some kind of surgical technique, a punishment, a scalping, or even some kind of ritual of which we have no knowledge? How does one go about assigning a hierarchy of possible explanations?

TT: Well, I think I have begun to answer that question. The point, however, is that we have to keep an open mind and document data very carefully. A good example, which I cite in my book, turns on cut-marked bones from Iron-age Siberia. The scholars who first published the data interpreted the marks as relating to defleshing, because permafrost made gravedigging hard at the time of death and the tribe involved needed to retain clean bones for interment in the summer. There are problems with this. The researchers are silent concerning what would the have been done with the removed flesh. And when one looks more broadly at that context, two things become clear. Firstly, evidence from neighbouring sites demonstrates the presence of advanced embalming techniques, so this group did not need to deflesh to preserve. Secondly, the Greek author Herodotus describes a funerary ritual for tribes in the same region a century or so earlier in which chunks of meat were cut from corpses to make a funerary stew, also containing beef and lamb, to be eaten at the graveside when the bodies were interred. The documented cutmarks are wholly consistent with that, being largely restricted to the big muscle attachments on thigh and upper arm. So, although we cannot take a time machine back to check, the most parsimonious explanation, in which several strands of interpretation coincide with background knowledge and no loose ends are left, is probably the best.

BLVR: Beth Conklin also notes that the Wari consumed a dead body in order to prevent its ghost from returning. As you point out, this is one of the seminal founding ideas of funerary rites. You even answered, in a question in John Brockman’s annual survey, about which questions “have gone away,” “How can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the body?” Simply put, how did this question go away?

TT: That’s a hard one. The straightforward answer is that, with the rise of monotheistic religions, we have seen the emergence of an ever-more-depersonalized view of God. Ancestor worship was replaced by more distant gods and then a single god. This god is now understood by the devout as ultimately incomprehensible and certainly not fundamentally human in appearance. Death is asserted to be a mystery that is in the hands of this highest of all beings. Fear of mortality perhaps tends to track this, nowadays manifesting itself in an equivalently mysterious and “disembodied” way—airy ghosts rather than solid, walking dead. Add to this the physical distancing afforded by modern mortuary practice, in that the bereaved typically have little contact with the corpse and disposal is very swift (in Islam within 24 hours of death), and there is less scope for such concrete fears. Nevertheless, as usual, we can see that the urge to believe in solid ghouls has not quite gone—horror films and Halloween parades are proof of that.

BLVR: As I understand it, even when cannibalism itself acquired a bad name in Europe—the time it had discovered the so-called canibales of the West Indies—there were any number of medicines prescribed on the London Pharmacopoeia that called for the ingestion of human blood or pulverized bone matter. One man’s cannibalism is another’s modern medicine?

TT: Being kept alive through a heart transplant is seen as acceptable by many, and eating a dead ancestor—perhaps also to stay alive in a tough environment—is not. But feelings run deep and opinions vary: as Herodotus so wisely said, “custom is king of all.”

BLVR: Speaking of customs, you don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for engaging in culturally relativistic euphemism regarding certain customs of some ancient civilizations. You write of the great temple of Tenochtitlan under the Mexica as a virtual death machine, and that intended victims of human sacrifice, far from thinking they were about to enter some otherworldly paradise, were quite terrified of their impending fate, and that the Mexica rulers “overtly recognized human emotional negatives, terror and extreme distress, as a central part of what they deemed necessary for their rituals.” What you describe sounds like nothing short of a Nazi death camp. Where one is judged an atrocity, however, one is explained away through charges of ethnocentrism. What are your thoughts about what we can or cannot judge of ancient civilizations—as we understand them, at least—and their standing on what we might call, in a modern world, their “human rights records”?

TT: I think my position can be described as a “cultural evolutionary” one. The reason that I think it is important to judge the Mexica or Aztecs is not to bring the perpetrators of state-sponsored ritual violence to posthumous book, but because I think that decent civilization is egg-shell thin. That is, we need to defend the concepts which are now emergent—international law, universal human rights. And we do that better if we are able to analyse a number of historical and prehistoric cases when things have gone badly wrong. Using the Nazis as the casebook example every time does not give us enough information on the general sorts of predetermining factors that will lead to a society emerging that starts to go big on mass human sacrifice. I suppose I also feel that victims have a right to be remembered, that they did not die for nothing. It is a feeling that we somehow owe it to the voiceless to be allowed, through archaeology, to speak. But that touches perhaps more on my own moral and religious beliefs than on any particular, practical, socio-political end.

BLVR: But archaeology, it seems, can be an unreliable narrator. Archaeology, in your words, can suffer from “the mirage of survival,” for example, whatever is found is what is taken to be the overriding truth of an age. The fact that masses of human remains haven’t been found at the Mexica site might then be taken to demonstrate the absence of human sacrifice—the same way, essentially, that Holocaust revisionists have used the absence of human remains at the camps to downplay genocide. Since death is often about removing all traces of death entirely, this would seem to pose a severe challenge for archaeologists of death.

TT: It is certainly true that the more “energetic” a process, the less permanent trace it is likely to leave of individual events. In the Mexica and Nazi cases, what we have left are the installations rather than the bodies, because the installations had to be kept clear for more victims. We simply have to be aware of that and refine our investigative techniques to poke for traces around the edges. And, of course, they exist. In an equal and opposite way, archaeologists have to be aware that certain very visible classes of evidence—the Ice Age burials and the bog bodies are cases in point—may have survived only because they belonged to peripheries: dangerous, liminal frontier zones and edges of communities where those who did not fit were dealt with. That is, of course, informative in itself, but knowledge of it requires us to address such evidence in a rather different way than we have done so far.

BLVR: You write that the ancient Egyptians, the first to engage in the specialized “zoning of death,” including mortuary practices, were thus freed—at the elite level, at least—to concentrate “almost entirely on the mystery of death on a cosmological level.” I wonder if there isn’t some parallel in our contemporary world, with its carefully orchestrated and insulated funerary practices (drive-in funerals!) Do you think our relationship to death (and life) might be different if we had to bury our own dead, and live with our own dead, on a more immediate level?

TT: Absolutely. But I am not recommending that we change. Change occurs anyway, and we can already observe a movement toward more engaged funerals, in forest parks, with more individualized rituals and eco-friendly coffins. The funeral business developed rapidly in the period when the great Victorian cities were on the rise, and the horrors of the first and second World Wars seemed to provoke a cultural need for distance and denial, leaving death in the hands of establishment “experts.” We are moving beyond that now, and I think it is a healthy development. Taking greater responsibility for managing death may presage a more responsible attitude to our actions in life.

BLVR: Control over the power and management of death seems an enduring feature of civilization. Thinking of the present, you compare George W. Bush, who authorized several executions in Texas while beginning his campaign for president, with Saddam Hussein, who will allow the bodies of dissidents killed by his security forces to be buried—but not seen—by their families, robbing them of the symbolic ability to bereave. What do you think explains this impulse? Is it purely the exercise of power? Do you see other examples of this in the world?

TT:I did not equate the two leaders in terms of specific motivation on these points. There are wide differences between judicial executions in the U.S.A. and in Iraq (although I am not in favour of either). I simply observed that there is a consistent association of executive political power with power over death and that world leaders often explicitly display this. What is perhaps more interesting is the trend in Europe and elsewhere to outlaw execution as a penal sanction. This is wholly new for humanity, and, although I support the initiative, even in the case of the worst murderers, it carries certain dangers with it. What liberal democracy says in abolishing the death penalty is that it will exclude no one. The relatives of murder victims in particular need to be correspondingly assured of their rights. So I feel that one should not abolish execution without making stronger and better provisions, and arguments, for lifelong incarceration in secure units—a modern and possibly more humane form of “limboing”—for those who have forfeited the right to exist in civilized society.

BLVR: An aspect of your work seems to be about bringing archaeology to a wider audience through books and through television. I’ve noticed, however, that you’ve had some critics in the field who argue, in the series on cannibalism, for example, that you are overstating the prevalence of cannibalism in early societies, not offering a nuanced-enough presentation. Are there challenges in attempting to present archaeological stories—the likes of which would no doubt fill many scholarly volumes and articles—in the constrained time format of television?

TT: It is never possible to approach controversial subjects through television without being criticized by someone for lack of balance. It goes with the territory. What I passionately believe, however, is that specialists owe it to the general public to provide information in a responsible way. It is society as a whole that supports research and learning in our universities. As academics we would be unwise to ignore that. But it is also true that, in trying to present something in an accessible form, one has to think about it more carefully. It is strange but true that highly specialized debate can preserve all sorts of deep inconsistencies and problems beneath the cloak of jargon and technical language, which, once exposed to the demanding intellectual scrutiny of the general public, can be seen for what they are. I suspect that some scientists avoid presenting their work in popular arenas because they secretly fear that some of their most fondly held beliefs may not stand up to open scrutiny.

BLVR: You’ve written about the prehistory of sex, and now death. What’s next?

TT: I’ll be cryptic. Things.

Tom Vanderbilt writes for many publications, including The New York Times, Nest, the London Review of Books, Artforum, and The Atlantic Monthly. He is author of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, published last year by Princeton Architectural Press.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.