Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

 

The Dark Knight in Mexico: A Batman Birthday Exhibition

To mark the 75th Anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in “Detective Comics” back in 1939, Warner Brothers and MUMEDI, the Design Museum of Mexico, co-sponsored an exhibition inviting artists to submit their own, customized versions of the Dark Knight’s signature bat-eared cowl and cape.  The resulting show opened recently at MUMEDI, and showcases a wealth of talent and creativity.  Using the same maquette, each artist focused on different aspects of Batman’s personality, backstory, and so forth, creating some truly unique designs.

You can see photos and a video featuring many of the exhibition entries by following this link.  There are a number of terrific ones, but my favorite has to be this absolutely amazing, intricate version by artist Christian Pacheco (Kimbal) which you can see here.  If you love archaeology and art history as much as I do, you’ll immediately appreciate why I was drawn to this piece.

The artist used one of the ancient Maya gods, Camazotz, as his inspiration, and appropriately so.  For in Mayan mythology Camazotz was, in fact, a “Bat-Man” – i.e., an anthropomorphic bat, who ruled the night.  Unlike Batman from the comics, Camazotz was a monster, and liked to rip people’s heads off, but then again Bruce Wayne when he’s angry is apt to do the same thing, so perhaps there’s a further analogy to be made.

More importantly, the look of the thing is just brilliant.  If you have ever seen works of pre-Columbian sculpture, you’ll recognize that the techniques and principles Kimbal used in his work are referencing ancient works which, while originally brightly painted, have faded somewhat over time and from being buried for centuries.  The laying on of thicker, almost extruded layers of clay to build up the design on the armor gives an even greater, weightier presence to the superhero.  Kimbal has clearly done his homework, and looked at a lot of the archaeology and art history of his country to get this just right.

Even if you knew nothing about Batman from the comic books, and saw this piece displayed at a museum with a substantial collection of early sculpture from the Americas, such as Dumbarton Oaks here in D.C., I daresay you would not find it the least out of place.  The fact that the artist made the connection between the artistic past and the pop culture present, is exactly the sort of bridge-building I like to see. It opens up the viewer to exploring new ideas and areas of learning, which they might never have been aware of otherwise.

The exhibition runs from now until October 8th at MUMEDI in Mexico City.

"Batman" by Kimbal (2014)

“Batman” by Kimbal (2014)

Wonderful Things

If you have not had a chance to drop by Google yet today, make sure you do so to check out their beautiful “doodle” logo honoring the birthday of American archaeologist Howard Carter – arguably the most famous archaeologist of them all – who discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. As someone who has been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians for decades, I was really pleased to see it. Yet the occasion also gives me a chance to encourage you as an individual, as well as those of you who are parents providing examples to your children, to make time for the study of science, regardless of what your chosen profession may be.

I suspect that many of my childhood dreams about what I would be when I grew up were no different from those of most American boys who grew up over the past several decades. Sometimes I wanted to be a superhero, or a policeman, or a knight. I liked to imagine that I could do what I read about in comic books or saw on television and in the movies: saving damsels in distress, fighting bad guys and monsters, and having all sorts of exciting adventures. Other fantasies were perhaps a bit more specialist, such as being fascinated by elves and wizards in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was difficult to “play” with my younger siblings who had not read the books, as I made them tramp along with me and my friend as we acted out the shall we say “taller” roles, and they played humble hobbits.

Perhaps somewhat unusual as compared to some of my peers was a very early fascination with the sciences, from astronomy to entomology, paleontology, geology, and so on. I virtually inhaled books about subjects such as prehistoric animals, geological formations and epochs, and theories about planetary formation and space travel. Yet of all the sciences the one that probably attracted me the most, and in a way ultimately led me to the intellectual interests I continue to pursue in my spare time today, was that of archaeology, and specifically Egyptology, i.e., the study of Ancient Egypt.

One of the things which my parents did very well with all of us, if my siblings will not think it too presumptuous of me to speak on their behalf, was that in general, if they approved of an interest that we had, they would do their best to provide us with materials or opportunities to explore it. So if someone wanted to learn how to ice skate, for example, they would obtain skates and take them to skating lessons; a child who was interested in numismatics would be given coins, and books about them, and taken to coin fairs. Not every whim was indulged, but on the whole they did their best to try to encourage us to have as broad a set of interests as we were willing to explore.

In my case, I was very happily provided with many books about Ancient Egypt. Though because I was a rather precocious reader – having learned to read at the age of 2 – this often took the form of lavishly illustrated catalogues from museum exhibitions, or scholarly works with few pictures but plenty of footnotes. I taught myself about such things as how to read and write some of the simpler hieroglyphics; the chronological order of the major kings and dynasties; and about the development of different construction methods, theological beliefs, burial practices, and so on.

Tied into this study, and indeed a very essential component of it, was an understanding of how styles and ideas both changed and yet remained constant in Ancient Egypt over time. A sphinx for example, is a beast found at the time of the earliest pharaohs, but is also found well into the Greco-Roman period many centuries later, when Egypt lost its empire and became a colonial province. Some gods became more or less popular over time, and art, object design, and architecture changed to reflect the shift in popularity from one to another. The subtle, naturalistic beauty of the brief Amarna period under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun can be easily contrasted with the pumped-up, masculine style preferred by Ramses the Great.

Of everything that I studied, nothing was as exciting as the work of Howard Carter, which was partially due to the fact that he found a nearly-intact tomb, with a host of artefacts to study that provided an enormous wealth of information on all aspects of Ancient Egyptian life. This included not only theological and political subject matter, but also practical things, such as the kinds of foods they ate, and the clothing, footwear, and personal adornment they wore. Carter’s discoveries also told us about the way the Ancient Egyptians looked at each other, within their own families.

For example, you may not be aware of the fact that buried alongside Tutankhamun in his tomb were the mummified bodies of two unborn baby girls: one who died at about 5-7 months of pregnancy, and the other at approximately 7-9 months. One of these little bodies had enough remaining genetic material for later scientists to be able to prove conclusively Carter’s theory that at least the one girl, and probably the other as well, was the daughter of Tutankhamun. Although she and her sister had been stillborn, both were honored with a royal burial alongside their father including mummification and traditional funeral masks, just like any other Egyptian princess. Next time a Planned Parenthood supporter gets in your face about a “fetus,” hit them with the historical fact that even the Ancient Egyptians did not believe a fetus was simply a blob of tissue, but rather a human being with an immortal soul.

In any case, while in the end I never became an Egyptologist or archeologist like Howard Carter, I remain fascinated by these areas of study to this day, as I do many other areas of the sciences. I do not engage in any sort of scientific practice for a living, and yet if I spot an interesting article about discoveries of new planets or hitherto unknown species of sea creatures, I am once again filled with a childlike curiosity and sense of wonder about the universe. Listening to Ian Maxfield’s podcasts over on The Catholic Laboratory, about how faith and science have often worked together, whatever anti-Catholic voices may have told you to the contrary, is not only enlightening but also wonderfully entertaining. Even if like me, your profession is not in the sciences, they are a rich area for exploration and mental stimulation: however you may have done in science at school, to have a diversity of interests and a desire to learn more about the world in which one happens to live should be a joy, not a burden.

When Howard Carter first opened a hole in the sealed doorway leading into the tomb of Tutankhamun, he was asked by Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s chief financial backer, whether he could see anything; Carter famously whispered, “Yes! Wonderful things.” I would encourage those of you who are parents to foster this same kind of curiosity and wonder in your children, as my parents did with me. Even if they do not grow up to be chemists, physicists, or biologists, you will kelp them to lead richer, fuller lives by picking up on their budding scientific interests, and perhaps even learn something yourself in the process. A lifetime of learning is not enough to absorb all of the wonderful things there are to be explored in the world.

Archaeologist Howard Carter and friend in The Valley of the Kings (1922)