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

 

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“In Those Days, Caesar Augustus…”

You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible.  If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn.  However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.

This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed.  It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign.  The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.

For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here.  Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.

While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like.  Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers.  What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like.  So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?

The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician.  He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination.  He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.

Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery.  The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius  notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”  It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this.  The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing.  To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.

That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy.  Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house.  That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti, on the Palatine Hill in Rome

Through the Online Looking-Glass

I’m going to share a piece of information with you, which I suspect most of my readers will not care about at all, or at least not very much.  On this day back in 1642, the great Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni died, in the city of Bologna. For those of you not hugely interested in art history, this event may not seem to be of any great importance.  However it gives me the chance to do something rare these days, and that is appreciate, rather than criticize, what a great teaching tool the internet can be.

Last night after dinner I was checking up on some headlines in the art world, and came across a mention that it was the birthday of Francesco Albani, another Italian Baroque painter, who was born in Bologna in 1578.  Albani was one of the chief rivals of Guido Reni for major fresco commissions, but while Albani was very decorative, Reni was often the more sensitive painter, as his intense portrait of his mother, reproduced below, shows us.  The stark image, not at all colorful like many of Reni’s other works, puts me in mind of the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”; falling down the internet rabbit hole began soon thereafter.

Reading more about Albani and Reni, I came across a reference to Reni’s ceiling fresco for the Basilica of St. Dominic in Bologna, the church where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The church has gone through many changes over the past 800 years, including extensive remodelling during the pontificate of Benedict XIII (1650-1730), who was himself a Dominican.  Not knowing anything about Benedict XIII, I read up on him, and learned about someone else I knew nothing about, Cardinal Scipione Rebiba (1504-1577).

It seems this particular Pope Benedict consecrated a huge number of bishops during his pontificate, approximately 159, from all corners of the world. These bishops then went on to consecrate bishops in their respective home countries.  Tracing back the lineage of who consecrated whom gets us to Cardinal Rebiba.  Because of the huge number of bishops consecrated by Benedict XIII, the vast majority of bishops and Popes since his time are “descended” from him, including the present incumbent, Pope Francis.  Only about 5% of current bishops can trace their consecration through someone other than Cardinal Rebiba, so finding a bishop who is not in this line must feel something like a “Where’s Waldo” adventure for those who are deeply interested in episcopal matters.

Now, is any of this material of particular importance to someone who is not a researcher or historian? To be honest, it’s probably not.  And yet, if you love knowledge, this is exactly the sort of educational jumping-off point which the internet is really good at providing.

All of the preceding information came from a single, online mention of someone I did not know anything about.  I then let my brain and my fingers take me on an exploration through history, and learned a number of interesting new things as a result.  The entire process gave me immense pleasure, and fed my mind with something more significant than funny cat videos – although I freely admit that such things have their place, as well.  The curious fact that today is the anniversary of Guido Reni’s death, is something that might have passed me by had I not fed my brain the information I did last evening.  Now I find myself interested to learn about the artistic and political heritage of Bologna, during the heyday of these two painters.

What, if anything, such knowledge will lead to, I do not know.  Yet exploring your natural curiosity and building upon the knowledge you have is something that all humans should be doing, regardless of age or whether we are still in school.  I find there is always great joy to be had, pursuing new areas of knowledge about the world in which you live, and the interesting and surprising things you may not already know about it.  And whatever its faults, the wealth of information available online to do exactly that, is one of the reasons why we should be making the effort to become smarter, and more aware of our shared history and culture.

Detail of"Portrait of the Artist's Mother" by Guido Reni  (1612) Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

Detail of “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by Guido Reni (1612)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna