Bringing Out the Dead
An archaeologist explains what his field can tell us about death and the human soul.
“. . . surely our Sentiments, — how we dream’d of, and were mistaken in, each other, — count for at least as much as our poor cold Chronologies." —Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
I was six when my grandfather died and I was blamed for his death. I had come with my mother to stay with my grandparents for the Easter holidays. During the carving of the Sunday roast, my grandfather lost his temper with me, chased me round the chairs and wrestled me upstairs. I howled and fought every step of the way and was locked in a bedroom. Several months later, towards the end of summer, my mother told me that my grandfather had had a heart attack. We drove five hours to visit him in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. I remember that he jokingly offered me some of his medicated orange drink through a long clear plastic tube as he lay propped up in bed, apparently recovering. I never saw him again.
I knew that my grandfather’s death was the worst thing that had ever happened in my world but I did not directly connect it to myself until a few days later. My father had gone home to Norfolk and my increasingly hysterical grandmother had retired to bed, leaving me alone with my mother. I asked why Grandpa was dead and she told me I had killed him. Seething with grief and anger, she screamed that it was typical of my lack of thought for others that I did not know that “Daddy” had been terribly out of breath after disciplining me, and that the effort had put a fatal strain on his heart. Confused and stunned, I wanted to believe that this was my “daddy” she was talking about, but it was clear that she meant her daddy, not mine, and the horrible reality of what she had said at first sank in.
My mother’s mantra, “If you had not had that tantrum, none of this would ever have happened and he would still be alive today,” was repeated at intervals even into my adult life. But no repetition was required to engrave it on my mind. I was at that magical, fragile age when children still half believe in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas. I took the implications of my badness on board immediately. I understood that I had killed my mummy’s daddy and that I was therefore a murderer. Too small to go to prison, my punishment was to be internal.
Ever since we became human we have used communal rituals to channel and focus the otherwise inexpressible emotions of the bereaved. To exclude the young from these rituals is to deny, to those least able to rationalize things through words, access to the longest-evolved means of coming to terms with grief. But in 1960s Britain, children were shielded from the physical reality of death: I was not taken to my grandfather’s funeral and I do not know whether he was cremated or buried. Under the circumstances, that may have been a good thing, as I do not know how I would have coped had I attended his funeral as his nemesis.
Through my exclusion from the mourning process, “closure”—the emotional coming to terms with death that has to occur before a person can move on—was put on hold. It remained so for sixteen years, until my relationship with the dead had become institutionalized. I became an archaeologist, turning skulls over in my hands, photographing grave goods and digging holes in the ground to retrieve and display what has been long forgotten. And so I began, unconsciously at first, to search for a balance between sentiments (my sense of the emotional), and chronologies (the discipline of dating the artifacts and events of prehistory).
In my book, The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, I examine the human response to death, in our earliest prehistory, in the present day, and at various points in between. From the mystery of the first ceremonial burials to the systematic desecration of vast cemeteries in antiquity, from human sacrifice and vampire beliefs to reverential funerary cannibalism, archaeology provides clues to what death—as we imagine it—was, what it is and what it could be.
Archaeology uncovers our responses to the human condition as it has developed since our divergence from the apes some 6 million years ago. At some moment in our biological and cultural evolution we became intelligent enough to formulate the idea of the soul, of something that was “us” that continued after death, signaled only by its patent absence from each corpse. I am certain that the idea of the soul that modern humans have elaborated everywhere in the world first emerged in deep prehistory, some time after the advent of speech but long before the development of writing. In the absence of written history, only archaeology can provide evidence for how the idea was first acquired; but inferring ideas from objects rather than words is challenging and controversial, and involves making key assumptions in advance of the evidence. For example, that awareness of the inevitability of death could not have emerged before our hominid ancestors had acquired the power of speech.
There are widely differing estimates of when the power of speech evolved, or how to define it. Some place it at 2 million years ago, along with the origin of genus Homo. Others are uncomfortable with the idea that language could have emerged much before 40,000 years ago. Support can be found for both positions, and for a number of intermediate ones. But, whenever it happened, it is clear that once people could talk they could bring many more things into the world than at first appeared to be there, whether through objective observation or mystical conjecture. Belief in a disembodied identity or soul was the most significant of these. “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?”—these words are ascribed to the dead Samuel in the Old Testament, after he has been conjured up by the witch of Endor. Ancient necromancers typically used spells such as “I summon you, dead”; and, even if “the dead” did not always oblige, the words alone created an impression that the deceased somehow, somewhere, existed.
Like necromancy, archaeology attempts to conjure up the dead in order to learn something new, but it attempts to do so using scientific and rational procedures rather than esoteric chanting. The ambition of archaeology is to survey the entire cultural emergence of our species with a dispassionate skepticism, focusing on what people actually did rather than what they might choose to say about it were they still alive.
Nearly two centuries of painstaking excavation and analysis have revealed some extraordinary facts. For example, that while the first chipped stone tool was made 2.6 million years ago, the first ceremonial burial did not occur until 120,000 years ago. Or that, for 99.5 percent of our existence as genus Homo, we lived as hunters and gatherers, and then, all in the space of the last 10,000 years, the first farming societies arose independently of one another, dotting the globe from China to western Asia to central America. Each solved the complex and intertwined problems of rising population levels and the loss of rich coastal hunting lands to rising, post-Ice Age, sea levels, by starting to cultivate their own food. These first farming societies were followed by complex civilizations that, again, arose independently, each with its own writing and counting systems, organized religion and refined, large-scale architecture. Amazingly, every early civilization had high priests, created religious monuments aligned in careful relationship to sun, moon and stars, and buried its dead using elaborate ceremonies. Human sacrifice was practiced extensively in the ancient world—in Shang China, in the earliest phase of Egyptian civilization, in the Indus valley, among the Sumerians and by the Maya and the Aztecs.
It is hard to imagine how these similarities could exist without envisaging some secret unifying force. Bizarre myths and theories have arisen that claim to identify it. Some invoke the lost civilization of Atlantis, while others insist that humans received occult assistance from aliens. This “para-archaeology,” which selectively incorporates archaeological data to prove a prior supposition, has attempted to popularize the idea that the Great Pyramids of Egypt and similar monuments elsewhere, such as the pyramidical temples of the Aztecs in Mexico, and the ruins of Angkor Wat in Thailand, were designed by shadowy, inter-continental astronomer-priests. There are even those who believe that the Egyptian pyramids betray the fingerprints of Freemasons, who had previously built the Neolithic stone tombs of the Orkney islands off the north coast of Scotland.
Nothing whatsoever historically links the monuments of the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs. In time, they are further apart than Stonehenge is from Alfred the Great. The truth is that people on the banks of the Nile in 2500 BC and in the valley of Mexico in AD 1000 had independently developed some very basic ideas. Both civilizations realized, unsurprisingly, that large architectural structures were not only naturally more imposing than small ones, but culturally impressive too, because it took a lot of people, energy and organization to create them. Big monuments might therefore serve as places for communal ceremonies and for burying important leaders. Both civilizations also realized that large architectural structures that were narrower at the bottom than at the top were likely to fall over, whereas a broad base and progressively narrower upper levels might remain stable for a very long time. Having understood these sparse basics we can appreciate the differences between the originally polished, sharp, unclimbable Great Pyramids of Egypt and the far smaller Aztec temples with their flat tops reached by staircases. There is no secret unity to seek and no inherent mystery in our achieve¬ments. Similarities in religious architecture arise out of the typical responses of human beings when organized in particular ways (hierarchically, for instance) and faced with particular kinds of thing (death, for instance).
It is only human that we should want to turn what we see around us into something we can grasp with a minimum of effort. But this does not in itself explain the appeal of the wildest theories. Para-archaeology addresses a deeper fear: the fear of death. Running roughshod over the hard-won detail of established archaeological chronologies, analyses and inferences, these grand conspiracy theories nevertheless grapple with the big questions of being and time. Many of them dwell on the possibility that our ancestors knew the secret of immortality. And, if they have a kind of plausibility, it is because this is precisely what our ancestors were attempting to claim in many of their monuments.
Myths of astronomer-priests guarding the elixir of life are only one manifestation of a modern interest in immortality. The $100,000 Quarles Prize for the discovery of a genetic “cure” for ageing was put up by the octogenarian Texan oil magnate, Miller Quarles, co-founder of the Geron Corporation, which aims to extend the average human lifespan to 150 years. Quarles is not alone in his obsessive desire to go on living; others share his view of old age as a disease process and death as potentially avoidable. The adherents of fundamentalist religions, on the other hand, do not want to avoid it, and many of them actively promote martyrdom as the best guarantee of immortality.
Archaeology presents a microcosm of the broader ideological conflicts that currently rage over what we think we know about death. In dealing with mortality, both the scientific and humanistic sides of the discipline come up against faith and metaphysical questions. They uncover fault lines running off in unexpected directions. On one side are different kinds of claim to truth; on the other side are different kinds of doubt. Pitted alike against the secular certainties of laboratory science and religious assertions of a single transcendent truth is the post-modern claim that there is no such thing as truth at all, that everything is relative and open to a multitude of interpretations (including, logically and somewhat disconcertingly, absolutist interpretations themselves).
Because archaeology gets its hands dirty in the unequivocal mess that people leave behind them, it is a powerful means of establishing real things that happened in the ancient past. Truth may sometimes be the most difficult thing in the world to discover but it nevertheless exists. The archaeological approach can attempt to determine it in the very recent past as well as in the very remote past. This is because, by viewing human behavior over massive time periods, archaeology has created an unparalleled repository of knowledge about the huge range of human actions and responses.
Archaeology provides a unique perspective on our human identity, but there is a danger of distortion. Signs of brutality are easier to recognize on a skeleton than signs of love, creating a danger that we will pay most attention to the grim. But, surprisingly, the distortion is the other way round. We diligently airbrush out the less palatable details of prehistory to construct a proud record of achievement for national museums to present to impressionable school parties. The Neolithic (the first farming period) is often portrayed as a time of peace and honest toil or, more popularly, as a utopian period of mother-goddess worship. But the discovery of a number of unmarked mass graves across Europe, the largest containing well over a hundred systematically butchered men, women and children, evokes Rwanda more than Arcadia.
I don’t shy away from making absolute moral judgments about the behavior of our prehistoric ancestors, whatever religious beliefs and ritual justifications they may have had. The line between unacceptable excuses and culturally validated reasons has been a major focus of my work. Examining why, precisely, some cultural communities may develop an apparent need for behavior like child sacrifice, or descend into a cycle of tit-for-tat massacres–why, in short, they require victims–may help to prevent such things happening in future.
In using the word “victims,” I have turned against something I first learned as a student in social anthropology classes, namely that different cultures are never wrong in their difference, but simply “other.” In its hand-wringing retreat from the imperialism and racism of much Victorian ethnography, social (or cultural) anthropology had, by the late 1970s, reached a high-water mark of what has since been dubbed political correctness. Almost any culturally validated behavior could be viewed relativistically or, failing that, conveniently ignored.
One of the great standard works of the Victorian period, The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man: Mental and Social Condition of Savages by Sir John Lubbock (later Lord Avebury), has index entries for both cannibalism and sacrifice, the latter subdivided into “Human sacrifices,” “Human sacrifices, abolition of,” “Sacrifices, human, confusion of the victim with the deity,” and “Sacrifices, human, in ancient times.” Yet my students search in vain for any mention of these themes in recent general works, except—rarely—in the special context of questioning their existence. Ferraro, Trevathon and Levy’s Anthropology: an Applied Perspective is typical of the current crop of textbooks in failing to index not only cannibalism or human sacrifice, but even “sacrifice” as a phenomenon at all. The ritual killing of animals, common to many religions worldwide, is thus overlooked. There is something patronizing about such avoidance. Modern Western academics signal that our civilization is happy to accept, or even glorify, indigenous peoples so long as we only acknowledge those differences that we ourselves can cope with—a packaged exoticism.
In the tenth century AD a great Viking chieftain was buried on the banks of the Volga. Our detailed knowledge of this funeral rite comes from a graphic eyewitness account by the Arab writer, Ibn Fadla¯n, and is independently supported by archaeology. Instead of concentrating on the chieftain, as many scholars have previously done, I examined the reasons for the horrific gang rape of a slave-girl by six warriors and her eventual killing by a mistress of ceremonies known as “The Angel of Death.” This is a key part of the sequence of events that led up to the chieftain’s final sendoff to Valhalla, and is viewed by religious historians as reflecting normal Viking religious practice. One goes so far as to conclude that, at the brutal culmination of the rite, “the happy girl is sent to Odin to be with her master,” despite the fact that our informant witnesses the Viking men drumming on their shields with the express purpose of drowning out the continuous, terrified screaming. I argue that, by understanding the particular way in which the slave-girl was killed and by making no cultural apologies for it, we can provide ourselves with a key with which to unlock other mysteries. The focus of the ritual was less on the physical body of the slave-girl than on the fate of the things understood as souls, both hers and the dead chieftain’s.
Other mysteries I've explored include the 34,000-year-old Combe Capelle skeleton, which preserves traces of a sequence of extraordinary events: an Ice Age hunter hacked to death with flint daggers, butchered for meat, and then accorded a ceremonial burial. Despite recent wholesale denial by an influential school of anthropology that humans, as a norm, ever indulged in cannibalism, a wealth of new and unequivocal evidence demonstrates that the phenomenon, also prevalent among chimpanzees (and many other animals), was widespread during the period of our biological evolution.
Butchered bones, from early australopithecines and Homo erectus as well as the later Neanderthals and early modern humans, display two distinct types of cut-marking “signature.” One indicates aggressive, warfare-driven cannibalism and the other indicates reverential, funerary cannibalism. An example of the second type, among the near-modern species known as Homo heidelbergensis, from the site of Sima de los Huesos in Spain, constitutes the earliest known ritual behavior anywhere in the world, dating to between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. What began as an inherited primate behavior that made straightforward nutritional and practical sense (why leave dead flesh around to attract predatory animals or benefit rival groups?) had become a palliative for supernatural fears. Eating one’s own as well as eating one’s enemies came, at some point in our history, to be seen as a means to control the threat and the power of the disembodied soul. Through ritual funerary cannibalism, spirit power could be reabsorbed and channeled.
Funerary cannibalism continued until very recent times, alongside a wide variety of alternative rituals for the disposal of the dead, such as exposure (“sky burial”), burial and cremation. But it is in those societies where the body is neither eaten nor buried nor burned, but actively stabilized through embalming and mummification, that we find the largest and most elaborate mausoleums.
One way of looking at the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) is to see it as a 486-foot-high exercise in grandiosity, stamping the power and prestige of the dead dynast and his living dynasty on the public mind. But look at it inside out and we see architectural containment on a vast scale—an isolation unit for a soul of immense disruptive potential. Once childlike and good, Khufu’s adult spirit became backward looking and malevolent. Then death freed it. In the language of refined belief, the soul of the Pharaoh is supposed to complete a sacred voyage to the other world, but this is not the only language people understand. At a more atavistic level, a force of overwhelming personality remains attached to the malevolent soul. It must be screened out of normal life at all costs, even if that means physically sealing it within millions of tons of masonry. Neither the specific complexities of ancient Egyptian theology (which had at least four different concepts of soul), nor Khufu’s personal complicity in building his own Great Pyramid, can dislodge the possibility of such a simple and powerful idea having been present, if not in the Egyptians’ minds, then at least in their hearts.
The malevolence of the mature soul was an abiding concern in the later prehistoric periods and in the many pagan religions of historical times. From the Iron Age come the “bog bodies,” peat-preserved corpses of people killed with excessive violence in a number of quite distinct and simultaneous ways: poisoning, stabbing, strangling and drowning. Then there is the much more recent mystery of Lenin’s embalming: an astonishingly complex and sustained ritual that established Stalin’s credentials as the leader of a superpower. In the present day, there is the still-unfolding drama of “Kennewick Man,” a single skeleton washed by chance out of a Washington State riverbank in 1996. Since then he has been fought over by the American army, archaeologists, American Indian tribes and Californian pagans, for the fundamental reason that no one knows who he is. Why did the bog bodies require a multiple cause of death? Why was the Soviet Union, despite the avowedly atheistic philosophy of communism, symbolically centered on the mysticism of ancestor worship, embodied by the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square? Why has Kennewick Man’s identity disturbed people to the point where the US Corps of Engineers felt compelled to destroy and re-landscape the place where he was found?
One of the most recent responses to personal, unavoidable mortalness is archaeology itself. When we study it, the present becomes almost transparently thin as we reflect back through deep time. I earlier characterized archaeology in terms of “dispassionate skepticism,” but maybe I was wrong to use the word dispassionate. Emotional intelligence is as crucial as scientific objectivity in the struggle to understand the past. We need sentiments and chronologies.
Timothy Taylor, author of The Buried Soul and The Prehistory of Sex, has appeared on National Geographic Channel and HBO as an expert in ancient cultures. He teaches in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
Excerpted from The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, by Timothy Taylor (Beacon Press; 2004). Reprinted with the publisher's permission.
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