Thursday, 28 June 2012

Death and superstition

Speaking of identity, as I was yesterday, I thought I would share another part of myself that isn’t film or writing; history.  I have a degree in archaeology and while I haven’t done anything with this as such, the concepts still intrigue me.

The other day I found this; ‘Digging up the dead’, an article about what happens to the thousands of graves that just happen to be in the way of new rail lines and roads.

It paints a picture of how much space is at a premium, how you can no longer develop an area without uncovering the dead.  During my degree it always sent me buzzing that graves were dug upon graves, that you can’t dig anywhere anymore without finding a human body part.

This is a very difficult subject.  The ethics are tricky but surmountable.  All bodies are treated with dignity – dug up with brushes and trowels and rarely using machines (unless the grave is very deep) and they are always reburied.
It is also a chance for archaeologists to learn a great deal about that certain area and the people who once lived there by dating the burials, looking at the graves as a whole and individually, studying any grave goods (jewellery, pottery, weapons, coinage) and studying the skeletons for disease and wear and tear to ascertain how these people lived.

From my point of view as a once archaeology student, I hate the idea of moving history.  These are the burial sites for this particular society during this particular time and if we move them, they will never be there again.  Recording our findings in books is not the same as those people spending their afterlives in that particular soil, or being able to go to that site and tell the younger generations, ‘this is where a family of slaves were buried.’  Adding ‘they’re not there anymore’ makes it lose the punch somehow.

The interesting argument on this topic is that of the superstitious; that if the dead are moved from their sacred burial plots on consecrated grounds that bad things will ensue.  This is not a silly feeling that some people might have, this is a cultural superstition inbred into all of us. 
I was watching a Tony Robinson documentary the other day about witches and they showed how when asked to deface or stab a photo of someone you love, the majority of people will be unwilling to do so despite knowing that logically no harm will come to those in the photo.  This is a similar thing; logically most people know that if the dead are moved and reburied, nothing will happen, but there is always that lingering instinctual doubt that we are doing something very wrong that could cause harm.  It is a wonderful human characteristic of our ancestral and perhaps prehistoric superstitions and beliefs passed on through generations and our genes that can either be a warm fluffy feeling of protectiveness and loyalty or lead to the condemnation and murder of thousands of people (as with witchcraft).

Logically and scientifically, it is fine to move these bodies with dignity and care and rebury them in the name of progression.  But nothing will ever change the fact that it threatens our own history and it is still taboo, manipulating that prehistoric feeling of not wanting to upset that which is unknown.

Remember to check this blog out tomorrow for the next instalment of Twilight Zone.

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