Friday, 23 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 2 ― the remains of the day

Toilet at a theatre in Munich, Germany
photo: Usien
No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
Let's choose executors, and talk of wills:
And yet not so — for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene II.

William Shakespeare's grave in the
Holy Trinity Church of Stratford

photo: Tom Reedy

remains should be treated as can be seen from
the epitaph on his gravestone:

"Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
 Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."

When reading or seeing a play by Shakespeare, one might alternate between the words of the character and those of the playwright or perhaps focus on one or the other. It all depends on your viewpoint and the purpose which brought you there. It would seem most likely, at least to me, that Shakespeare would have most often wanted his audience to immerse themselves in the work. Being captured, thus, it could only have lessened the likelihood of empty seats in the theatre for later performances of that and other plays.

Debates continue, among archaeologists and the public about what should be done about excavated human remains. For those of more recent date, and those of First Nations people, the pendulum swings far more toward the opinions of the heirs or those of the living culture to which the deceased belonged. While many graves of more recent date have been excavated and the bodies removed for a wide variety of reasons, William Shakespeare's grave has been left untouched. Even so, the thought of doing so in order to answer historical questions about his death might always be pondered.

Mostly, though, these debates revolve around the human remains, themselves. Archaeologists are even less keen to discuss what should happen to the grave goods themselves. Many years ago, I collected Chinese porcelain. I was never too interested in the earlier pottery. In recent years, two things have happened that contributed to my abandonment of that activity: the huge increases in the prices of these objects because of recent interest by the Chinese public in collecting such, and the appearance on the market of inferior grave pottery. At first, I just did not like to collect such poor examples  ― in many cases, the potters were also rather ashamed of the quality and would frequently glaze over the footrim to hide the inferior biscuit. The clincher, though, was a Ch'ing-pai ware bowl that I bought where a verse had been drawn on the bottom in ink. Most of the inscription had not survived, but a Chinese neighbour who was involved in the local Chinese arts (as a musician) translated one line for me that had survived undamaged. It said "Memories of home". It touched me and it was at that point that my active collecting ended. If the opportunity arose, however, to buy a fine piece of porcelain, I would still do so. These objects have been treasured since they were made and have resided on scholars desks to within collector's cabinets since they were first produced.

I first started buying Chinese porcelain from a couple in Calgary, who had a shop specializing in such. The man was a University professor here and it was mostly his wife who took care of the shop. He would be there later in the day, or on the weekends. They moved away from Calgary some years ago. He was quite the connoisseur of the art, and was rather critical of the public's taste in porcelain. They also got me interested in fine German wines, and one afternoon they shared with me a rather nice '76 Bernkasteler Auslese (not from the Doctor Vineyard, mind you, but from next-door ― although years later, I did buy one of only a few bottles in Calgary of a Kabinett of a vintage that one wine critic claimed was "What God drank at 5 o'clock in the afternoon"). Anyway, Bob put his glass on the table, and said, "The finest piece of porcelain owned by most people resides in their bathroom!".

My wife was a teacher and, shortly after we met, told me of a class she taught where she asked her young students to imagine what might remain of their lives that might be excavated by archaeologists in the distant future that would say something of who they were. Most of them thought of their music collection, but my wife told them that such things would hardly survive very long at all in the ground. They tried to think of other things, unsuccessfully, and were horrified when she told them that what would most likely remain of their home to say who they were, would be the porcelain toilet bowl!

So now you know why I included the picture of the toilet bowl at the start of this post. I am hoping that you had tried to associate it with what I  started to write about. One connection being that the toilet is in a theatre in Germany. Less obvious, perhaps, is my choice of using graphics that are predominantly brown! You might also have wondered how the lead graphic related to "the remains of the day", in the title. That part of title is also relevant to the novel and the movie of the same name, but I doubt that anyone will be able to guess how. The answer to that will have to wait for another post.

Bathroom humour and deception aside, what remains of people can have a number of interesting ethical and philosophical questions, and the nature of the subject of archaeology, itself, and the very different viewpoints surrounding it is the real subject of this post. You will, undoubtedly, have heard about the modern concerns from archaeologists about potential damage to sites from metal detecting, and how so much can be lost by the removal of objects. What you will not have heard from the same sources, however, is that an archaeological excavation is essentially surface mining or strip mining, and what remains of that site or the exploration trench through it afterward is nothing. Everything has gone. It is all a matter of viewpoint.

This concerns a number of archaeologists (but not the ones who criticize collectors and detectorists) because they realize that, contrary to the hype about them doing everything scientifically, far too much is really just opinion based on observation, and that is not science at all. Making judgements about what we see is as old as Man himself. It was observation that caused some people to think that the earth was flat, or that light could not be both a wave and a particle at the same time. They also realize that the methods we use today will be replaced with far better methods tomorrow, and some archaeologists feel that less excavation should be taking place and that more time should be spent in investigating what has already been excavated.

I hope I have been at least partially successful, with my choice of graphics and words at the beginning of this post, of demonstrating that context does quite often lead us astray. It can take us to other places, or it can confuse us. The latter, by far, is best as at least we know that we do not know. What you really needed, to make the right connections here, was the discussion about porcelain, and not the disposal of remains.

On Monday, Highgate Cemetery in north London, not far from where I grew up, Dick Whittington, and a very different sort of archaeology, but one that has much more to do with the dead being able to speak to us on their own terms.

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