Monday, 26 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 3 ― giving a voice to the dead

Dick Whittington's cat
Highgate Hill, Archway, North London. In the
popular folk tale, Richard Whittington is said to have
been leaving London, with his cat, when he reached
Highgate Hill and heard the sound of Bow Bells in
the distance; he turned back and ended up as Lord
Mayor of  London. Whittington was a real Lord
Mayor back in the Middle Ages, but there's no
evidence for the story, including him ever having had
a cat; still it makes for a nice story and is a perennial
pantomime tradition. The legend has also given its
name to the local pub and hospital in Archway.
Caption and photo by Duncan Harris.
As far as we can discern, the sole
purpose of human existence is to
kindle a light of meaning in the
darkness of mere being.

C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Queens Wood
(adjacent to Highgate Wood in London)
photo: Chris Heaton

Meaning, in Jung's quote above, foreshadows postmodern thinking in that all significances can only be subjective. Places, other people and things cannot be isolated from those who write about them. It starts with the very decision to include them in one's writing, and then one's own life and influences adds flavours and themes to the work.

In part one, I connected my own life experiences to Van Gogh's A wheatfield with cypresses and then contrasted that with its death imagery as I saw in an Italian friend's reaction to the painting. My friend saw only the cypresses but the main theme to the artist, perhaps, was the wheat:
"What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat... We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat... to be reaped when we are ripe."
Yet, in writing about the painting to his brother, Van Gogh said:
"I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticellis, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too." 
 In part two, I started with a quote from Shakespeare's Richard II, and now I find it curious that, in the same letter above, Van Gogh tells his brother:
"Thank you also very heartily for the Shakespeare. It will help me not to forget the little English I know, but above all it is so fine. I have begun to read the series of which I knew least, which formerly, distracted by other things or not having the time, I could not read; the series of the kings: I have already read Richard II, Henry IV and half of Henry V. I read without wondering if the ideas of the people of those times were different from our own, or what would become of them if you confronted them with republican and socialist beliefs and so on. But what touches me, as in some novelists of our day, is that the voices of these people, which in Shakespeare's case reach us from a distance of several centuries, do not seem unfamiliar to us. It is so much alive that you think you know them and see the thing."
But such fortunate coincidences are not strange for the introvert intuitive who can detect the matrix from which realities emerge. I picked the photograph of the Cypress Hills in Alberta in part one because it had a similar colour composition to the Van Gogh painting with its blue sky and yellowish foreground band of vegetation as well as the shape contrast of the jack pines against the rounded forms of the other trees. Similar, too was the composition of the William Alexander coloured engraving with its yellow stone coffin and its cypresses contrasting more rounded forms. These are aspects of composition where, for example, all artists know that yellow will come to the foreground and blues will recede to the back and can be used to add extra dimension to the work.

Highgate Cemetery
photo: Panhard
Highgate cemetery is a lesson in context. I think that I only visited it once. When I think of the name "Highgate", my mind goes back to story of Dick Whittington and his cat, and this associates with pantomime, so my contribution for Joe Gillespie's web pantomime was a parody of that tale: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cat. I also far preferred Queens Wood to Highgate Wood because it was more natural and I could feel its age, and because I can still remember walking there, hand in hand, with my first girlfriend one sunny summer's day.

Archaeology makes considerable use of both context and burial practices, but when we apply this to Highgate cemetery we might become confused. It contains both bodies and peoples cremated remains, and the famous people who are interred there can be quite different. We know that from the details of their fame. Let's take Highgate cemetery's most famous resident Karl Marx, and a more recent resident, Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The two would seem very different indeed. People are sometimes surprised when they first hear that Karl Marx is buried in Highgate cemetery, although he lived in London in the last part of his life it is to Soho he is most associated.  Douglas Adams, however, lived in Islington which is one of the boroughs that includes the Highgate district. (I spent the first few months of my life living in Islington before we moved to Wood Green where my mother's family lived). One thing that both Marx and Adams shared was atheism. If, in a few thousand years, all that remained of Highgate cemetery were to be these two graves, we might wonder if future archaeologists might think Highgate Cemetery to be a place where atheists were buried!

Far removed from the psychology of the introvert intuitive is this statement from the Society for American Archaeology (note that they do not call themselves the "Society of American Archaeologists"). Here we have extravert leanings:
"When people remove an artifact without recording its precise location the context is lost forever and the artifact has little or no scientific value."
Some might notice that scientism, rather than science, is reflected in this statement. Of course, any object, regardless of its last resting place in the ground can be analyzed by entirely scientific means and these analyses can tell us much about its history and the technologies of its makers. The statement is a fossil from the seventies when scientism dominated with the"New Archaeology", a symptom of modernism.  It soon received considerable criticism from those with postmodern views. Some criticism was quite colourful, like that of Christopher Chippindale. You will note, too, that one of its important features was the lack of human agency ― real extreme extravert materialism that does not recognize the psyche whatsoever.

As any movement past its time attests, there can be a strong element of fanaticism in its survivors. As I have said before, if it doesn't change, it is a cult. When the source shifts from the personal to the collective consciousness "with its wretched 'ism's" to quote Jung, neuroses and even enantiodromia can take over, such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which:
"is also in part characterized by a form of pedantry that is overly concerned with the correct following of rules, procedures and practices. Sometimes the rules that OCPD sufferers obsessively follow are of their own devising, or are corruptions or re-interpretations of the letter of actual rules."
In this state, not only are the dead not allowed to speak at all, they are not even recognized, and this is a truly bizarre condition to find within archaeology. People become more like automatons, not even creatures.

 Now, I cannot possibly leave this topic on such a depressing note, so I will lift your spirits with another contrast: Wayne G, Sayles, First to Fall ― The William Edward Cramsie Story  That Wayne is also the Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild should come as no surprise.

The history starts with Wayne coming into possession (under very numinous circumstances) of an inscribed West Point class ring, and through its pages, he recounts his own travels, research and experiences as well as giving a voice to 1st Lt, Cramsie, himself -- for the first time since his plane went into the sea off the coast of England after a bombing mission in 1944. The two voices, one of Wayne, the other of Bill Cramsie himself are clearly separated by the author with two very different typefaces and Wayne has truly given a voice to the dead. Today is Memorial day in the US, and this is also the closest Memorial Day to the seventieth anniversary of Bill Cramsie's death on 10th April 1944.


  1. Thank you John for your kind mention of the Cramsie story. Ironically, the class ring that inspired the search for Bill Cramsie, and was the interlocutor for his voice from the past, will soon become "Cultural Property" and some will say that its private ownership is immoral, if not illegal. One can't help but wonder, how many of the dead will be given voices when civilization reaches that point? Apparently only those whose desecrated bones are ripped from some context worthy of an academic paper.

    1. It was my pleasure, Wayne. I can add, from my own experience of working as a cataloguer in the military department of an important museum, that if this ring had been donated by a member of the public it would have been described and catalogued but not put on display as little was known of its owner. Only the already famous would have been deemed interesting to the public. You or anyone else with the same drive would not have known of its existence and no history would have been written. The ring and the book would have been another matter, though. Quite the catch 22.



  2. hi john,when i was a kid we lived in holloway islington just down the road from that cat.i often stroked it while walking sister went to archway school while me and my brother went to holloway,an all boys school ,just behind the womens prison so i know the area very well.the old highgate cemetery,right opposite the new one, is much more interesting and scary.i used to go in there with my friends to play ,once the groundsman chased us out and i jumped over a 4 ft high wall only for the drop to be 15ft on the other side but i survived.i didnt know wayne wrote a book on a fallen hero.i also collect ww1 and ww2 artifacts and love to research them.i bought a death plaque from ww1 with just a name on it henry waller ,after some research i found out he was a corporal in the royal sussex regiment and died 9/8 1915,at gallipoli.knowing who the guy was and where he died makes me appreciate his sacrifice even more.i also have a piece of a spitfire mk11 which fought in the battle of britain with 603 crashed on a training mission on14th december 1942 and sadly the free french pilot sgt degail me these are historic pieces and these fallen heroes should never be to your blog post,context does matter but it is not the be all and end an ideal world i would have a find spot for all my pieces but unfortunately we dont live in an ideal world.sir john boardman comes straight to the point "our museums are full of objects that speak for themselves,to the public and to scholars without knowledge of their full or even any claim that an object without context is worthless is pure nonsense".
    ps i have a beautiful cypress tree in the garden but my boxer has got a taste for the bark lately and i have had to cover the trunk with a plastic sheet.

    1. Hi Kyri,

      I thought about you when I was writing the post because I knew you would be familiar with these places, so I'm glad you took a look. I remember Holloway Prison gates. do you ever get to Queens Wood? (Highgate Wood is more suburban parkish)

      You would find Wayne's book fascinating, as did I, not just for the history but also for the travel and research he undertook to produce it, and the interesting eople he met along the way.

      I have found that missing information, including that of context is actually very valuable -- it encourages a good researcher to find new ways to overcome the situation. Those who would want everything served up to them on a platter just do not have what it takes to be any sort of researcher -- let alone a good one.

      Ah, dogs -- Tristan got out this morning (without his collar) and it took me a good hour to find him. He had apparently been annoying another dog and its master had taken refuge in a fenced tennis court. I persuaded the guy (yelling to him from a distance) to lure Tristan in there too and close the gate. He did so, but did not seem to be enjoying it much. I did not mention that he is a coyote hybrid, of course. For Tristan it was a game: "I bet you can't catch me".