This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Robbing Graves

It’s not often that one gets pointers from a comic, in this case the old Tintin story, The Seven Crystal Balls. That particular book and its sequel, Prisoners Of The Sun, dealt with a group of seven European “explorers” who went off to Peru and returned with Native American artefacts, including the mummy of the Inca Rascar Capac, which the expedition leader proceeded to place in a glass case in his living room. According to the storyline, surviving Incas then tracked the “explorers” down and – one by one – inflicted on them the revenge of Rascar Capac.

Early on in the first book, Tintin is talking to a man on the train who asks a simple question: why would the “explorers” want to go and dig up the mummies of Inca kings? Would “we” (the Belgians, like Tintin and his friends) like it if “they” came over and dug up “our” kings? What then?

It’s a valid point, of course. You know that the European “explorers” and “discoverers” treated the native cultures they discovered with an appalling degree of disrespect, something akin to the way a scientist watches bacteria on a slide, but with a sense of casual superiority thrown in, which a bacteriologist wouldn’t display. This was especially true of the Egyptologists, some of whose motives had more to do with the hunt for treasure than the search for truth.

Well, one might say, didn’t the digging up of Egyptian mummies (like that of that minor Pharaoh, Tutankhamen) and Viking barrows advance knowledge? Aren’t we better off now than if we’d known nothing of them at all?

It’s a valid point. Obviously, if we have any pretensions about seriously researching the past at all, we can’t draw a line around certain things and say “thus far and no further". This holds especially true of burial mounds and tombs because they are so much more likely than any other remains of past ages to come down to us undisturbed and with their contents giving us valuable information about the cultures they had belonged to. Even more important, when those cultures had vanished into the mists of time, this might be the only way to find out anything about them. They might even tell us that our preconceived notions about them were wrong; we know from their burial sites that the Neanderthals, far from being casual brutes, were intelligent hominids who buried their dead with flowers and the equivalent of religious ceremonies. That is not unimportant.

Yet, of course, you can’t brush aside the concerns of surviving descendants of the people whose graves you’re studying. You can’t just say something along the lines of “Too damned bad, they’re our remains now and we’  re going to do just as we see fit with them,” unless you’re willing, as the man in the Tintin comic pointed out, to have the same done to you.

So, where do we strike a balance? Can we strike a balance at all?

I believe, personally, that the search for knowledge trumps all other considerations. However, the search for knowledge at the expense of all other considerations is all too likely to degenerate into the expression of pure power over a helpless subject population. There should certainly be some kind of rules according to which such cases should be handled, keeping in mind cultural sensibilities.

If I were to advance my ideas on such rules, they would be these: if the people whose graves you are about to open have living descendants, their opinion and permission ought to be taken before proceeding. (Just because one’s own culture doesn’t think all that much of the dead doesn’t mean some other culture doesn’t.) If their permission is obtained, after, of course, explaining to them the benefits of the knowledge one might obtain, then one should go ahead, with the maximum amount of sensitivity shown towards said remains.

If the permission isn’t forthcoming, then an independent commission of archaeologists and historians should study the question of whether the disturbance of the graves is essential to the pursuit of knowledge. If, and only if, this commission says it is, should the grave be opened even against the wishes of the descendants, but the remains should be handled with the same circumspection and in both cases representatives of the descendants should be present.

Also, once whatever study needs to be done of the remains themselves (quite apart from any artefacts found in the graves) they should be returned to their resting places. There would hardly be any justification for keeping the skull of a Zulu chief in a display case, for instance.

If some rule like this was followed, I suppose Rascar Capac might finally rest in peace.

(From Nov 2009)

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