The Living Speak for the Dead

Stonehenge Burial on Display in the Museum

The story of the recent excavation of the Mycenean Age Griffin Warrior is an amazing one. As an archaeologist, I love reading about such exciting finds, and imagine what it must be like to experience such an event. It must be simply mind-blowing.

But…archaeologists need to be much more careful about their assumptions when excavating any burial. Saying the grave goods are items that belonged to this warrior is a complete and utter assumption. Imagine if his enemies buried him thus in mockery of his non-elite status. This is surely not the case here, but consider it for a moment. Assuming his status based on the presence of these incredible grave goods compounds our assumptions about the grave goods being his own. As Mike Parker Pearson said, we need to think of grave goods as gifts representing the social bond between the living and the dead. After all, who does the burying and the placing of items into a grave – the dead person, or the living human beings who remain to tidy up? And the living may have their own reasons for adding grave goods to a non-elite burial or not adding any at all to an elite burial.

As a child, one of my friends was killed when a train hit the car he was in. At his funeral, I went to the front of the church with my mother to say my goodbyes and see him for one last time. He looked very peaceful, but not real. He must have had considerable physical injuries that had been disguised. A baseball glove with a baseball inside it had been placed beside one arm and a football on the other . I don’t know if he was actually buried with them or not. If he was, would such grave goods tell future archaeologists his was an elite burial, if he alone of all the burials in that cemetery had such items in his coffin? Or that he excelled in sports (which he did)? Or that these items were symbolically placed there by his family? Or that his injuries coupled with those particular items could tell us something vital about his sex, race, class, status, and the society in which he lived? Were those even his own personal belongings, or were they brand new, purpose-bought to look nice to those intrepid enough to look at a 9 year old child in a coffin?

For instance, my paternal grandmother made her own simple dresses all her life. She was a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife and a seamstress. But when she passed away, one of my aunt’s insisted she be buried in a brand new expensive light blue dress that resembled nothing she ever wore in her entire life. I have always cringed at what she would have said about that dress. But she had no voice in that matter. The living speak for the dead.

My point is that we just don’t know enough about most previous societies to assume we know much of anything, and should remain skeptical and alert to interpretations based on these sorts of assumptions based on theories developed by the rather arrogant New Archaeologists of the 1960s. The Romans had it correct: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. And the excavator and interpreter, too.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Living Speak for the Dead

  1. Alan

    Enjoyed the post and point very well made. We know what can happen when we ASSUME.

    Liked by 1 person

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