Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Digging up the dead

Here's a set of thoughts that is of just the sort you might expect from a philosopher who is married to an archaeologist and, moreover, a philosopher who is interested in the philosophy of death.

How should an archaeologist treat the dead? Is there a significant ethical distinction between an archaeological find such as a piece of pottery and an archaeological find such as a human skeleton such that the archaeologist is obliged to distinguish between the proper treatment of the possessions of now deceased people and the proper treatment of the remains of the deceased people themselves? Further: is there a significant ethical distinction between objects or bodies deposited in a manner recognisable as a deliberate attempt to preserve, memorialise or otherwise ensure a certain state for some deceased person and his/her possessions (say, a context recognisable as a grave containing grave goods) and some other context, such that the archaeologist is once again obliged to distinguish in her assessment of the proper treatment of these two kinds of find?

Some recent discussions of such questions have focussed on the general question whether it is possible to harm the dead and, whatever the response to this questions, what the consequences should be for archaeological practice. I do not wish to pursue that particular question, although it seems to me that there is little reason to believe that the dead can be harmed in any sense; it is reasonable to think, in fact, that it is misleading to talk of ‘dead people’ since a person is best thought of as being essentially alive. What you might excavate in a grave is not a dead person: it is some of the material which once was present in the living body of a person. Nor do I wish to pursue in any depth the question whether, regardless of the fact of the matter in the debate over whether the dead have interests and can be harmed, we are obliged to treat them as if they did because of the interests of living persons who are, or think themselves, somehow the descendants of the deceased. It seems to me that, in this case, there is indeed a good reason to treat excavated human remains in a particularly sensitive way, but it is important always to be clear that the reason for doing so is that such treatment fosters or prevents harm to the interests of some living persons.

Be that as it may, a further question stikes me: should archaeologists be interested in ensuring that when we now bury our dead we do so in a way which would help future archaeologists? If so, what would that involve? And would the conscious attempt to leave evidence mean that the evidence, once found, is interpreted in a particular way?

1 comment:

Choppa said...

You raise questions of individual and/vs collective ownership/property here, focusing on the individual's choices for a good life and leaving a collective's choices more open.

Earlier today I ran across two pieces relating to this. One in New Scientist:


in which the powerfully motivational force of (a feeling of) ownership is highlighted, and the other at Scientific American:


on conscious and unconscious awareness and choices. I specially noted the following two paragraphs:

"In the final experiment, the Iowa gambling task, subjects pick the top card from one of four decks. Each card wins or loses the subject a certain amount of money. Unbeknownst to subjects, two of the four decks have a net positive yield and two a negative yield. Subjects must place a low or a high wager on the chosen card before it is revealed and lose or win accordingly. In the test, the subjects turn scores of cards over, one at a time, each time finding out whether they win or lose. They almost always figure out which decks are winners and start to pull cards mostly from those decks -- but they usually turn over at least 30 cards on those decks before they gain the confidence to bet aggressively on the results. That is, subjects only start to make money long after their own behavior should have revealed that they knew which decks were winners.

To explore this hesitance, Persaud and colleagues used a second variant of this experiment in which they queried the subjects every tenth trial about everything they knew about the game and the decks. When the subjects thus examined their knowledge about the game, the gap between the onset of positive deck selection and onset of advantageous betting disappeared -- suggesting that the act of introspection alters subjects' awareness. Examining their knowledge made them more aware of what they knew. This demonstrates that if subjects learn to trust their gut instincts -- betting on knowledge they are not yet aware of -- they can do better, a demonstration of the utility of the leitmotif of Western philosophy, "Know thyself." "

Marx was very aware of the lag in consciousness behind social human action. In 18th Brumaire he writes of revolutionaries dressing themselves up in the togs of earlier models, and in Capital I he has the following brilliant sentence:

"Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es" ("They are not aware of it, but they do it") (Pt 1 Ch 1 Section 4 Commodity fetishism).

So clearly people do things with significance for social reproduction without being aware of any scientific or even plausible reason for doing it. Like balance and movement, blood circulation and digestion, visual perception and spatial orientation etc, our actions take place driven by factors and forces outside our consciousness. Or are they? Or in what way? Does a gut feeling count? The Scientific American piece indicates a delayed relationship between a gut feeling and consciousness that can be accelerated by training.

Perhaps our social actions and their significance for ourselves as more than individual bodies - as gene and species bearers - is similar. In which case it might be argued that we need a social ethics in which people can grow up and feel at home in order to accelerate good outcomes for a good life for humanity as a collective subject (of our own history). Which of course is in blazing contradiction to traditional individualist ethics and the Thatcherite-Kantian ultra-individualism of "there is no society" or the bureaucratic/parliamentary individualism of the "categorical imperative" (ie we're all in the same boat, even if we think we have contradictory and antagonistic interests).

Nations are acknowledged as sovereign collective subjects, but very grudgingly and elitistically. As Chomsky said in a recent interview (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12169):

"I think it has to do with a feature of world affairs that is insufficiently appreciated. International affairs is very much run like the mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn't pay his protection money. You have to have obedience otherwise the idea can spread that you don't have to listen to the orders and it can spread to important places."

This is not the accepted or ideologically acceptable view of international relations, which is more like a cross between the United Nations and Oxfam.


The question after all this might be, is it possible to ask sensible thin questions about individual behaviour (ethics, goodness, pleasure, the good life) without taking the collective (social, biological) imperatives into account?

The classical materialists, like Epicurus and Lucretius used the argument of "death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?" to embolden individuals to cast off fear for themselves in relation to some terrifying unknown future, and Lucretius was even a passionate propagandist for the idea. Perhaps Marx (with Engels) took this fearlessness into the modern age and inspired their revolutionary followers with a collective audacity that is still forming itself and under ferocious attack from the vested interests of the old society with its interests rooted in the collective survival of capital and the never-ending and accelerating accumulation of individual capitals at the cost of the working class and weaker capitalist brethren.

The example you use of the relationship of the living to the dead in the field of burial ;-) is clearly related to all this as regards the value we place on the remains both biological and social of formerly living groups and peoples, and the respect with which we conduct negotiations and discussions with currently living groups and peoples who feel propriety in certain remains.

In Bohemia this kind of topic, by the way, confronts even tourists willy-nilly, because of all the ostuaries from the 30 Years War, some of which (one I think near Kutna Hora) contains a Baroque chapel sculpted out of the skulls and bones of the dead. I mention this because I'm translating a rather royalist gung-ho book on Swedish history at the moment, which of course neglects to mention any of this ;-)

(1000 words - sorry, didn't intend to be so long-winded today!)