Poetry Porch: Forgiveness


Digging up the Dead:
Consecration, Desecration, and
Some Questions about Archeology

by Carl Pfluger

I grew up in a New England town of which I have sometimes said, not entirely facetiously, that the best, the liveliest place in it, is the cemetery. I do not say this in disparagement of the presently living inhabitants of my home townwho are, after all, no worse than ordinarybut merely in recognition that it is the tangible remains of some three and a half centuries of continuing historical existence that above all gives a certain sense of human depth to this one particular, otherwise not especially remarkable patch of the globe. And this is a sense shared, more or less, by all the citizens, regardless of their originsregardless of their blood relationship to the bodies buried beneath those stones. Certainly the majority of them, like myself, do not stem from families rooted here from the beginning, but some kind of corporate identity is nonetheless open to all; and the cemetery, with its visible and palpable artifacts from times past, is the most generally accessible approach to that identity: to that community spread so much more extensivelyand more impartiallythrough time than through space.
       The headstones here are also, like all really old monuments, of considerable aesthetic and historical interest. Death’s-head, cherub, urn-and-willow: one may trace some of the softening of Puritan theology over the eighteenth century in the succession of these designs carved on the arches of the stones. And the epitaphsoften enough mere banal doggereloccasionally show the quaint charm that comes of a colonial tradition in which it is not always easy (and perhaps not desirable) to separate “folk” from “learned” elements. Here is my favorite among these, in memory of a sea-captain who died in 1786:

Tho Boreas’ Blasts & Neptune’s Waves
Have toss’d me to and fro
In spite of Death by God’s Decree
I harbour here below

Where I do now at anchor ride,
With many of our Fleet
Yet once again I must make Sail
Our adm’ral Christ, to meet.

But of course that is exceptional, one of the rare gems of this collection: an idiosyncratically sparkling glimpse of personality catching the eye across the gulf of centuries, one of the special treats which a tourist of graveyards may occasionally expect to reward his peregrinations. The majority of these inscriptions are more routine, though poignant enough: most commonly variations on that Latin tag already old when this churchyard was new: Sum quod eris, I am what you will be. It is the universal cry of the dead to the living, their last affirmation of a continuing communion with us.
       I have always enjoyed cemeteries; but I began thinking more intensively, and more publicly, about this peculiar devotion of mine when I heard about the campaigns of some Indian tribes to reclaim the remains of their ancestors: remains which had been, over the past couple of centuries, lifted by archeologists (or in some cases by “mere” grave-robbersthough from some points of view the distinction between these two callings has not always been macroscopically visible) and re-deposited in various museums around the United States. The Indians in this argument are not very happy about the treatment of their ancestral remains by “white” archeologists; and this is of course only a part of their amply justified complaint against the treatment of Indians by white people generally. Responding to this protest, the archeological profession has invoked the universal values of science, and all the particular benefits (medical, forensic, etc.) which can be derived from science. There seems to be a conflict of values here: perhaps even of sacred values, given the quasi-sacred status which science itself has acquired in our time. But it is also, in an obvious sense, a conflict about power and possession. As long as native Americans remain a dispossessed people, they can scarcely be expected to feel comfortable with having their people’s bones pawed over by representatives of a system they do not control. And this is a conflict which has arisen elsewhere as well: everywhere, in fact, where a people’s traditional sense of themselves, their identity, and their place on “their own” land has collided with the enterprise of archeologyan enterprise which, we should do well to remember, was launched in large part by that quintessentially nineteenth-century hybrid of capitalist and visionary, Heinrich Schliemann.
       In the Middle East, where more layers of history lie impacted upon one another than anywhere else on earth, this conflict has been far more intense (and more convoluted) than in our own country. Palestinians, long before the intifada, staged protests against Israeli digs; Syrian authorities were obviously discomforted by the discovery of the lost city of Ebla in the late 1970s, because some of the names unearthed there seemed to confirm the patriarchal narratives of the Old Testament, and therefore to validate Zionist claims to the land of Israel; and a few years ago, when a tomb in Jerusalem produced the body of a man who had been crucified, scholars and media outlets fell over themselves re-assuring us that of course there was no reason to suppose that this was the body of . . . well, you know who. And so it has gone ever since Schliemann’s epic squabbles with the Ottoman authorities.
       Again, some of this is “merely” political: Palestinians, for example, will find it obviously opportune to protest almost anything done by Israeli agencies. But a deeper ambiguity shows itself here, too. Islamic societies have themselves been ambivalent about the pre-Islamic past of their own countries: the godless arrogance of Chosroes, or of the Pharaohs, is a commonplace of Muslim oratory; and the general tenor of Muslim regard for the relics of those “Days of Ignorance” was set by the Caliph al-Mamungenerally one of the more enlightened of early Muslim rulerswho in the ninth century bored a tunnel into the Great Pyramid in a futile effort to lay his hands on Khufu’s treasure. But then, Muslims stand in relation to the really ancient remains of their own region rather as we post-Columbian immigrant Americans do to the remains of the Amerinds: the Arabs too are relative newcomers, invaders whose presence in most of the Middle East antedates the Euro-African settlement of the Americas by less than a thousand yearsand what is that, sub specie aeternitatis? Such obvious historical discontinuities, such breaks in the natural growth of countries and communities, might make it at least superficially easier to take a “cool, detached, objective” attitude toward the remains of the dead, to treat them as objects of mere scientific or aesthetic interestbut the full story is still more complex and ambiguous than that.
       Here, as often, the Jews may provide a useful illustration, in their frequent rôle as an “exceptional” people whose uniqueness, under closer examination, turns out to be less than is easily assumed. In contrast to their Arab neighbors, Israelis have pursued archeology with a passion that has seemed at times to elevate it to the status of a second national religion. It is easy enough to see why, at least up to a point. By digging deeply enough, they may produce remains of their own ancestors: tangible evidence of their claims to the land. And this has always been one of the chief social functions of burial grounds, of the ceremonial deposition of one’s dead. Often, the archeological enterprise has come as a violation of this pact between the living and the dead; but in Israel it has at least as often served as a re-affirmation of it, asserting with all the force of a scientific demonstration the continuity of the Jews who returned under the Zionist dispensation with those who had lived in these places more than two thousand years ago. The Arabs, then, may well have reason (even aside from the usual resentments of alien scrutiny: Euro-centric, “Orientalist” and all that) to fear the subversive potential of this intrusive digging: it threatens to expose the comparative recentness of their tenure of the land, as it brings to light something of the antiquity of the Jews. 
       Yet even this contrast is not entirely simple. Muslim regimes have also deployed archeology as a political weapon, and even on behalf of the pre-Islamic cultures of their own nations. The late Shah’s attempt to identify himself with the Achaemenid dynasty (most flamboyantly displayed in his theatrical reconstruction of Persepolis) may have ended with his reign, but it would be surprising if nothing like it ever re-appears in Iran; and Saddam Hussein’s bizarre and vulgar cult of Nebuchadrezzar is only one more case in point. Meanwhile, Israel itself has not been free of all contradictions on this issue either. Some of the loudest protests against Israeli digs have come from the most Orthodox among the Jews themselves: zealous partisans of a piety that revolts against the “sacrilegious” operations of Israel’s own more or less secularized archeological savants. That cool disinterment of the dead, that cold-blooded handling of human bodies which archeology requires (as does surgery, for that matter, and some other professional services to humanity) does indeed serve some kind of higheror at least broadersense of sacred values; but it also demands a certain distancing from the more usual feelings of particular human communitiesfrom the general sense, e.g., that the dead should be “left in peace.”

That such feelings are universally human is shown by some of the very archeological investigations which, at one level, inflict such an outrage upon them. They seem, moreover, to have existed even before our species reached its present form: Neanderthal skeletons have been found carefully laid out and accompanied by floral offerings. A modern theory of human origins holds that the Neanderthals, because of certain limitations of their laryngeal architecture, were incapable of spoken language as we know it, and therefore would hardly qualify as fully human according to our customary terms; yet they apparently shared with us this concern for the dead which, perhaps more than any other single trait, sets us apart, as humans, from the other animals. It seems fitting, therefore, that the first recorded conflict between traditional piety and the modern disciplines of archeology should have occurred over their bones. In 1852, near Aurignac in southern France, the remains of at least seventeen ancient skeletons were accidentally discovered in a cave. The mayor promptly ordered their re-burial in the parish churchyard; and a few years later, when Edouard Lartet, a pioneer in the emerging study of early man, came looking for them, he got no co-operation from the church custodians in his attempt to exhume them for his scientific studies: they resisted telling him the location of these new/old graves.
       We may smile a little at the naïveté of the provincial functionaries who arranged these Christian obsequies for people whose religion, if any, would have been incomprehensibly alien to their own Catholic Christianity; whose language (again, if any!) remains utterly unknowable to us; whose only bond indeed to those who re-buried them was that they were also human, and that they had lived in this same corner of what we now call France. But we must also accord them a measure of respect. A certain awe of the deadit may take the form of reverence (as in the element of ancestor-worship which remains a component of all our religions) or of mere vulgar terror (as in the commonest of ghost stories)has undeniably strong and deep roots in our human natures. And one of the strongest of these roots is the sense of shared place, with its multifarious ideas of belonging, of community, and of title to the land: the sense that where “my” dead are, there is my home, my hearth, my earth. This sentiment was already ancient in the time of Abraham, who (according to Genesis 23:17-19) purchased the sepulchral cave of Mamre for his kinbut it still has force to move us today. I felt it myself when with my own hands I poured my mother’s ashes over the roots of her favorite beech tree, on a hillside which I can still see from the window as I write; and it can even surface, freshly and unexpectedly, in the public discourse of our modern, enlightened and secularized societiesas it has, for example, in the recent history of Canada and Québec.
       The 1980 referendum campaign on Québec independence took on some disturbingly racist overtones when the late Québec Premier René Lévesque (in an irritable moment, unworthy, I believe, of his own best feelings) taunted Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau with his “English” middle name. Responding in an uncharacteristically extemporaneous speech, which is widely credited with turning the tide of the campaign, Trudeau called to witness the cemeteries where that name of his mother’s family may be read on two centuries of tombstones planted on Québec soil. Trudeau has sometimes been criticized (especially by English Canadians) for being “too rational, too intellectual”all those things that have been part of the stereotype of French character sincewell, since Descartesbut here, certainly, he struck the right emotional chord. In countering an irrational prejudice, volumes of reasoned argument may be far less effective than the heartfelt cry of another, more generous, irrational feeling: in this case, that sense of a common inheritance evoked by the solemn deposition of one’s dead.

Into the traditional ambience of awe, reverence, or at least of decent respectwith its correlative abhorrence of grave-robbers and all such disturbers of the peace of the deadthe archeologist intrudes as the ultimate defiler, a systematic and professionally blasphemous predatoror worse, as a parasite, a scavenger, a ghoulone who makes his living off the dead, heartlessly picking over those sacred relics for his own profane and alien purposes. Certainly Schliemann’s career does nothing to dispel this impression. Alternately tricking or browbeating the Greek and Turkish authorities as the opportunity arose, he operated with the transcendent willfulness of an authentic robber baronan epithet equally appropriate, after all, to a nineteenth-century entrepreneur (which he was for most of his life) and to those Homeric heroes who were his literary and spiritual inspiration.
       But then, should we not really ask: how peculiar was this predatory/parasitic attitude to Schliemann, or to the whole archeological enterprise of which he is himself the founding hero, if not exactly the patron saint? From the broadest of bio-centric perspectives, are not all of us pillagers and parasites of the dead? We all live, more than we generally care to acknowledge, at the expense of those who have gone before us; we inhabit houses which were built by them, and enjoy the fruits of all their labors: material, political, social and cultural. Speaking most broadly, human beings are like all other species: we live on the dead and disintegrating bodies of other organisms, all ultimately growing out of that mold, that soil, into which we all again return. Ashes to ashes, earth to earth; humus to human (the phonological likeness here is not accidental) and back again: all who live, live by feeding on the remains (what a pregnant word!) of the dead; and this has been so ever since our kind of oxygen-breathing life began to thrive on the wastes of the largely self-exterminated anaerobic bacteria which were the first generation of life on this planet.
       In such a perspective, our relations with the dead do not look all that different from our relations with the living: both are equally permeated with ambiguities and uncertainties, equally “tainted,” or enriched, with a fertile mixture of actions, gestures and motives. And so, equally ancient and primitive as that sense of sacred separation from and sequestering of the dead, is a contrary impulse, its coeval polar opposite, which we find equally evident in the funeral rites of all peoples: the desire to bridge the gulf between them and us, to welcome the dead (and to be welcomed by them) into some kind of continuing communal and commensal relationship. What else is the point of all those epitaphs in which the dead fictively speak to the living? Such tombstones are like the time capsules which came into vogue a few decades ago; and the more imposing and elaborately planned a burial is, the more it partakes of this image: a message in a bottle dropped into the ocean of time, hoping to encounter a reader somewhere among the endless waves of humanity to come. . . . But the messages encoded in these capsules are various, and even more varied are the rites with which men have launched them into that elemental abyss.
       In what is perhaps the earliest literary demonstration of cultural relativism germane to this topic, Herodotus tells us (III, 38) that King Darius of Persia once brought together some visitors from the most distant frontiers of his empire, Greeks and Indians. What price, Darius asked the Greeks (whom the Persians tended to regard as willing to do anything for money) would you demand for eating the bodies of your fathers? The Greeks, in a paroxysm of righteous indignation, responded that nothing could induce them to commit such an outrage, and they begged the King not even to mention such an abomination again. Darius then confronted them with some of his Indian subjects who (so the story goes) did in fact eat their fathers’ bodies as part of their usual obsequiesand who were equally horrified and revolted when they were told about the Greek usage of cremationthus confirming, according to Herodotus, the word of Pindar that “custom is king of all.” (“Custom” here translates the Greek vóµos [nomos] which also has the meanings of “law” and “convention”: everything human beings do which is somehow “contrary to nature.”)
       Literally and physically eating the dead may be rare among actual human communities; but the shock which these Herodotean Indians offer to our sensibilities arises mostly from their confronting us with the starkest possible presentation of one of the poles between which all our rites concerning the dead tend to divide themselves. Such anthropophagy is the “fast forward” setting of the re-cycling mode: it brings the atoms of the dead back into circulation with a minimum of intermediation. (Cremation does this too, rather more fastidiously.) Against this we may set all those modes of containment and encapsulationburial (especially in sealed coffins), entombment, embalming, etc.which seek to preserve the bodies of the dead for as long as possible, pretending to fortify them against the inevitable processes of decay, dissolution, and eventual re-incorporation into other forms of life. These variations may reflect divergent theories of personal immortalityresurrection versus re-incarnation, for exampleor they may express different degrees of value assigned to the individual personality per se. Monumental tombs are, if nothing else, forceful assertions of the personalities of their rich and powerful owners, demanding a recognition from posterity comparable to the deference they had received in life from their contemporaries. They want their names to be remembered, and the proclamations of their exalted selves to be read, for ever after. But once the continuity is brokentongues forgotten, gods abandonedwho will ever more remember these individuals, who will read their lives, if not those cool, detached and desecrating archeologists, who have labored so assiduously at just this task of “reading” the remains of the ancient dead?
       And so it is at least an entertainable notion that the dead whose remains are so cavalierly handled by the archeological profession would not in fact have been entirely displeased by their treatment. Certainly the Pharaohs did not want their treasuries rifled by vulgar tomb robbers (as most of them in fact were, already before the beginning of the Christian Era)but can we be so certain that their vanity would not have been gratified by the prospect of having their splendors displayed for the admiration of millions on our public television specials or in our arty coffee-table books? I think not. The homage paid to these remains, even (or especially?) by those of us moderns whose nominal motives are “merely” scientific or aesthetic is hardly less flattering than what they received from their own peoples. More than three thousand years after his death Tut-ankh-Amen, in life one of the most insignificant of the Pharaohs, has become (thanks to the latter-day “tomb robbery” of Carter and Carnarvon) the object of a cult at once commercial, academic, and popular; a cult in almost the literal sense of the word, more genuinely devoted to the perpetuation of his name than that offered in his own time by the nominally faithful servitors of his own court. The long lines of visitors (pilgrims, one is tempted to call them) who came so eagerly to see his special exhibit when it toured the world some years ago at least manifested a more personal interest in this one rather pathetic royal individual than did his immediate successors who, embroiled in their own politics, gave him as cursory an entombment as Egyptian conventions would allowand who not long afterward covered his sepulchre with rubble, inadvertently preserving it (uniquely among Pharaonic tombs) for the curious pillagers of our time. 
       We may contrast this, amusingly and instructively, with the treatment accorded the body of Leninwho, unlike Tut, was one of the authentically powerful personalities of his own day. Lewis Mumford compared the mummification of Communist founder-heroes to those of the “Pyramid Age”but the differences are striking and ironic. The Pharaohs were secreted away, immured against light and the inspection of the masses; whereas Lenin and his epigones were placed immediately in glass cases, as if to short-circuit (in the typically Leninist maneuver) the long processes of history, seeking to achieve instantly that status of museum-piece icons for which Tut, and Schliemann’s “Agamemnon,” had to wait at least an intervening age. But the sullenly shuffling subjects who, in the heyday of Communist power, trooped cowed and obedient past the artfully-preserved bodies of their lately-deceased masters seem an awkward counterfeit of the crowds who came of their own free will to view the remains of those modernly excavated ancient rulers. And now that Lenin’s name is recalled with execration in his own country, and the brief saeculum of Communism seems to be on the cusp of passing away, what future (“radiant” or otherwise) awaits these precocious mummies? Will they now be consigned to their own Marxist  “ash-heap,” while the world, at the turn of a new historical cycle, gazes reverently at the relics of the “feudal” and “servile” past?

From the very beginning of philosophical thought there has been a persistent strain of radical criticism that revolts against all the fuss which people have made over the dead, insisting that there is no reason why human remains should not be disposed of like any other worn-out old trash. “Corpses are more fit to be thrown out than dung,” said Heraclitus, early in the 5th century B.C.which, considering the rôle of manure in re-cycling the nutrients of any living community, perhaps concedes more than the misanthropic old sophist intended. “Let the dead bury the dead,” said another, presently more famous, ancient authoritywhich did not prevent his name from being invoked by nearly two millennia of posterity in obsequies as solemn and elaborate as any tradition has ever seen.
       The Cynic/Stoic traditionwhich claimed Heraclitus as one of its precursors, and made a great point of “living according to Nature”was especially vociferous on this issue. Concerning Diogenes the proto-Cynic (the one who lived in a tub, carried a lantern “looking for an honest man” and told Alexander the Great to move his shadow) there are at least three accounts of what he wanted done with his own body. Prop it up as a scarecrow, he said; or else throw it into the river as fish-food—“that he might be useful to his brethren,” as his biographer Laertius puts it, in what to modern ears might sound like an early statement of Deep Ecological conscience. But who could be expected to do anything at all with his body, he was asked, since he lived such a solitary life, without even the few slaves deemed necessary for a respectable Greek existence? “Whoever wants the house,” he repliedby that time, apparently, having traded up from his tub.
       “Whoever wants the house” now that is both Cynic and cynical; but it does highlight unflinchingly one part anyway of our normal relations with the dead. At least this anecdote helps us see how the name of the most austerely moralizing school of ancient philosophy could have become selectively narrowed down to its modern sense of exposing the cheapest material motives to all our actions. Diogenes, like most representatives of his school, invoked the authority of “Nature” to disparage the “conventions” of human societybut his was a narrowly dogmatic idea of nature, conceived from a relentlessly individualist perspective. Like Darius in the story of Herodotus, he noticed the infinite variability of human customs; and from this he concluded that none of them could qualify as “natural” according to his crudely scientific paradigm. Diogenes called his vehement denial of convention “cosmopolitan,” a word he seems to have invented; but this cut-rate cosmopolitanism overlooks a more profound insight, one confirmed by all anthropologyincluding anthropology’s dirty-handed operational arm, archeologythat it is a truly universal feature of human societies to observe some laws, some conventions: about, among other things, the ceremonial treatment of the dead. No particular custom may be any more natural than another; but from the Neanderthal burials in the Shanidar cave to, say, the funerals which became such potent rallying-points in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the ritualized deposition of the dead has continued to evoke some of the strongest feelings in our human natures. 
       Yes, what we do with corpses (and even more, the spirit in which we do it) really does matter; the will of the dead and the spirit of the living should here find some common ground of meeting and understanding. My mother’s ashes leaching every year into the soil of her own hillside, and the ashes of those murdered at Auschwitz (processed by the German chemical industry into commercially usable fertilizer) were alike re-cycled in a manner which from some scientific perspective might seem to be equivalent; but no one in his right mind could fail to see the difference: a difference made by the sense of shared remembrance, of community; a sense conspicuously absent from the hypertrophied individualism of Diogenes and his imitators. Compared with such “philosophical” antinomianism, archeology (together with all its ancillary sciences) is as profound an act of reverence, of piety, as any which human beings have ever offered. For the archeologist, no matter how “callously” he may handle the remains of the deadbringing them up from their graves, subjecting them to the most intrusive physical and chemical analysesis above all concerned with understanding them: with reading them, with finding a meaning to their lives. And in this he is inviting them into the broadest, the most inclusive, community of which we (at least in our present state of development) are capable. Ultimately, he re-deposits them in museums; but a museum (originally a temple of the Muses) may well be the most authentic shrine which has yet been produced by our own culture: relative, time-bound, and ethnically conditioned, no doubt; but no less natural for all that: our own particular variation among all the others that have been played (and will continue to be played) on the universal human themes of life and death.
       It seems impossible to go very far along these lines of reflexion without running into that (modernly not very fashionable) dualism of body and soul, flesh and spirit. In all funeral rites of which I have any knowledge, the flesh is given over, sooner or later, to the eternal, elemental processes of the world“re-cycling” is only the current bio-technical jargon for thisbut something else of the dead remains among the living, something for which different people have found different words: spirit, soul, ba, ka, atman, nous or “active intellect”; for which I at this moment can find no better word than memory. There is, perhaps, some confusion here in our usual terminology. When we speak of the “remains” of the dead, we most often refer to those inert physical componentsflesh, bones or asheswhich are the visible objects of our attentions. But of course those are the very things which, according to most of our sacred taboos, are supposed to be sequestered away from the living. They generally do not remain with us, but apart from us. What does remain with us is memory. The dead continue to have some sort of existence among us only insofar as they continue to resonate in the lives of their successors, their survivors. 
       Yes, the point of all funeral rites is memory: a mental action, perhaps even an immaterial one; but we exercise our memories by performing some sort of overt act with those tangible, corporeal parts of the dead“the remains” in the usual sense of the termand to forget this is to risk disparaging, desacralizing the body even in life. And this may point us toward that other feature found in most, if not all, funeral customs: the element of continuity, communion, even commensality; which last has taken the form of everything from sedate memorial dinners to the Archaic Greek practice of placing feeding tubes in graves, through which the heirs of the dead could pour libations of wine and oil into the throats of their decomposing fathers: a grisly enough custom to our delicate modern sensibilities, but one that makes the point clearly enough. We want our dead friends and relations to continue dining with us, even as Don Giovanni invited the Commendatore to dine with him, sharing our food in what is (so primatologists inform us) the most basic social ritual, not only of our species, but of our entire zoological order. Feeding the dead, or letting the dead feed us; somehow, these do not seem all that different: and so the Greeks and the Indians of Herodotus’s story may not, after all, have been beyond reconciliation.

The dead, we say, would wish to be “left in peace.” On the other hand, they also wish to be rememberedand this must mean, remembered in all their individuality, all their particularities. But who, then, best remembers the dead? Not necessarily their kin and heirsthey in fact may have the strongest motives for forgetting them, for covering them up and concealing their debt to them. Nor is it only their friends: enemies, even those with whom they have actually been at war, may sometimes remember most vividly those whom they themselves have killed. The complex and haunted feelings which white Americans have about the Indians provide one instance of this; and so also does the Iliad, that ultimate classic which was such a formative obsession of our prototypical scientific grave-robber/archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann.
       The brawling chieftains of the Iliad are, to modern feelings, not a very sympathetic sample of humanity. Violent and predatory, they live mostly (as Thucydides already observed) by piracy and robbery: helping themselves to whatever they can get by force of arms. But even in the midst of this strenuously parasitic activity they show remarkably tenacious memories for the provenance of their acquisitions. Fighters will interrupt battles to recount the origins of their prized possessionstripods, cups or armormuch as they recount their own genealogies; and it hardly seems to matter to them whether these were inherited from their fathers or plundered from some luckless victim of their spears: all are recalled with equal attention. Whatever the other limitations of their sympathies, Homer’s heroes did not forget what they owed to the deadeven those whom they had sent down to the dust with their own hands. Shamelessly, they flaunt the predatory/parasitic relation which all the living have to all the dead. And in this at least Schliemann was fit to be their votary, with his lust to recognize those whose tombs he was plundering, to identify them with the names he “remembered” from Homer. “I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon,” he said when he lifted that famous gold mask from Mycenae. Well no, it can’t really have been Agamemnon, say the more chronologically exact diggers who have succeeded himbut then, who was “Agamemnon,” except for the memories and the imaginations cherished about him? Schliemann, who did at least imaginatively identify himself with his “Agamemnon,” with his “treasury of Priam,” may be closer in some ways to the Amerindians who feel they belong to “their” people’s bones than he is to the academically trained custodians of our museums, who in any number of ways may have a more factually accurate knowledge of the materials in their collections. Communal identity is not always easy to pin down precisely, after all. When I walk through my favorite graveyards, enjoying the stones which have become so familiar to me, I do not look different, outwardly, from a pious descendant of one of the colonial families buried there; but insofar as I am appreciating them historically or aesthetically, do I not in some measure approach the “cold, heartless, scientific” attitude toward these relics, even though I am not subjecting them to the more intrusive probings of physical or chemical analysis? Yes . . . . and so at last I too am somehow a kindred spirit of Schliemann’sbut whether more akin to his romantic or his predatory side, it would be hard for me to say.
       Modern, scientific archeologists are not at all comfortable with Schliemann and his willful ways, even though he is the founder-hero of their own profession, any more than modern people generally can feel comfortable with the primitive warrior kings of the Iliad. But Schliemann, in all his contradictions, remains a totemic figure, not only of archeology, but of much else in our Western-based but increasingly global cultureit seems strangely appropriate that much of his “Trojan” hoard, purloined by him to Berlin, and lost in the murk of the Second World War, should now re-surface in the newly-liberated Russia: that is a tale Homer himself would have loved!and Homer is still the premier classic of the Western canon, whose heroes, with their catholically memorious re-cycling of the artifacts of the dead, may serve as tolerably useful models for a rough ethic of predatory piety: alike in our dealings with the moldering remains of the human dead (ineluctably dissolving into their organic-chemical components) and with all the eternally re-cycling elements of the organic world. 
       “So they held the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses.” That is how the Iliad ends, after a gruesome and spiteful series of combatsthe detailed recital of which is often as tiresome to the modern reader as the experience of being trapped in a bar with a clutch of rabid sports fans who recall every tedious play from some game of twenty years agowith a funeral, and a reconciliation. After Achilles has vented his hyperbolic wrath, outrageously desecrating Hector’s corpse, he reverts at last to normal humanity, recognizing his common bond of life and death with the Trojans, and yields the body back to to Priam for a decent cremationthe very “decency” to be sure, which so outraged the Indians of Herodotus!
       But still: if Achilles and Priam could finally be reconciled (even in the midst of war) over the body of Hector; if the Greeks and the Indians at the court of Darius could somehow recognize the human value of each others’ customs; it should not be impossible (now that everyone has, in however vulgarized a manner, been touched by some recognition of a global unity embracing the whole Earth) to achieve some kind of reconciliation over the treatment of all our dead. And perhaps we need not, and should not, look for too exclusive, too precise a definition of our attitudes. As I, walking among the stones of my familiar graveyards, am simultaneously a tourist and an investigator, a votary and a voyeur, so should we all acknowledge the commensality of our feasts with the dead; with those with whom we shall all soon enough be. Sum quod eris, do you say? Indeed: I shall be what you are; so shall we all.

Copyright © 1993 by Carl Pfluger.
This essay first appeared in Hudson Review, Winter 1993. Reprinted with permission.

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