Diggin' it or not diggin' it? Should archaeologists dig up the dead?

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The archaeology of the ancient world has traditionally meant the archaeology of temples and tombs. While there haven't been many discoveries of temples of late (but there is one awesome exception!), tombs come to light nearly every day. Tombs give archaeologists volumes of information about the ancients. The human remains tell how they lived and died, what diseases they suffered, what handicaps they endured. The tomb goods hint at the funerary rituals they practiced, the kind of afterlife they expected and their relative wealth. The tombs themselves, whether small or large, stone or earthen, suggest the level of construction technology. And the inscriptions on the tombs inform us of their names, value systems, gods and goddesses, and what kind of impression they wished to leave on those who visited their tombs. Think of the hoary tombs in the Valley of the Kings (like that of King Tutankhamun in Fig. 1), or the burial mound of Philip II (King of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great) at Vergina, or that of the emperor Augustus in Rome. Even one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus—was a colossal tomb dedicated to the Carian ruler Mausolus. Without these tombs and the myriad smaller tombs scattered throughout the ancient world, what an enormous amount of evidence would be lost! How comparatively little we would know! But at the same time we archaeologists confront an ethical dilemma. Is it right to disturb the dead? What’s the difference between digging up an ancient Etruscan princess (as one recently was) and excavating the early twentieth-century grave of an Iowa farmer? Should we not consider the wishes of the deceased and their descendants? Is time the only thing that matters? If so, what's so special about time? And how much time is required before it's okay to unearth human remains? Who decides?

Until recently, I gave this issue little thought. During my college classes and field training the ethical issues involved with digging up tombs and bodies were never raised. If I were ever confronted with excavating an ancient or medieval tomb, I would not have hesitated. Such is the attitude today among the vast majority of archaeologists. As my interests moved into the ancient maritime world, I expected to go my whole lifetime without ever discovering human remains on shipwrecks. This is due to a number of factors, not least the fact that bones (calcium) dissolve easily in saltwater after only a short time. In fact, of the 2,000 ancient and medieval shipwrecks recorded in the Mediterranean Sea, only a handful contained human remains; in most cases they had been preserved owing to their deposition in anaerobic mud. This seemed about to change in 2006, however, when I took part in one of Dr. Robert Ballard's Black Sea expeditions off Ukraine's Crimean coast. One of our missions that season (aside from searching for ancient shipwrecks) was to assist the government of Ukraine with finding the wreckage of the Soviet hospital ship Armenia, which had been sunk by a Nazi torpedo bomber during the evacuation of the Crimea early in WW II (Fig. 2). The ship sank in a matter of minutes, taking to the bottom between five and seven thousand passengers, mostly sick and wounded; only eight people survived. It remains one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. We understood that the ship likely lay in the Black Sea's anoxic layer, where there is no dissolved oxygen in the water. No oxygen means much fewer forms of life to consume the bodies (namely anaerobic bacteria). In other words, the bodies may be well preserved on the wreck. As I helped direct the search I imagined coming upon a debris field littered with those who appeared to have died ten minutes before. Grim indeed. Despite several days trying to locate the ship, we never found her. I wonder if I would be the same today if we had. 

But in 2011, while we were exploring the wreck of an ancient Greek merchant ship on the other side of the deep Black Sea, we came upon skeletal material among the scattered cargo of ceramic wine containers. I sat there slack-jawed until it dawned on me: these are human remains! Here was the victim of an ancient disaster, his (or her?) bones exposed to the elements only because a very modern fishing trawler had unknowingly dragged its gear across the wreck and upended what was formerly buried in the mud (Fig. 3). Now we were faced with that same dilemma. Should we, or should we not, recover the bones? Could we learn more about the daily life of ancient mariners, who are nearly historically invisible? Would the DNA be intact? We would never find out. When we returned to the site to recover the remains, the bones were gone, the victim of another trawling pass that scattered and destroyed nearly every artifact visible the year before.

These experiences shaped my thinking on the subject, so during the fall semester of last year I put the question to my Archaeology of Ancient Greece class and was surprised by the answers. Even after we had surveyed the major archaeological discoveries made in Greece over the past century and a half, even when I had shown that we would not know nearly as much about the ancient Greeks were in not for excavated tombs, and even though these Greeks had been dead for over twenty centuries, more than a third of the class thought that archaeologists should not disturb the dead under any circumstances. One perceptive student wrote:

"Knowing that the Greeks thought it ill to unearth the deceased, one should respect this religious ideal by not deliberately excavating graves… [It] is not as if the fate of humanity hangs in the balance depending on the contents of the tomb. Just as archaeology is important, but not necessary, for the survival of humankind, tombs… are not necessary for the advancement of the science."

It was interesting to see students want to honor the wishes of the dead even when no one is left to speak for them. Indeed one senses the "Golden Rule" behind the sentiment—I'm also uneasy at the thought that the my own bones may one day be on display for all to see. We should remember, however, that tomb robbing is actually the oldest profession. It was as lucrative in 3000 B.C. as it is in 2014. Of all the rich pharaonic tombs in Egypt, only Tutankhamun's remained undiscovered and unlooted before archaeologist found it. Today it's the tombaroli or clandestini in Italy and the huaquero of Central America who backhoe entire fields in the middle of the night digging for hidden tombs. Such groups flourish and multiply wherever there are artifacts known to be in the ground. They bribe local police to look the other way, grow rich and feed a ravenous black market for illicit antiquities. Unless tombs are protected they will soon be gone without a trace. At least archaeologists can record, preserve, and study them. At least the memory of the deceased is not totally erased. That’s the view most archaeologists advocate. Still, I wonder, would it make any difference to the dead? And is that a question worth asking?

What do you think? Is it okay for archaeologists to excavate the deceased? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not?

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

Dan Davis, assistant professor of classics, has taught ancient Greek, Latin and classical civilization courses at Luther since 2011. For the past three summers he has served as the chief archaeologist for Black Sea Deep-Water Archaeological Surveys with the Institute for Exploration and the Ocean Exploration Trust. He received a bachelor's degree in classical civilizations from the University of Iowa, a master's degree in nautical archaeology from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in classics with distinction in classical archaeology from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact Davis or read more about his field work.

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  • March 24 2018 at 5:03 am
    HI!Great story.Thanks!!!!!!!

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