Friday, 11 July 2014

US Lobbyists Attacking Dead Men

The extensive use of ad hominem arguments by the lobbying commentators (Arthur Houghton III, John Howland, Wayne Sayles and Peter Tompa) associated with the so-called  Cultural Property Observer blog, attempting to drag each issue down to a personal level, is notorious. So it is with the issue of Sekhemka. I wrote a text pointing out that the statue in question was made as a sacred object and in the terms of the culture from which it came, was believed to actually contain the soul of the dead man. The CPO gang did not understand that at all. They thought it was a text about "the mummy's curse" (sic) and then  (not having anything at all sensible to write about the issue of collecting of items regarded as sacred by their original users), decided to go for the usual tactic of dragging an attempt to discuss a general issue down to the personal level (with the label 'hypocrisy'):
Archaeo- blogger Paul Barford has made what appears to be a heartfelt plea that tombs not to be disturbed to satisfy collectors (sic). But then, shouldn't the Mummy's curse also fall upon archaeologists who excavate tombs and steal grave goods from the deceased or even remove their remains?
[ironic script on]; Oh ho ho. That must be the first time the 'grave robber' argument has ever been used by metal detectorists and collectors against archaeologists. How original, how utterly novel! What cards these collectors are [ironic script /off]. Continuing in the same spirit:
CPO seems to recall reading [on a metal detectorists' libellous blog in fact] that Barford himself was involved many years ago in the excavation of the grave of a Polish Noblewoman (sic) If so, how's this really any different in the end as far as the deceased in concerned?  If graves should not be disturbed, that should be the case across the board.
How is this different? I suggest reading what I actually wrote before trying to understand it. Most of us find that understanding of an argument is somewhat hindered if you've not actually read it. Wayne Sayles cannot avoid adding his own interpretation, I think (at least that's what my tracking software says) without even looking at what I wrote:
The holier than thou Barfords of the world are quick to defile the grave of someone's mother, but holler and scream like wounded pigs when a broken pot shard (sic) is snatched from their control. A disgusting mindset if there ever was one.
Only doing my work Mr Sayles. The exhumation in question was carried out by a team from the US led by a retired state coroner and a forensic anthropologist. Apart from the Polish authorities (at the highest level) being involved, the Roman Catholic Church was represented in the project. I was sent as an inspector by the Office of the Chief Archaeologist (my job at the time) to monitor the archaeological work (done in fact by somebody else). No grave was "defiled", very little was even moved (just enough to confirm there was only one body in the vault - written sources were unclear over that) and only one small DNA sample was taken. No grave goods (sic) were stolen, any items removed were replaced in the position they had lain. After the vault was sealed, the American team paid for the renovation of the old nineteenth century grave marker, protecting the site from reuse in a very crowded rural cemetery. If the lady in question had children, we'd not have had to open her grave to obtain a DNA sample to help identify bones found in a grave in the USA - which is what the American team were in Poland for.

I do not know what religious beliefs Messrs Tompa and Sayles hold, nor is that relevant here, neither are my own. When we are talking of the treatment of sacred items or human remains with due respect, it is not primarily our own belief systems which are of importance, but also- and primarily - those of the community from which the items come and in the specific environment when any research involving such items or materials is carried out. These are far from simple matters, nor is there a one-measure-fits-all solution to all the issues. This does not mean that we can therefore ride rough-shod over them all. I used the example of Torah scrolls and Native American sacred objects - topics discussed in the literature of cultural heritage preservation - with which at least a minimal familiarity one might expect both lobbyists to have.

The Polish grave concerned was of a lady who had died in the Roman Catholic faith in the 1860s. Poland is still a predominantly Catholic country. Then, as now, the doctrine of the relationship between the corporeal and spiritual components has not changed, indeed it is firmly based in Scripture, so I imagine that whatever Church to which my US critics belong has similar doctrines. I doubt whether Tompa and Sayles have had any in-depth consultations and  discussions of any of this with Catholic priests. I have. According to Catholic doctrine and custom, there is considered to be no soul in the grave. The human remains are there, and Catholics believe that they will be resurrected in their physical form - but that is not conditional on their condition. Some graves are dug in acid soil and even the bones dissolve relatively quickly. In European churchyards, active since Medieval times, old graves are constantly cut into by new ones and the remains scattered as the space is needed for new internments. Remains are translated (like my father-in-law). Bodies were dug up by Church hierarchs as a source of relics, cremation is allowed by the Catholic Church.

The accusations of Cultural Property Observer are completely groundless in the case of this project. There are in any case standard procedures for dealing with the disturbance of human remains both in archaeology and criminal investigations. In my report, I had two reservations about the preparations of the US team, neither of which are the concerns of Mr Tompa or Mr Sayles, and neither of which had any material effect on the quality of the work done or the results obtained.

This is quite a different matter from the object I was discussing. The statue of Sekhemka was made as a house for the soul(s) of the dead man. It was to the statue ('shadow') containing the immortal soul that offerings were made by specially appointed priests and members of the family for its eternal sustenance. While the tomb was maintained, it would not have been accessible to outsiders. The statue was not made just to look nice, or as art to 'convey some message'. It was made as a sacred object which had a specific purpose. I would argue that this merits it being treated by modern collectors in a different way from the sherd of a broken beer jar to which Sayles alludes.

Nobody is "hollering and screaming like a wounded pig" here. A perfectly sensible point was made about an ancient Egyptian artefact and is (again) being dismissed without discussion by a collectors' lobby that (pretends) it does not understand. 

In the text which Tompa, Sayles and Howland address (but fail to discuss) I tried to suggest how the object under consideration would/might have been seen in the framework of the culture which created it, a notion which clearly escaped their notice, perhaps due to limited attention-spans (the original text being more than eight sentences long). And once again, in the length of this response, we see the time-wasting effects of their silly attempts to deflect attention from the core issues of the cultural property debate.

UPDATE 11.072014
Addressing collectors on issues like these seems at times to be rather like trying to have a conversation with my cat. The level of comprehension seems very similar. Once again, from his response to this, it seems one of the CPO gang has reading difficulties, both of the text he was originally critiquing, which it seems he has not revisited, as well as this new one. Anyone who read what I wrote would not take as the main line of argument that "the Church authorities apparently approved" of the US-led exhumation (the CPO gang seem in addition to have a McCarthyesque fixation about "Communists"). Peter Tompa still seems unable to see past his own preconceptions to "observe" that what I was writing about was not tomb-robbing rather than the handling of sacred objects by archaeologists and museums as well as collectors.  Oh well, collectors are alienating themselves from a discussion which is being increasingly, for reasons like this, conducted without their participation.

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