Traces of Past Lives

One of the things I tend to say when people ask me why I think archaeology is important is that it creates a connection between the living and the long-dead. And when I was asked, a while ago, what it is that I dig when I go digging, I was quite proud of quickly thinking up this answer: “traces of past lives.”

In fact, though I’ve mostly written about ancient art on this blog, one of the most “yes! archaeology is amazing!” moments I’ve ever had occurred when I was excavating a crummy little Bronze Age house wall in Hungary. I hadn’t found anything nearly as spectacular as the stuff I’ve written here about or had marveled at in books–I hadn’t found anything it all, not even mouse remains, which is probably the most interesting thing you are likely to find in a Hungarian Bronze Age house wall. What happened was that I was simply hit by the realisation that the thing I had been digging up for the last few days was first built thousands and thousands of years ago, by someone who experienced the world in a similar way as I did, with their hands and their mind and their eyeballs. I felt a connection with that person–if I were religiously inclined, I would even go so far as to say that I momentarily felt like I was them, however many thousands of years ago it was that they built their wall.

The figurine I'm talking about. Check out club, shield, coyote headdress, and Quetzal feathers. Drawing mine--apologies for lack of scale, but the size of this thing is about 10 cm.

Aztec warrior figurine. Check out club, shield, coyote headdress, and Quetzal feathers. Drawing mine–apologies for lack of scale, but the size of this thing is about 10 cm.

Most recently, I’ve had a similar experience with an Aztec warrior figurine I had to write a report about. This clay figurine, currently kept in Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Teaching Collection, is the sort of thing that is quite commonly found amidst the remains of Aztec commoner houses. Except warrior figurines are rare, compared to figurines in the shape of bare-breasted women holding babies. This fact is interpreted by Brumfiel (1996) as a possible indication that Aztec commoners weren’t particularly taken in by the Aztec State’s heavy emphasis on war and warriors, and were more concerned with fertility, both human and agricultural. However, the fact that I was dealing with a warrior figurine made me think a bit. Warrior figurines are rare, sure, but they do exist: and if it’s true that commoners didn’t care much about war and warriors, then what were warrior figurines for? I thought, perhaps some people did care about warriors–and, the more I thought about it, the more difficult it became for me to erase this increasinly vivid image in my head, of an Aztec peasant, perhaps a woman, who bought a warrior figurine at the market, and left offerings for it on a small house-shrine, because her son, or her brother, or her father, was a warrior, and she wanted him to be successful in the field, or die with honour. Or, alternatively, a commoner who, unlike his neighbours, was completely and utterly persuaded that everything the State said was right, and showed this by dedicating a good part of his domestic rituals to figurines such as this one.

One of the original ideas I had for this blog was to dedicate it to little stories like this–maybe make it so that each post would be devoted to an artefact, and my attempt to reconstruct the life of one or more of the long-dead people who had had to do with that object in the past. Or, if not the life, at least a vague sense of who they were, in terms of personality, beliefs, daily routines, etc. I had recently read John Green’s beautiful The Fault in Our Stars, and this fit well with one of my favourite passages–the bit in which Hazel asks Augustus how many people he thinks have ever died in human history:

“I happen to know the answer to that question,” he said. “There are seven billion living people, and about ninety-eight billion dead people.”

“Oh.” I said. I’d thought that maybe since population growth had been so fast, there were more people alive than all the dead combined.

“There are about fourteen dead people for every living person,” he said.  […] “I did some research on this a couple of years ago,” Augustus continued. “I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”

“And are there?”

“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one ends up remembering the person he wrote Sonnet  Fifty-five about.”

Basically, I thought that, with each post, I would provide readers with a new dead person to remember that wasn’t Shakespeare or George Washington or Cleopatra or any other Big Game that every one else remembers already. The name of the blog was going to be Traces of Lives Past, or Traces of Past Lives, though I was briefly very tempted by The Dead.

Of course, I’ve ended up writing a very different type of blog, but humanising the remote past has remained one of my main goals: among other things, I’ve tried to figure out how people could find Chavin religious art comforting, looked for humour in Moche pottery, and used a weird bit of African rock art as an example of how great big processes like the emergence of agriculture are actually made up of tiny individual decisions, most of which probably failed or otherwise had litte effect on the great big process itself.

Is this important? To humanise the remote past, to look for connections with the long-dead? I think it is, though I’m not entirely sure why–after all, these people have been dead for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and if I had a chance to meet them in the flesh, there would probably be a lot of awkwardness to endure. Perhaps this is just mawkish sentimentality. Perhaps I look for these things because I’m hoping that, hundreds, maybe thousands of years from now someone will do the same with the stuff that I will leave behind. But my gut-feeling is that to try to connect with the long-dead is important in and of itself, and that looking for reasons to do it is besides the point–perhaps like music, or poetry, it just is important.

Has anyone else ever felt this? Not necessarily while working on a dig, but also simply visiting a museum? Maybe a particular object that gave you an immediate sense of connection with the people who had used it or made it a long time ago? I would be very happy to hear about readers’ experiences, and continue thinking through these things in the comments section below, or however else readers want to contact me.


Brumfiel, E. 1996.  Figurines and the Aztec State: testing the effectiveness of ideological domination. In Wright, R. (ed) Gender and Archaeology pp. 143-166. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

  1. Tuukka said:

    Coming up: a rambly reply.

    My initial reaction is to discretely roll my eyes whenever someone says they are experiencing a connection to the past. I’m rather cynical about such claims, which I think are simply attempts to force meaning onto silent objects. But perhaps that’s only because, frankly, I haven’t experienced such a connection for a long while, or maybe I’ve experienced it more reservedly, with more skepticism, than I used to.

    Is such an empathetic connection a bad thing then? Reminds me of the anthropomorphism debate in primatology that Frans de Waal discusses in the ‘Ape and the Sushi Master’. Maybe, as in primatology, empathy with the object of study is beneficial rather than detrimental to our understanding. Not necessarily to understanding the past or the monkey, but ourselves.

    Finally, I suppose that studying archaeology makes me think about the stuff differently. My interests are probably rather different from those of non-archaeologists. I find archaeology fascinating not so much because of mystery and grandeur. Rather, it’s the tiny, unexpected and marginal things that keep me hooked. For me it’s less about experiencing a connection and more about experiencing difference, I suppose. Then again, it’s these little similarities between me and others, past or present, that bring about that old friend effect. You’ve never met them before but you are delighted to feel some sort of—yes—connection. This sentiment is just inevitably seasoned with a pinch of salt.

    Anyway, great post. After all, it’s the personal commitment that keeps people doing archaeology, even though it’s rarely and insufficiently addressed in the lecture halls. We may want to talk about relevance and social theory, but in the end we are doing this because we enjoy it. And that enjoyment stems from the sense of interacting with people who really can’t actively do that anymore.

  2. I don’t really have much to say–just that you seem to have changed your mind halfway through your comment, and ended up sort of agreeing with me, and expressing things I wasn’t sure how to express!

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