Poor Yoricks

An ancient cemetery in the Peruvian desert, bones left scattered and broken by looters. All photos mine.

An ancient cemetery in the Peruvian desert, bones left scattered and broken by looters. All photos mine.

The place where I excavated this summer was a scrap of desert in the middle of a farm in the middle of a desert. And in this bigger desert, all around the farm, there were loads of other archaeological sites. Many of these sites used to be cemeteries, and if you visit them today, you’ll find all kinds of human remains just lying under the sun, or sticking out of the sand–femurs, skulls, sacrums, vertebrae, and so on. This is because looters (huaqueros) have ravaged these sites in their search for precious artefacts to sell to private collectors, even museums, and left the human remains unearthed, scattered and broken, like loose pieces of a huge and grotesque jigsaw puzzle.

The parts that have been exposed the longest have been bleached white by solar rays, like the sorts of bones you see in cartoons, while the parts that have remained buried are the dirty yellow tint that medicine, veterinary and archaeology students are more familiar with. And because the climate is so dry there, a small but significant percentage of remains still retains skin, ligaments, muscles. Many of the skulls still display surprisingly thick manes of hair, often made ginger-ish by the sun. It was particularly disturbing to see a human torso, with nothing else attached to it, just lying there, shoulder blades and vertebrae protruding underneath paper-thin yellow skin.

Someone's foot, which was just sticking out of the sand a bit.

Someone’s foot, which was just sticking out of the sand a bit.

Well, disturbing. It was disturbing then–that was the second time I’d visited a site like that. The first time, when I was handed a foot with many of its ligaments still attached, I took a photo of my hand holding the foot, and immediately started devising clever or funny comments with which to caption the photo on the day I would publish it on facebook–something along the lines of it being the weirdest thing I’d ever held, probably.

But then I thought, shit, this is someone’s foot. Someone once had this foot attached to their ankle, the same sort of foot whose nails you’d varnish with bright colours today, whose toe you’d stub against furniture, or which you’d pick lint from in between the toes when you’re alone and nobody’s there to chastise you for it–the sort of foot  which way back then was probably used for long treks through the desert sands, or dancing in rituals (for example, in single file all along the Nazca lines), or running messages between distant kingdoms, and who knows how many amazingly trivial things. And I’m treating it like some curiosity, something funny and gross and weird, something with which to amuse friends at home. Is that ok?

Maybe it is. Maybe it’s even ok that the bones have been disinterred by looters and just left there, scattered and broken, to be gaped at by people like me. Maybe it’s ok that some people, as I have witnessed, challenge each other to lick or chew the skin and ligaments that are still attached to the bones, a weirdly “safe” version of cannibalism (“it’s just like beef jerky!”).

Maybe these skulls are making friends? Bonding over the devastation they were swept up in?

Maybe these skulls are making friends? Bonding over the devastation they were swept up in?

Why would any of this be ok? Because it must be amazingly boring to stay buried under loads and loads of sand for so long. There’s a quote by Spanish surrealist director Luis Buñuel: “Frankly, despite my horror of the press, I’d love to rise from the grave every ten years and buy a few newspapers”. It popped into my head when I saw that, in one of these looted cemetery sites, which was located on the slopes of a hill, one of the skulls had managed to roll to a position in which, had there still been eyes peeping out of its orbital cavities, it would have had a very nice view of trees and fields from a nearby farm. That must be a nice change, right? I mean, these people have had their rest–they’ve confined in narrow, dark places for centuries, sometimes millennia–surely they were going a bit stir-crazy, and it’s nice to be out?

Maybe it’s better to run around laughing, pointing at things and picking them up from the ground, saying that’s weird and that’s gross and that’s cool, than to walk slowly among the bones, with a grim expression, silently contemplating mortality and the passage of time–as I did (albeit with the song Rest in Peace, sung by a peroxide-blonde vampire named Spike in the musical episode of Buffy, stuck in my head). The former behaviour is possibly more entertaining to the dead, and perhaps it is even healthier for the visitor–thinking of death as something gross and cool and weird, rather than something that needs to be thought about, and accepted, grimly and silently. If that makes sense.

This coiled rug-like thing is what Peruvian desert mummies are usually placed on. Can't help thinking about an unmade bed someone was violently dragged out of.

This coiled rug-like thing is what Peruvian desert mummies are usually placed on. Can’t help thinking about an unmade bed someone was violently dragged out of.

But then, of course, the whole point of graves, and funerary structures generally, is that they’re meant to last. And someone, like me, who is a little bit scared at the thought of passing eternity in a tiny dark box (which is probably why I’ll go for a natural burial), no doubt in large part due to the fact that the idea that there is no afterlife is fairly common when and where I live (21st century Britain, in case you don’t know), will probably think about these things very differently from peasants and nobles who lived in the Peruvian desert centuries and millennia ago, and who had who knows what elaborate notions of life and death.

So what do we do then? I think re-burying the remains is the most obvious solution. A friend who’s excavated at a Medieval site in Bulgaria told me that, at the end of the excavation, they re-buried all the human remains they’d found, with proper Christian Orthodox rites. I’d imagine at least some modern-day Peruvians might want to re-bury the looted desert remains with Catholic rites, but to reconstruct ancient funerary rituals would probably be the best solution.

I think such a thing has been done before. In 1997, the Peruvian government passed a law protecting the ancient Nazca cemetery of Chauchilla, which had been ravaged by huaqueros, and someone somehow managed to recover a good portion of the artefacts that the latter had unearthed and smuggled away. Now the cemetery, though a tourist attraction, has been returned to something close to a place of rest–a lot of the skeletons are intact, positioned in the right way (mostly crouching in a foetal-like position, their backs to mudbrick walls dug below ground level, and facing the east), and accompanied by the usual funerary clothes and accessories–as you can see in this series of photos. However, I don’t know how all this was done–what the 1997 law says exactly, how the artefacts were recovered, how badly the cemetery was ravaged by the looters, how long it took to make it decent again, and so on. So I don’t know how comparable Chauchilla pre-makeover is to the cemeteries I’ve visited myself, though I’m sending an email to someone who might know, and might tell me more (in fact, if there’s anyone out there who does know more about this and is reading this post, it would be great if you could leave a comment below). My suspicion is that Chauchilla was not in as bad shape as the cemeteries I’ve seen, and that it is for this reason that it was chosen for a tidy-up.

In fact, now that I think about it, though it might be feasible to employ local artisans to craft textiles and objects that would have been similar to the sorts of things the looted-cemetery remains I’ve seen would have been buried with, and which could therefore be used to re-bury these remains, and though other sites might have left clues regarding how pre-Inka funerary rites worked (in terms, for example, of whether offerings were made, and what kind of offerings, and whether feasting and drinking occurred) I can imagine it being a nightmare to try to put together the bones in the right way. So perhaps, ultimately, the best thing to do would be simply to re-bury the remains, silently and respectfully, and somehow ensure that they’re not looted again.

Though I don't mention this in the main text, these looted cemeteries are littered with empty bottles--no doubt once filled with the alcohol the looters used to numb themselves against the horror of what they were doing (and of occasionally encountering eerily well-preserved bodies and faces).

Though I don’t mention this in the main text, these looted cemeteries are littered with empty bottles–no doubt once filled with the alcohol the looters used to numb themselves against the horror of what they were doing (and of occasionally encountering eerily well-preserved bodies and faces).

However, then there’s the problem of these remains being useful to archaeologists. They may be too scattered and generally messed up to tell us much about funerary customs and stuff like that, but, for example, we can still get a lot of interesting chemical information from bones–for example, regarding what people ate, or where they were from. So maybe we shouldn’t bury the bones, but move them to a lab–keep them in big cardboard storage boxes, for anyone to use for data.

Or maybe we could just bury them, and allow archaeologists to occasionally dig them up again for samples–in the same way that anthropologists interview their informants about their customs and beliefs. If I were a skeleton, I wouldn’t mind, and would welcome the visits–although then we go back to the whole issue of my opinions and notions being very different from those of ancient Peruvians (although–come on–there must have been some ancient Peruvians that were like me–they can’t all have thought and believed the same things–but then, how do we know which of the dead would be ok with occasional archaeological research being carried out on them, and which ones wouldn’t?).

Of course, there’s also the fact that the dead themselves probably don’t care that much, and those that care for them have died a very long time ago themselves, so no one, really, is suffering from the bones just lying around like that. But it still feels wrong that they are.

I think a thing that should be done is carry out a survey among all interested parties–archaeologists, both Peruvian and non, and native Peruvians–about what should be done. This might lead to a lot of interesting insights on heritage and the ethical treatment of human remains.

What do you think, readers?

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