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The Ancients

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSeptember 19, 2011 4:59 PM


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I just got back from a holiday in Greece - hence the lack of posts these past two weeks. Normal service will now resume.


Greece, of course, is rich in history (if not money, at the moment) and the National Archaeological Museum is predictably impressive. One of the most striking artefacts I remember was a kind of miniature suit made out of pure gold leaf, complete with a little face mask with tiny eye holes. It was the death mask of an infant from Mycenae, buried about 3000 years ago and dug up in the 19th century.

That's fascinating of course. When you think about it, it's also tragic. This was someone's baby son or daughter. However, it's hard to feel sad over it. If that baby died in front of you, or even if it happened yesterday and you read about it on the news, it would be sad.

You'd even feel sad if it were an entirely fictional baby that "died" in a movie. But being so old, it's not sad, it's just interesting, which is why these things have ended up in museums.

Most of the best exhibits are grave goods, placed in tombs with the dead, in the belief that the deceased would be able to use them in the next world. One Mycenaean warrior was buried with his sword, the blade specially bent so as to "kill" it, and ensure that it would travel to the afterlife with him.

That's fascinating, and also rather weird. Killing a swordso its dead owner could use the ghost of it in heaven? Those crazy ancients!

When you think about it, that's a horrible thing to think. That guy was probably a war hero and that grave was the most solemn memorial his culture could erect to his memory. That was the Arlington, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, of his day. We could have let it rest in peace. But we put it in a museum.

My point here is not that we ought to stop doing archaeology because it's offending the memory of the dead. What's interesting is the fact that no-one would even consider that. We just don't care about the dead of 3000 years ago, except as historical data. Yet there'd be outrage if someone went into a churchyard and starting digging up the dead of 300 years ago. You wouldn't even stuck some chewing gum to a gravestone or use it as a seat.

So there are two categories of the dead. There's the alive dead, who are felt to be with us, in the sense that they have a right to respect. Then there are the dead dead, the ancients, who are of purely historical interest. The alive dead still have power - wars are fought over their memories, honour, property rights.

Eventually, though, even the dead die, and that's generally a good thing. The Hungarians, so far as I know, don't dislike the Mongolians because of the Mongol Invasion of 1237, although the Hungarians who died then would probably have wanted them to.

Fortunately for modern international relations, they're dead.

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