Playing the endgame

The Buried Soul
November 1, 2002

Nigel Barley asks if digging up the lurid helps us get a grip on death.

There are some subjects that never go away, and death is one of them. It is supposed to be the last taboo, but like all taboos, people just cannot stop talking about it, writing about it and showing it on television. It is such a disparate phenomenon, so real and yet so hard to grasp that it seems to demand an overview, a schema, an explanation, a history. The Buried Soul is old in that it represents a standard archaeological raid of rape and pillage into what is normally anthropological territory, and new in that it seeks to apply its loot to some of prehistorical archaeology's current greatest hits, reinterpreting them in ways calculated to annoy the archaeological establishment. Timothy Taylor is the man who brought us The Prehistory of Sex , so may be assumed to have an eye to the luridly marketable rather than the merely provable: rape, child abuse, human sacrifice and cannibalism here stalk the pages of "our" past with an everyday familiarity that will surprise some. The Neolithic period, taught to students as a time of explosive creativity and flower-power values, "evokes Rwanda more than Arcadia".

Quite who is the "us" of "our" past remains slightly obscure. Taylor seems to assume a pan-human history of cultural evolution with current tribal peoples as living fossils that can be used to read European prehistory, a congruence between individual emotion and collective response and an unproblematic universality of ideas such as "the soul" that reduce different cultures to a simple pidgin whose interpretation is unproblematic.

Other assumptions dog the book. "Tribal peoples" are held to be universally mystical, where the souls of the dead are unquestionably a source of fear and terror; and death itself is not a matter for cultural specialists but encountered full-frontally by all. None of these assumptions is true in any simple sense.

One of the bedrocks of the whole interpretative schema of death offered here is the classic anthropological treatment of the subject by Robert Hertz, whose Death and the Right Hand offered an early structuralist account of the parting of the dead from the living in terms of three stages: separation, liminality and incorporation into the world of the ancestors, all phrased in terms of a supposedly general notion of "soul". Few anthropologists nowadays would accept such a single evolutionary scheme as universally valid or as unquestioningly as Taylor does. They would rather suggest that it ain't necessarily so and that the idea of the soul, as in the classic literature on Bornean headhunting, is the most dispensable of all elements.

It is one of Taylor's claims that the politically incorrect ritual activities of the past have been as underplayed in archaeology as they have been in contemporary anthropology. Up to a point this cannot be denied. William Arens's book The Man-Eating Myth certainly went too far in its refusal to accept the factuality of cannibalism or to see it as more than a cultural smear invented by outsiders; but it would surely be wrong to view Arens's book as the accepted voice of anthropology. It was, after all, roundly criticised and squarely rejected. And since then, new orthodoxies have led to a broad range of new suppressions - ask any feminist. But the assertion is enough and allows the author to deploy a host of cultural practices to horrify the faint-hearted. For Taylor, Neolithic cannibalism is seen as possibly implicated in brain development and nutritional demands and not therefore requiring of any explanation. For him, it is the invention of the notion of the soul that marks a cultural turning point that offers new options for disposal of the dead.

The Buried Soul takes the form of a sleuthing odyssey through various deaths, a 10th-century account of a Viking chieftain's funeral on the Volga, the 34,000-year-old Combe Capelle skeleton, Oetzi the Iceman, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the elaborately slain bog people and Kennewick man, with contemporary asides on Adam (the African child whose mutilated trunk was found in the Thames), the mummification of Lenin and the moors murders by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. For the most part, these episodes are fascinating and informative and Taylor finds a colourful and prominent place within the archaeological record for the subjects so dear to the anthropologist's heart as marks of the Other - cannibalism, vampirism, witchcraft, sexual deviance, rape and murder most horrid. He traces these forms of deviance and violence in relation to evolving modes of treating the dead that play on the themes of incorporation, exclusion, grandiloquent self-promotion and state terror, yet all drawing on the same basic idea of the power of the soul. So the souls of the aberrant dead may have to be cast permanently into distant limbo while the powerful and auspicious Communist dictator Lenin is deliberately kept "unquiet", for political motives, at the heart of the Kremlin.

But Taylor's own testimony often curiously undermines the importance and plausibility of his conclusions. "In the last 10,000 years alone, it is estimated that at least 100 billion human beings have died and far fewer than 0.01 per cent are accounted for." In that case, what are any generalisations about death in the distant past likely to be worth? Moreover, we have the author's "interpretative dilemma": "In order to interpret something, I must have decided that there is something to interpret. Inevitably by focusing on that something, I will have already formed some idea of what it is." It has to be said that, in these individual case studies, that pre-formed idea is often completely arbitrary so that the argument, based on evidence that is slim enough, is frequently forced and implausible and the conclusions wild and unjustified. The tragedy of archaeology is that past ideas are not directly accessible in the record and must come from the archaeologist - so that archaeology seems doomed to an inevitable circularity.

Many of Taylor's case-study discussions are long and involved but let us take the single example of the 10th-century Arabic account of the burial and cremation of a Viking chieftain given by the Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan. Taylor centres his elaborate discussion of the complicated ritual, extending over several chapters, on the fact that the chieftain's peers have sex with his favourite concubine on his funeral pyre. An odd choice of focus. He concludes that the only convincing explanation of this act is the intention to make the spirit of the deceased angry so that it will re-enter his body for convenient despatch to the next world. Moreover, it seems, this is not really a funeral at all. It is an act of communal scapegoating in which the whole community refreshes itself through the suffering and death of the girl. Despite Taylor's enormously detailed exegesis, there is not a scrap of evidence for this or any of the supporting beliefs assumed to underlie it. To deal with contradictions in the evidence, he even has to assume that informants are deliberately lying to Fadlan. Taylor would perhaps do well to take his own advice, that "we cannot choose just those bits of Ibn Fadlan's account that make sense and ignore what is difficult".

Furthermore, he is keen to depict this funeral as sensationally as possible - as the horrifying, violent, serial rape of a protesting and betrayed minor involving adult male gratification - and wishes most particularly to strip it of any morally insulating power derived from the term ritual. On this reading, the fellatio performed by boys on men in certain New Guinean initiations would be nothing but blatant child abuse and the stated intentions involving growth and strengthening masculinity would be simply irrelevant. Indeed, in a later section, Taylor explicitly confronts contemporary satanic ritual abuse of children and witheringly rejects both total scepticism about its existence and any mitigation arising from the ritual nature of the alleged events. After all, he notes with a touching faith in our anthropological founding fathers, Durkheim said that rituals form beliefs, not the other way round. While this is a perfectly arguable stance, it cannot be seriously claimed that moral outrage is the high road to empathetic understanding of events in other times and places. Here, the suggestion that there might be any retreat to relativistic moral values is anyway cut off by choosing a case within our own cultural context where we would feel quite literally qualified to sit on a jury and pass judgement. Once you have decided to call it "ritual abuse", you have already made a moral decision. The problems of cross-cultural moral evaluation cannot be so easily dismissed.

But the book is to be praised for its refreshing tendency, nostalgically Radcliffe-Brownian, to stand the world on its head. Thus: "The popularity of the standard burial and cremation ceremonies that first clearly emerged in the Neolithic period, conducted as if there was a world of ancestors, may have lasted for so long because they provided a communal rite from which people could be excluded" - rather than included, as is conventionally assumed. Perhaps here lies the value of the book. Despite being often irritatingly sensationalist, blandly unaware of the sheer injustice of sweeping generalisation or simply downright wrong, it may prove a useful wooden spoon, not only to beat the straw-man version of anthropology Taylor sets up, but also the archaeological orthodoxies that he takes in his sights. For all my criticisms, it deserves to be read.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper of ethnography, British Museum.

The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death

Author - Timothy Taylor
ISBN - 1 85702 696 9
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £20.00
Pages - 353

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