A Body of Stories

I’m taking an archaeology class through Coursera and we’ve been asked to think about the ethical questions around excavating human remains. Do archaeologists have the right to uncover, study, archive, those remains? Are they preserving history for the future or breaking cultural taboos? And at what age does it become okay? For example, could I study someone who died ten thousand years ago? Five hundred? Twenty?

Someone once said a person is not truly ‘gone’ as long as there is someone to remember them. So is that the line we draw in the archaeological sense? If memory exists, remains shouldn’t be disinterred and studied? That question now moves the debate into the realm of stories, which of course, fascinates me.

I was lucky enough to know my great-uncle, who was in his late nineties when I was small. Quite the character, by the way. He told me stories about his grandfather and great-grandfather. Obviously I never knew those people. I have no emotional attachment to them. And yet I do have their stories, which keeps those long gone people alive in my mind. Gone, but not forgotten.

Does that mean I have a concern in whether their graves should be disturbed? Honestly, I’d hate to see disturbance because Cherry Creek, where they are buried, is very old. On the top of a butte, overlooking hills and fields of wheat all the way to the horizon. Other than that, I have no strong prohibition to disturbing remains in order to learn.

Back to stories. Does the excavation of an ancient burial site kill the stories? No; it may even add to them. And to me, the tale of a person’s life is far more valuable than an unrecognizable mummy, or a scatter of bones. But then, I’m a storyteller.

Disturbing the dead when it’s a cultural taboo, or when it causes distress is another matter. Those things have to be honored.

But I’d rather have stories left, to be shared, to be laughed over, then bones or ashes. Those may tell a future excavator where I lived, what I ate, how good my dentist was. But no amount of tests will tell those future excavators I yelled at a cougar. That will remain in the hands of a storyteller, most likely my son.

So I had this great-uncle named Stonewall Jackson (first and middle name). Jack was stone deaf. When my grandmother introduced Frank, the infant who would become my father, he said, “Friday? What the hell kind of name is Friday?”

And Friday he became. And all my other uncles and aunts ended up with lifelong nicknames, all because uncle Jack was deaf. That story isn’t in his grave. It’s in memories.

The photo below doesn’t show depth perception well. Cherry Creek is the top of a very steep, high hill.

Cherry Creek in winter

Cherry Creek in winter

5 thoughts on “A Body of Stories

  1. Good questions, Lisa. I think we have much to learn from the bones of our ancestors, but I think the cultural mores — if that individual’s people still exist — must be respected. Customs vary dramatically, so I think it’s not only important to consider the archaeological value, but to understand the anthropological value, too.


    • Very true. And that comes up a lot in this archaeological class I’m taking. As both you and Beth said, the cultural mores have to be respected. Still fascinated by the stories though, of course!


  2. too many fancy words for me… I guess I would say for myself that we shouldnt touch any grave for at least 100 years, the lifetime of a person… kind of. Also I personally value something like a sacred burial ground higher than archeology. There is much more there they can dig for, they can leave a sacred place alone. and usually if it is a sacred ground there are stories who keep the history alive so we wouldnt need the scientists to tell us about those buried there since the stories would that just that!
    Love the story of your great uncle!! 🙂


  3. As long as there are people of the culture in question it is my opinion that their sacred places should be respected whether or not the direct descendants are still alive. This includes not flooding their lands, not disturbing the burial sites and not disturbing the grave sites. This is based on the classes I took when attaining my BA in Anthropology. My personal feelings are that examining forgotten or unused sites where no religious, spiritual or cultural taboos are negatively affected should be all right.


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