the past in pop culture

Category: Archaeology

Man-Eating Colonists

Archeological digs at Jamestowne Historic Nati...

Archeological digs at Jamestowne Historic National Park (Photo credit: sarahstierch)

Archaeologists have had a big year. First it was Richard III turning up under a parking lot. Now it’s the settlers at Jamestown eating one of their own. A team from the Smithsonian rolled out the news that in their recent excavation of a garbage dump at the site of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, they found skeletal remains of a girl who showed signs of having been butchered. In 1609-1610, English colonists faced a long hard winter in the the tiny outpost on the edge of the North American continent and they got a little hungry. In fact, most of them starved to death, died of disease, or were killed by the Powhatan Indians who besieged the fort the colonists had barricaded themselves inside.

The Jamestown archaeologists seem to have taken a tip from their confreres at the University of Leicester who found Richard III: they also came up with a facial reconstruction of the poor girl (dubbed “Jane”) whose life in the New World came to such a bad end. While she looks a little dour in the picture, she’s been outfitted with a fetching kerchief. Some observers have been catty enough to suggest that such forensic reconstructions are just attention seeking behavior given that they serve no real research purpose. Certainly, the team’s recounting of the cut marks on the bones at the press conference had the breathlessness of breaking news reported by a rookie anchor. This was a little odd given that the events in question took place more than four hundred years ago. But let’s have some compassion. It’s not easy making a professional practice that requires mind-boggling feats of patience and endless hours of wielding very tiny toothbrushes news worthy.

Not since a college student flashed the message “love you” on her eyelids at Indiana Jones has the profession seemed cool. Indy didn’t spend much of his time sifting detritus through ever finer mesh screens. One character in Raiders of the Lost Ark described Jones as a, “Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.” If his methods were a bit unorthodox, they sure were cinematic. Who knew that that a bull whip could come in so handy out on a dig? At least the Jamestown crew didn’t have to wade through a pit of venomous asps. Hollywood is good at making even the most tedious kinds of research seem exciting. Why wait hours for documents to be delivered to your desk when you can just break into the Library of Congress á la National Treasure? And wouldn’t you be more motivated to find what you’re looking for in the Vatican’s archives if the air were being sucked out of the room (Da Vinci Code)?

So let’s forgive the archaeologists for going all Cold Case on us when they finally found the material evidence to back up what textual evidence has suggested for a while. It’s not news that the colonists resorted to the last resort. Survivors of the starving time in Jamestown wrote accounts of what had happened there. Historians accept those accounts as valid and also as ironic reversals: the European newcomers to the Americas almost always accused the natives of being cannibals. The reversal these days is that the Jamestown news has been greeted with a shrug. Ho hum—more survival cannibalism. The London Guardian included a helpful poll with its story asking readers whether they’d eat human flesh in similarly extreme circumstances. Over two thirds answered yes and added some jolly puns in the comments about Jack Lemmon and Francis Bacon.

We might take this as an acceptance of the desperate measures taken by desperate people. Less charitably, it looks like the cynicism of the over entertained and over fed engaged in a thought experiment along the lines of: what if the moon were made of cheese? In short, we whistle past the graveyard and hope never to find ourselves in such straits. Yet of course, some people do. The young men who survived a plane crash in the Andes in 1972 in part by consuming the flesh of their friends have spent the rest of their lives telling the tale and meditating on its meaning. While the famous account of this in the book (and later movie) Alive emphasized the drama, the more recent documentary Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains deepens the story by asking the survivors to reflect not only on what they did but on what this did to them. These now old men tell the story honestly, but never lightly. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Rest in peace, Jane of Jamestown.

Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?

Richard III Royal Collection

Richard III Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard III’s bones were found under a car park, Henri IV’s head was kept in a jar, Louis XVI’s blood was soaked into a decorative gourd. All of these remains were recently proved real by DNA testing and publicized with splashy press releases. Each had met a violent end: Richard hit over the head on Bosworth Field by a pretender to the throne, Henri stabbed to death by a religious fanatic, Louis guillotined by revolutionaries. None of those stories were ever in doubt yet the positive identification of these relics has made international news. One wonders why. Ghoulish fascination? Henri’s head was, after all, mummified. Perhaps it’s related to the rise of the royals as pop culture icons. Even more than her wedding, Lady Di’s funeral brought the world to a standstill. It might be all those forensic science shows. What’s been called the “CSI effect”—or our television induced belief that we know our way around a crime scene—has proved strong enough that it’s changing not only the behavior of jurors (who now expect evidence to be DNA tested) but also that of criminals (who have learned how to destroy crime scene DNA traces). A mixed blessing to say the least.

Our relationship with DNA testing is fraught. The CSI effect has also tended to make people believe in the infallibility of the process when, in reality, genetic matches are based on probabilities and not certainties. Belief, in other words, hinges on faith even now. Reliquaries always relied on magical thinking for their power. The image on the Shroud of Turin can be proved a fake over and over and yet its power persists: the image is miraculous. With bodily relics, the science and the magic come together. Royalty, after all, can only be maintained by a belief in bloodlines. In a world where royals exist outside of real political power, we can trade skepticism for escapism with little harm.

Yet if forensic science can ratify the fame of the named, it can do the same for the nameless. While the power of DNA evidence in popular culture feeds our fairytale fantasies, it also fuels our desire for justice. It goes far beyond the wrongly convicted who are freed by the analysis of a decades old crime scene sample or the coldest of cold cases that finally comes to a conclusion. Ordinary people have bloodlines, too. has made a fortune off of this insight and its ingenious infomercial series, Who Do You Think You Are?, managed to sprinkle star dust on genealogical research. Ancestry, of course, is record and not DNA-driven, but when African Americans Blair Underwood and Emmitt Smith guest starred on the show their ancestral searches took inevitable turns toward genetic science. For some people, the paper trails stop cold. After the Middle Passage, the enslaved lost their connections to their homelands and only the rise of DNA databases has been able to bridge that gap. Smith located part of his ancestry in Benin, while Underwood got to meet a (very) distant cousin in Cameroon who seemed a little confused by the premise of the show but threw a party anyway.

These DNA matches aren’t perfect. But they’re also close enough to the truth that no one can deny what they reveal. Witness the recent announcements about Michelle Obama’s mixed race ancestry and the discomfort it has caused for what it says about the American past. DNA-based revelations about Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings certainly helped lead to the recent statement by a well-known scholar that Jefferson was “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Skeletons just don’t stay in the closet anymore. Even now archaeologists are exhuming the bodies of the mistreated and forgotten at a Florida reform school. In Pennsylvania, at a site called Duffy’s Cut, a team of dedicated historians, students, and scientists have dug up the remains of Irish railroad workers believed to have died of cholera in 1832 and revealed that they were murder victims. One was identified as John Ruddy in part by an abnormality in his teeth that matched that of living descendants. They hope to repatriate the body to Ireland. If so, Ruddy will be like Richard. Both king and commoner can rest in peace at last.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I

Richard III, Act 5, scene 3: Richard, played b...

Richard III, Act 5, scene 3: Richard, played by David Garrick, awakens after a nightmare visit by the ghosts of his victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard III, it turns out, may have been not only a halfway decent guy, but probably hot to boot. That’s quite a turnabout for a man formerly known as a villainous child murderer whose twisted back mirrored his twisted soul. This particular reversal of fortune took more than five hundred years but it has set the twitter sphere a flutter. Since archaeological discoveries don’t usually make front page news, the University of Leicester clearly has learned the art of the reveal. The press conference managed to be interesting enough that several academics felt the need to weigh in and point out that none of this really changed history. Be that as it may, it sure was fun to see the mock-up of his head. Archaeologists have turned up stories more gruesome and bizarre than this one but even the mass grave of headless Vikings and the murder victims of the bog people lack that certain je ne sais quoi. Richard III’s got it. He’s played a cunning game—his biggest fangirl insists that Richard wanted to be found. Just in time, too: his genetic descendants apparently don’t have children and a few years hence their DNA wouldn’t have been around to identify him. That’s the thing. Those dead Vikings? The bog people? They didn’t have names. The gossip columnists didn’t pick up the poison pens for their stories. Lawrence Olivier, David Carradine, and Ian McKellen never played them. Were Richard around now, the Murdochs would have hacked his phone. The paparazzi would have tailed him through the Chunnel. He isn’t just a dead guy found in a ditch. He’s a dead guy with a fan club. Shakespeare might have done him wrong, but he knew Richard’s story had legs:

Death makes no conquest of this conqueror;
For now he lives in fame, though not in life.

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