Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who mourns for Lindow man?

I'd gone to the British Museum early to get a look at the prehistoric section before the general public thronged the place. I filled my notebook with all kinds of observations about objects as temporal archives and the placement of the dead. I was hunched over Lindow Man when the family arrived. "Cool!" declared Kid #1 of the preserved corpse -- fragmented by a peat harvesting machine, but otherwise uncannily lifelike for a 2000 year old, a gift to the distant future of an anaerobic environment that has lingered from the distant past.

Kid #2, however, gazed into the darkened case that houses his remains and her eyes grew large. "Is he going to be OK?" she whispered.

"No," replied her brother confidently. "He's dead."

"I don't want him to be dead!" she said. "I want him to be OK."

"We all die. He's dead. He isn't going to get any better."

The news wounded her. "I want Lindow Man to be OK! I don't want him to be dead!" These last repetitions were accompanied by profuse tears. Lindow Man's corpse was too much for a three year old to accept. In life this person had been savagely beaten. He'd been given mistletoe to drink. His throat had been slit. The British Museum website reads like a True Crime! report:
The man met a horrific death. He was struck on the top of his head twice with a heavy object, perhaps a narrow bladed axe. He also received a vicious blow in the back – perhaps from someone’s knee – which broke one of his ribs. He had a thin cord tied around his neck which was used to strangle him and break his neck. By now he was probably dead, but then his throat was cut. Finally, he was placed face down in a pond in the bog.
Now Lindow Man is encased in glass, the resident of a museum display where hundreds look at his head, torso and arm every day, remarking upon how uncannily alive he looks but not feeling all that much for him. (I was told that he is the third most popular item in the BM, after the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles).

Looking into the case, holding Kid #2's hand and running my hand through her hair, I suddenly wondered if anyone had ever grieved Lindow Man's passing. I wondered if my daughter, with her mind that cannot yet comprehend mortality but is beginning to see that all human lives end, I wondered if she was the first to mourn for Lindow Man.

(for an earlier post on Lindow Man, go here. Eileen's post on Time Forks got me thinking about this)

EDIT July 12
Here are some of the questions I've been contemplating as part of my research on this trip, questions that brought me to Lindow Man in the first place: Can the ancient past send legible messages to an uncertain future? Or is the future the people of history imagine simply a projection of their own present into eternity? Can an architecture or artifact really endure beyond such an inhuman temporal horizon, or are they destined to crumble, disaggregate, become mute? (Most dolmens and megalithic architectures -- the things we think will really endure -- tend to be reconstructions). Can the past communicate to us in a language of its own? In a transhistorical language? Or can the past be heard only in the auditor's language, an impoverished kind of listening? (Is Stonehenge Theirs, Ours, or Everyone's?) How do we treat ancient messages? As quarries for some quotidian uses? As sites in which to enact similar but related rites -- as in "numinous" areas that keep alive their sacrality in the movement from pagan to Christian? As museum exhibits? What is sacred about the past, or is reverence an impediment? At what point does a body interred in a grave (or thrown in a peat bog) become suitable for excavation and display? Under what conditions can a body be an object, and when is it a person? When is it sacred? When does it cease being human? Is a body buried with artifacts a message to the future, a letter to an uncertain receiver, a time capsule -- or instead a missive to lost gods and never to be opened by human hands? What happens to objects and people when they have become temporally enfolded? Can the older stories survive? How ought they to be commemorated, if at all?

15 comments:

Dr. Virago said...

Oh dear, my heart goes out to Kid #2 -- and to Lindow Man! Seriously, he always makes me a little sad, as do the mummies. It seems so wrong to be gawked at in death. I want Lindow Man to be OK, too -- in the sense of having a quiet resting place, perhaps back in the bog.

J J Cohen said...

Thanks for weighing in, Dr V. The mummies as they are now arranged are especially disturbing: a corpse in a wooden box to illustrate decay next to a naturally preserved body to illustrate the powers of an arid environment.

But as to the display of corpses, what I'm wondering is what allows some bodies to displayed as interesting objects while others remain sacred and out of view? How many years must pass before a feeling of sacredness and/or a sense of humanity no longer attaches to the body? What does it mean when that feeling returns? (Lindow Man's current display case is supposed to mimic a hushed grave, with dark lighting and an awkward corner placement that declares "Don't gawk.")

dan remein said...

I am really glad for these observations. They allow me to think about a point at which the history as a work of "accounting" which I perhaps suggested was not the most favorable course in my comments to Eileen's last post (about the Rifts and Forks) , actually becomes very important to me.

In pittsburgh last year, Carnegie Museums, there was an exhibit roaming around the states called "The Bog People". these are bodies if I remember correctly, from the lowlands.

They are really sensationally marketed as a way to get kids interested in various aspects of science, etc. But I found the exhibit sad. It felt full of heaviness, of formerly breathing bodies that were, as it looks, in pain and are now unknown and perhaps have gone unmounred.

If the effect of passing silently by a little glass case with a creepy stylized "Bog People" logo, just an empty almost-breath of an impossible grief--if this sort of thing counts as counting the dead, if possible, by name, then I am all for it.

And, of these corpses, what do we say or think of them? what did they _want_? At Kzoo Caroly Dinshaw spoke of what to call Hope Allen (crudley said, call her a lesbian or not) in terms of what is best for _her_ future--as that sort of ghost in the archive that calls to us from the future--somehow. But how can we even begin to say things about what is "best" here? What can we "read" in order to pay attention to such a hauntology? This is a question pertinent to the Middle Ages so much--in terms of texts like Julian of Norwich or MArgery, but also all of that anonymity and below-the radar enigmas of "intention": Beowulf, Maldon, Guthlac... etc.

Moreover, another problematic of the middle-ages thrown into relief here: in thinking about the mourning of these...well that's just it. What do we call them? These thresholds and futures of the human we think about so much in these discussions seem really focused intensely in to the problem of mourning Lindow Man.

to add to jj cohen's questions
what makes a body sacred beyond time? the low lighting convinces some and not others. the fact that is is part of a "collection" seems partially justified by the fact of its being 'found" and its "mystery" as well as the apparent possibility that these mummies are bodies that belonged to outcasts or ritualistic victims: something which is, for us, uncounsciously like looking at the body of a someone who "may have been" a criminal?

J J Cohen said...

Great points, Dan, and thanks for reminding of the provocative questions CD posed at K'zoo, which are so relevant to this topic.

I'm not sure that Lindow Man's status as a ritual victim changes all that much re: acceptability of display. In the Museum of London, for example, a prize exhibit is the reconstructed gravesite of Spitalfields Woman, a 1st C British burial with evident Roman influences. Her bones are on view along with the objects interred with her. The whole presentation is almost a piece of art: well lit, beautifully backgrounded ... very aesthetically pleasing for what was at initial discovery not so pretty.

Karl Steel said...

I'm not sure that Lindow Man's status as a ritual victim

How do we know LM was a ritual victim (or, keeping in line with JJC's postscriptum, offering?). Is it the mistletoe and the postmortem slitting of his throat? But, for a number of reasons, I wonder about the verb "place" ("placed face down"): can we just as well say "left" or "thrown" or something else, even if just to get a sense of how it changes our pictures of LM's pasts and futures, or, at least, how the agency of the event changes?

Part of me wonders whether or not the LM is necessarily mournable in himself. Yes, he continues to possess at least an appearance of individuality, a face of his own, rather than only the general features of a skull. We don't need the expertise of a forensic scientist to imagine that something's trying to speak to us. But there's still a way in which he slides into representing death in general, or a culture in general, or even a kind of species ("Lindow Man" as analog of "Java Man"), rather than himself. The problem here is simply the problem of the relationship between individual and the species, the relationship between ethics and the law, or what have you.

But the problem is also this: I wonder if we don't know that the LM was some kind of nasty creep. Bear with me. What if he was the Iron Age's equivalent of Idi Amin? Or, given that "He had probably done very little hard, manual work, because his finger nails were well manicured," what if he was the Iron Age's version of Dick Cheney? I'm not suggesting, at least not directly, than some people deserve to be beaten and killed; but were the LM a very bad person, and were his killers the Iron Age's equivalent of Alexander Berkman, well, my sadness would certainly be recontoured.

Just the same, what he was the IA's version of, well, me, a scholar?

With all this in mind, I'm finally find Jeffrey's postscriptum apter than any melancholic reaction to LM, e.g., "What is sacred about the past, or is reverence an impediment?"

I wonder if we can connect this to the discussions of necrobestiality, since so much of that hinged on when a carcass ceased being an animal and became mere meat. We can certainly wonder about the way that erotics (or desire more generally) preserves that meat as animal....

srj said...

The church of St Peter, Barton on Humber, Lincolnshire has this summer been re-opened to the public as a museum by English Heritage. It is one of the most important pre-Conquest churches in England (the one at which pre-conquest architecture was first discovered).

Over the past 30 years excavations have recovered and examined (and recently restored to an ossuary in the church) thousands of skeletons from two millenia to the 19th century. It has become one of the most important sites in the cannon for palaeopathology.

Inside the church the exhibits include work done with and by the present local community (adults and children) on death and the future disposal of their bodies. Most, having got involved in the research on the church, decided that they would want their mortal remains to be available to archaeologists as objects for study.

You should really visit. B-o-H is a small and not especially wealthy community - but of immense, continuous living history. Find the Humber Bridge - and Barton is at its south end. It is off the familiar tourist route (unlike Stonehenge) - but it needs tourists to survive and thrive.

Dr. Virago said...

Lindow Man's current display case is supposed to mimic a hushed grave, with dark lighting and an awkward corner placement that declares "Don't gawk."

Huh. I just thought that was to protect it from light damage (even as all the bloody tourists take flash photography - something that always amazes me at the BM).

Anyway, I was thinking of you. JJC, and this post and others today as I made it through about half of the Museum of London after the archive I worked in closed (at 3:30!). I was fascinated by all the Roman sculptures and especially grave monuments that were re-used in the Middle Ages as part of the city wall, and then later turned up again, probably at some dismantling of the wall by fire, "development," or the blitz. And then here they are in the museum in the Roman section. But why not in the medieval section? Or a section on Victorian amateur archeology and museum collections? Talk about objects existing in multiple temporal planes! (And Karl, I think you were talking about that, too, so forgive me if I'm attributing that to the wrong person.)

So back to Lindow Man. Yeah, I've probably got a sentimental melancholy when it comes to these dead bodies on display, and I only just now realized that bones don't bother me as much. As Karl suggests, that may have something to do with the 'meat' still on the bones. And no, I probably don't mourn LM himself, per se, but his 'expression,' such as it is, reminds of me of real death, of real dead people I have seen, and having been rather sheltered from death most of my life, perhaps that shock of Lindow Man is a necessary confrontation. But it's also a confrontation with those I *do* most definitely mourn.

And I'm not sure it's solely the years that have passed that allow a body to be displayed. If a body is non-Christian and/or non-Western, that helps, too.

srj said...

cannon ... oh my ... that whole comment really is typo heaven. I blame it on four days solid at Leeds.

J J Cohen said...

Karl: you are right, it is in part the face clinging to the bones that makes Lindow Man mournable. It is also our projection of a certain personality back in time ... as well as our willingness to have pity upon (even empathize with) what appears to have been a victim. Even if he was a Dick Cheney of the 1st C AD, the potential mistake of empathy and identification -- given the traces we have of his story -- seems a good risk. To use my three year old a test case, we went back to Lindow Man yesterday so that we could say good bye and she would "not cry" (her words). He certainly moves her more than the bones do -- the bones fascinate her rather than frighten and sadden as much.

SRJ: thanks for the recommendation, but we board a plane this evening. Too late!

Dr V: Thanks. I was reading a bit about how ambivalent the museum felt about catering to people's desire to gawk at the body; hence the pseudo-grave. Did you notice the Museum of London solution to the same ambivalence: arrange bodies much closer to the floor than objects, thereby mimicking gravesites? (while making them far more beautiful, like pots and shards under bright light).

J J Cohen said...

One last thing, then I'm gone: Karl, I do think this conversation is intimately related to your posts on necrobestiality, since there you likewise posed the question of reduction to object status. Do human bodies become likewise mere objects at death? Were they always mere objects? If we go back to Eileen on rifts and temporal archives, is the temporality that inheres in humans deeper and more lasting than that which attaches to animals?

I suspect the answer is no, as much as I'd like it to be yes ... then again, Dr V's comments above gave much life to objects in a very productive way, so many objects are never "mere."

Karl Steel said...

I'm going to be leaving soon for a weekend trip back to my old haunts (Pacific NW), so I'm writing to say: delayed answer on the bodies as objects question, and also want to stress that I don't think a melancholic or even sympathetic response to the LM a mistake.

When I was 5, and my dad retired from the Air Force, we moved from military to civilian housing, and I said goodbye to the 'sticker bush' (that's what I called it: it might have been holly?) in front of the house. Go figure.

Dr. Virago said...

JCC -- No, I didn't realize that's what they did with the bones at the museum of London, but that's cool. I've got to go back because I only made up to the Norman conquest, so I'll take note this time. And thanks for calling my attention to the fact that Lindow Man's display is about some respect for the dead and not just preservation purposes.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Bone Awl! Bone Awl mourns for Lindow Man!

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

And how great is that??!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

This great: "Bone Awl sings the frustrations of modern flesh, and its struggle in coming to terms with its own lack of knowledge. The unknown is sensed and war is waged upon it with every repetitious heartbeat." (from their label's website)