Halloween is on the way, which is the one time of the year that the offices (remember those?) of an archaeology company look normal. Everyone else is headed down to the local pound shop to buy piles of spooky plastic to give their desks the look of a troublingly-jolly pagan death cult, whereas all I ever had to do was to cast an eye towards the osteology team a few bays over to see enough neatly arranged skeletons and comfy knitwear to film an episode of CSI Coffee Morning (new to CBS this Fall!).
Archaeology is the study of past societies through the material culture they left behind, but every now and again you will find yourself face to skeletal face with the people who last used that pan you just dug up. The truth is, the first few times you excavate human remains it can seem a bit odd, but once you’ve been on a few cemetery sites where the skeletons number in their thousands then you start to view the process in more functional terms. Don’t get me wrong, the respect for the individuals remains. It’s not like you get 5 years deep into your archaeology career and think ‘I wonder how far I can lob this femur?’. But it is easy to forget that carefully excavating, drawing and bagging up skeletons is not an experience shared by most other people.
It’s understandable then that sometimes in my blinkered approach to the dead I can be taken by surprise by a question from someone who hasn’t been hardened to it in the same way, and that question is almost always: “Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?”
I have personally excavated around 300-400 individuals through my career. As such, I feel fairly confident in saying that ghosts aren’t real, because if they were, I’d probably have already set up business as the ‘Most Haunted Man in England’. I’d have a small gift shop on wheels that I’d tow behind me wherever I went and possibly even a scone in my pocket for those looking for a café.
That isn’t to say I haven’t witnessed unusual happenings on sites I’ve worked at. For example, when I was working on the redevelopments around Kings Cross we were met one morning by an ashen face security guard with a dire warning.
“Don’t go near the warehouse today”, he said. “It’s too dangerous.”
I didn’t bother with a follow up question. Something in the way that he spoke convinced me that whatever was wrong with the building was worth taking seriously. My colleague, however, was not as easily persuaded.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because last night I saw a werewolf!”
Not only had this terrified guard seen a werewolf, but he had also written it up in the accident report book. A few days later we finally got the full story of what he had witnessed. Apparently, he had seen a fox going into one side of the building and a man coming out the other. Well that solves it then, werewolf confirmed. No other explanation I can think of there!
On the same site, I entered one of the semi-subterranean goods platforms with only a torch to light my way. I’ll spare you the full details of what I witnessed there, but suffice to say I’ll never look at a Corby trouser press the same way again.
Ghosts though, I’m pretty they don’t exist – but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees with me.
I was working on a big cemetery site in central London which had a small public viewing gallery. The archaeology was interesting (17th Century burials, which are rare for London as the Victorians had a tendency of laying railways through them) and the site visits proved popular with the public. I was digging close to the gallery when I heard the following (half remembered and much exaggerated) exchange:
“They are getting everywhere you see, all over London. You’re carrying them out on your shoes”.
“Well I’m sorry about that, I really a…”
“I can do a blessing if you want, it’s just that I can hear them crying”.
“Who is crying?”
“The spirits. Have you got a boot wash? I could bless that?”
“I can bless the water to wash the spirits off your boots”.
To this day I don’t know if this person was deadly serious or if they were just really committing to a gag where the punchline was something to do with ‘souls on our boots’. Either way we did the only thing we could: we let her do her ceremony, and she left happy. Whatever the truth of the matter is (and the truth is that ghosts aren’t real) we wouldn’t have gained anything from arguing the point; we can be right and also not be dicks about it.
Archaeology can sometimes come over as a bit wishy washy, and sometimes, if I’m honest, it can be. But that is because we study human behaviour, and humans, fundamentally, are messy bitches who believe all sorts of guff.
The skeletons that archaeologists dig up were once people with thoughts and feeling and dreams and beliefs. I don’t have to share those beliefs to be able to respect them. When someone is buried either they or a loved one chose that option on purpose – which is why, once we have recorded them, they get reburied. Learning to take the time to consider other people’s worldview is a gift that working as an archaeologist has given me.
There are times when arguments need to be made, when a belief is dangerous to an individual or others around them. In those circumstance you will find me screaming logical arguments till the cows come home, but there is always room for a more compassionate approach.
A good rule of thumb is this: if a belief harms no one (ghosts are real), let them have it. If it causes harm to others (ghosts are real, and they’ve told me to kill again) challenge it. If the belief causes no harm to an individual but could if it is held at a systemic or societal level (this government believes Victorian orphan ghosts are real, look there’s one now. Let’s make him Leader of the House of Commons) challenge it.
Happy Halloween everyone.