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An Inteview with Timothy Taylor

Archaeologist Tim Taylor writes that human prehistory is a massive span of time and it is easy for the dead to go unidentified.

The purpose of archaeology is to uncover the deceased, their items, and their societies; yet, it is also a discipline that reveals how people lived.

Taylor’s book, The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, delves into the idea that the initial stone tools were made approximately 2.6 million years ago, whereas the first signs of a human funerary burial is from only 120,000 years ago.

Additionally, consistent burials only began 10,000 years ago.

On his sharp adventures, Taylor endeavors to accept not only ancient passing, yet death in our current reality too.

He remembers being censured for the death of his granddad.

In his expert life, death is spoken to not just as looking through antiquated sands –“speculating conduct from quiet leftover parts”– however as the genuine work of the present, as he is asked to help in the police examination of an assumed custom slaughtering casualty found skimming in the Thames River.

The Buried Soul is not something one can read without a certain level of engagement.

Taylor, who has written on “the prehistory of sex” and hosted BBC specials on archaeology, is looking to make archaeology more vivid by giving life and meaning to old bones.

Through this, he hopes to uncover the mysteries, taboos, and rituals around death that still exist, and the “visceral insulation” by which we protect ourselves from the dead.

Taylor is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna, and this conversation began just prior to the start of the Iraq War.

According to Tom Vanderbilt,

At your present station in Vienna, you’ve been exposed to Freud’s concept of thanatos –the death drive.

Could it be that your own intrigue with death is a necessary part of being an archaeologist? After all, it is a subject that involves the mortality of humans, artifacts, and civilizations.

Timothy Taylor asserts that life must acknowledge death, and Freud suggested that it is necessary for our vitality to have a counterbalance.

Archaeology is a distinct discipline that both acknowledges the conscious historical remains of the dead and attempts to uncover the forgotten truths of prehistory, imparting two important messages: first, the present is a mere fraction of a long human history, and second, what persists about us is not our individualism but our cultural creations.

When viewing an Ice Age sculpture, Taylor suggests that it is magical to feel that he is genuinely communicating with a person who has been gone for 25,000 years.

BLVR: I was reminded of the narrative you shared regarding being requested to assist in rescuing a dog from a limestone cave in the Yorkshire dales.

As you ventured inside, you encountered not only animal remains but also human remains, one of which was that of a baby.

This is only one of the many millions of unaccounted dead that you have found, and you mentioned being “unsettled” by what you had discovered.

Could you explain more about that? Also, I’m curious to know if you have an emotional or visceral reaction when dealing with the remains you uncover. Are bones just bones to you?

Stuart Marshall was the caver who had already rescued the dog when I arrived to examine the area for any archaeological finds.

He was taken aback when I found human vertebrae and a piece of sternum, as the caving community had assumed they were sheep bones.

Despite this, Stuart still showed me the geological features of the cave that I wouldn’t have noticed. It is to be expected that there are a lot of human bones scattered around, as our species is so populous.

Although I am a father myself, I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness when I come across the bones of a child. It’s a peculiar emotion, as if my brief life expectancy is being held up beside the child who died over a thousand years ago.

It’s almost like a sense of helplessness in the face of grief and pain.

BLVR: I was astounded by the degree of openness in your book. It starts with, “I was six when my grandparent passed away and I was blamed for it.”

Later, you talk about cutting yourself with a penknife in the dead of night in a Vienna apartment. You point out that at that point you were studying Herodotus’s writings on the interment customs of the Scythians, which incorporated “round scars on their arms” among other practices, but you hadn’t made any correlation.

It appears to me that the impression we have of researchers is of removed individuals working in a removed way, yet I’m asking whether and in what ways your own life enters into your work and the other way around?

I have been as candid as possible when writing this book.

Though I recognize that everyone has their own preconceived notions and motivations, I thought it important to provide the readers with an understanding of myself in light of the often controversial, unorthodox, and sometimes gory tale I was trying to tell.

However, it is not my autobiography, so I only included information that I deemed necessary.

BLVR: I was just researching and discovered that U.S. soldiers, getting ready for combat in Iraq, carry ponchos which can be used to cover their fallen comrades.

Furthermore, they make sure to bury the bodies of their adversaries in a manner that adheres to the Geneva Convention and with their heads pointing East, towards Mecca.

It’s remarkable that soldiers would take the time and effort to observe some sort of ritual while burying their enemies, which speaks to the considerable influence of the funerary rite in today’s world.

Death-related behaviors are a part of the human experience, and while they may seem to serve no practical purpose, they can be psychologically beneficial.

In certain situations, they can simplify and structure behavior in an intense period, and also provide moments of closure.

Arnold van Gennep’s observations in 1909, that funerary rites were usually separated into three parts–separation, transition and incorporation–are echoed in the ‘poncho rite’, a sort of abbreviated death ceremony that marks the point of separation from the living.

This is followed by a period that is not particularly respectful, but publicly screened, during which post-mortem and other procedures take place.

Finally, the body is returned to relatives and morticians for the closing rite of incorporation into the world of ancestors or war heroes.

This coincides with the legal resolution of any issues regarding property and dependents, making the person both physically and socially dead.

BLVR: Going back to the beginning of burial traditions, The Buried Soul notes that while stone tools were used by humans as early as 2.6 million years ago, the first recorded burial didn’t occur until 120,000 years ago.

This indicates that more than being a simple activity, burial must have obtained a set of meanings and reasons that extended past the available tools.

It is a difficult question, but what could have happened to bring us to this point? Couldn’t it be possible that burial could have made sense from an evolutionary standpoint, simply because leaving rotting bodies around could attract vermin and disease?

The Wienerwald forest near Vienna is an ideal location for wild animals, yet one won’t see the remains of many there.

This is due to the fact that in nature, things are recycled at both the macro and micro levels. Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have to deal with this issue, as they were nomadic and had low population densities.

It’s incredible that burial of the dead became something that was done when it did, as it wasn’t the norm until 10,000 years ago.

When farming began and people settled into year-round villages, the need for hygienic disposal of the dead became apparent.

It’s fascinating that the earliest burial rituals were often conducted beneath house floors, but later cemeteries away from living areas became the preferred method.

BLVR: It appears that the introduction of burial customs coincided with the emergence of settled agricultural societies when people began to settle down, both literally and metaphorically.

I’m wondering if this shift in practices was due to a change in the significance of the dead, or was it somehow linked to a new relationship with the land?

Are there any recorded instances of funerary burial among ancient nomadic cultures?

TT: It is not common to find nomadic burial sites, such as the prehistoric Aboriginal burial place at Kow Swamp in central Australia.

We have to be conscious of not assuming that all of prehistory used the same approach – different cultures varied greatly and altered over time.

Nevertheless, it can be said that, in general, large, organized cemeteries are associated with settling and having a religious belief that believes the ancestors have the power of ownership or protection over the lands near them.

Burial can be regarded as a political move: in a society that does not recognize the idea of private property or land ownership, it is a major decision to dig a hole, bury a family member and then claim the land as belonging to the family forever.

BLVR: It may appear comforting to assume that the appearance of ceremonial burials about 120,000 years ago would’ve indicated a new period of humanism, in which societies had a greater respect for people and their lives.

Yet, you maintain that the archaeological data implies that this practice was quite selective, either for the affluent or for social pariahs, and that burials could be considered to be a kind of tableaux mordant , a noticeable “theater of transgression” wherein bodies were utilized to relate some type of tale, to show some sort of prohibition.

In the early stages of burial, prior to the establishment of farming and settlement, the bodies were mainly found in caves.

This has caused a lot of debate about whether these discoveries were the result of deliberate rituals or just a consequence of roof-falls.

However, many are seen to be intentional. The oldest one yet found, at Qafzeh in Israel, was accompanied by a pig’s jaw and a burnt flint tool, suggesting it was deliberately placed there about 120,000 years ago.

Caves are peculiar environments that are separated from the normal day/night cycle, and I believe also from the usual life and death cycles of the society.

I theorize that in order for small groups to be successful, they had to create social rules, which unfortunately necessitated scapegoats and ritual victims.

The more elaborate burials of the Middle Upper Paleolithic age may have been individuals who were deliberately killed. Most of the ancient Ice Age bodies that have been discovered showed signs of congenital disabilities.

There were hardly any women, and very few elderly or very young people. This has led researchers to the conclusion that these burials represented an extraordinary practice rather than a typical burial.

My interpretation of this is that these exceptions were people that were singled out as a warning to the rest of society, rather than as something to be celebrated.

BLVR: The archaeological investigation of the “bogmen,” bodies found in the peat bogs of Europe, from Ireland to Saxony, has revealed a common method of dealing with those considered to be a problem to society.

This involves a horrific, premeditated “multiple death” scenario, similar to what is portrayed in the movie Seven .

Recently, Mike Parker-Pearson has found evidence of mummification in Britain, with one body, a female, holding two of her own front teeth in her hands, dead for up to 600 years before burial.

What is the significance of this discovery in relation to the bog body field? Does it suggest an act of reverence rather than exclusion, or was mummification part of the process of freezing them in the “liminal” environment of the bog?

Mike’s British mummy evidence is certainly interesting, providing a glimpse of the little known about past societies.

It appears to be related to ancestor worship, similar to the preserved heads of the Bornean longhouses.

The bog bodies, on the other hand, were meant to be hidden away, never to be recovered, and tortured to death through a variety of means in order to prevent them from leaving their own bodies.

It is evident from their fingernails and toenails that the victims had a high-status in life and must have committed a crime that resulted in dishonor.

This required a special way to “limbo” them between the worlds of the living and the dead.

BLVR: Let’s talk about criminal activities. Recently, the British National Crime Faculty requested your expertise concerning a case involving a dismembered torso located near the river Thames in London.

Could you explain what transpired, the results of your own investigation, and the ultimate outcome? Additionally, have you ever been asked to offer your professional opinion in a similar circumstance?

As a part of the Center for International Forensic Research, I have been involved in some cases of ritual violence, including offering advice in the beginning stages of the unsolved ritual killing of a young boy in London.

Together with a few of my peers in the Department of Archaeological Sciences in Bradford, I view aiding the police as a natural extension of my archaeological work.

It is not only the technical abilities we have cultivated to deal with highly incomplete and temporary excavation evidence that are useful.

Additionally, it is the long-term perspective on human behavior that archaeology promotes. Recently, I was part of a regional police authority in a murder case with West African ties.

It included questions that social anthropologists have lately avoided due to, from what I can tell, political correctness.

When I look at present evidence–mainly procured by police forensic surgeons or journalists rather than anthropologists–for human sacrifice, such as child sacrifice, from northern India, western and southern Africa, or Peru, I am disgusted but not shocked.

The mother in the recent case I worked on is now being held in a secure psychiatric facility as she is assumed to be psychotic.

In my opinion, she was actually responding to a different set of beliefs. Her world was and still is saturated with intangible forces–witchcraft, malevolent spirits, and so forth.

She burned her baby to death on a makeshift altar because she needed to conduct a purification ritual. Through my comprehension of the ritual dynamics, I was able to explain an otherwise incomprehensible burn pattern on the victim.

Yet, these matters were not brought up in court. The mother did not refute the deliberate homicide and it was eventually easier for the judicial system to say that she was mad.

It is peculiar to consider that something such as “political correctness” has made its way into archaeology, which is typically seen as an immovable discipline.

However, these relics often become relevant to the current climate; for example, Ralph Solecki’s book The First Flower People , written in 1971 during the Vietnam War, demonstrates the Neanderthals as a peaceful, cooperative culture (as opposed to the modern, civilized world).

William Arens’ work, The Man-Eating Myth , is a modern, culturally relativistic reaction to the Western research on the presence of cannibalism in indigenous societies.

Have you ever felt tempted to connect your own projects to the current era or have you encountered attempts by others to do the same?

It is unavoidable that our own inclinations impact the research we undertake.

Nevertheless, this does not signify that archaeological evidence is not a genuine and finally definite account of what happened in the past.

The main thing is to be clear about individual motivations, as I have tried to do in The Buried Soul, in order for a scholar’s biases to be evaluated by others while they come to their own conclusions about the reading of the proof.

The other essential point is to construct interpretations along several logically independent lines.

If lines of argument from archaeology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and social anthropology all converge to endorse a certain inference, then we can return to the archaeological evidence with a prediction about what we should then be capable of finding if we are correct.

Then, if we find the particular, anticipated item, we have justification for articulating that our wisdom is sound.

BLVR: It appears that anthropology textbooks often omit discussion of cannibalism, likely due to a desire to undo any stigma associated with “primitive peoples”.

Simultaneously, popular culture seems to have a fascination with psychopathic cannibalism, making one wonder if this has anything to do with the aforementioned textbook bias.

It was recently reported in Germany of a man who advertised for a victim to be killed and eaten as part of some ritual.

An expert was quoted as saying modern cannibals use deep-freezing to ration out their pleasure while primitive cannibals would consume their kill all at once.

Has cannibalism become so loaded that it’s impossible to understand it outside of the Hannibal Lecter context?

I believe there is a more profound relationship between modern Western culture and cannibalism.

This phenomenon, which I call “visceral insulation,” is the result of our detachment from recognizing the necessity of eating other bodies in order to survive.

We can avoid any type of contact with death due to supermarkets and hospitals, yet this increases our interest. Many turn to television shows such as ER to fulfill this desire. Unfortunately, this fascination can become unhealthy, as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer.

The Christian cannibal taboo is derived from the symbolism of the Eucharist; Jesus instructed his disciples to eat bread and wine in his memory.

This caused Dahmer to be confused, as his Lutheran grandmother insisted on the truth of consubstantiation. Much like Catholics, those who practice “primitive” cannibalism believe that consuming spirit-imbued flesh can transfer power.

It’s difficult to argue that there is a substantial difference between the two, as Catholics are taught to believe that the host is truly Jesus’ body.

In Beth Conklin’s Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in an Amazonian Society, the Wari people of Brazil are described as having a different view of death than Americans in 2003.

The Wari try to help bereaved relatives by getting rid of anything connected with the deceased. This includes burning possessions, not saying their name, and even eating their body, which is seen as an altruistic and religious act rather than a criminal and psychotic one.

However, this is a difficult concept to grasp, as some people deny the existence of cannibalism and others view it as a savage and uncivilized practice.

Given your frequent comments on the meanings of cannibalism, such as in a three-part Channel 4 documentary, what has been the reaction to your theories on its prevalence?

The discussion of cannibalism has been contentious, reaching its peak in the 1980s and 90s.

However, those anthropologists who had direct contact with the communities never doubted its existence. Pierre Clastres’ research on the Guayaki Indians in Amazonia was a major breakthrough.

David De Gusta’s work in Fiji provides a reliable analysis of cannibalism that has been difficult to refute. By further examining archaeological, historical, and folklore sources, it is possible to distinguish between different types of cannibalism, such as funerary and aggressive.

Additionally, archaeologists are able to observe the same butchery marks on human bones at sites as those of hunted fauna.

BLVR: Could there be any other way to understand marks that look like they are from cutting or chopping? Could they be from some sort of surgical procedure, a form of punishment, scalping, or a ritual that we aren’t aware of? How does one decide which solution is the most likely one?

I have started to answer this question, however, it is important to remain objective and document data with precision.

As an example, I reference cut-marked bones from Iron-age Siberia in my book. Initially, scholars assumed the marks were connected to defleshing, due to the difficulty of burying bodies in the permafrost. But this has some issues.

For instance, there is no mention of what happened to the removed flesh. When taking a wider view of the context, two things become apparent.

Firstly, evidence from neighboring sites displays the presence of advanced embalming practices, meaning defleshing was not necessary to preserve the body.

Secondly, Herodotus notes a funerary ritual in the same region a century earlier, which involved cutting chunks of meat from corpses to make a stew.

This stew was then eaten at the graveside when the bodies were interred. The cuts reported on the bones are consistent with this ritual, as they are largely on the larger muscle attachments in the arm and thigh.

We cannot go back in time to verify this, but it is the most logical explanation, as it ties together several aspects of interpretation, fits with existing information and does not leave any unanswered questions.

Beth Conklin observes that the Wari ate a corpse in order to keep its ghost from coming back. You correctly agree that this is one of the major concepts behind funerary rites.

In fact, you even responded to John Brockman’s yearly survey, which inquired about questions that “have gone away,” with “How can I stop the soul of the deceased reanimating the body?” So, how did this query vanish?

TT: Examining the rise of monotheistic religions, one can see how the concept of God has become more and more abstract.

Ancestor worship has been replaced by more distant gods and then a single god, which is often seen as incomprehensible and non-human. Fear of mortality is also seen to be a mystery, but is expressed in a more intangible way in the modern era.

As a result, contact with the corpse and swift disposal are commonplace, which limits the scope for concrete fears.

However, the idea of solid ghouls still remains as seen through horror films and Halloween parades.

BLVR: Even when cannibalism had been deemed unacceptable in Europe, it was still accepted as a form of medicine.

The London Pharmacopoeia provided instructions for the ingestion of human blood or pulverized bone matter.

It appears that while one person may view cannibalism as reprehensible, it could be seen as a form of medical treatment to another.

Many people have no qualms about being sustained through a heart transplant, yet when it comes to consuming a deceased relative as a means of survival in a harsh environment, opinions are divided.

To quote the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, “habit is the strongest of all.”

BLVR: Concerning customs, you appear to have a lack of interest in adapting to the culturally relativistic approach to certain customs of some ancient societies.

In reference to the great temple of Tenochtitlan under the Mexica, you have written it was essentially a death camp, and those going to be sacrificed were filled with fear rather than believing they were going to a heavenly domain.

The Mexica rulers accepted the terror and distress of their victims as being necessary for their rituals, which is similar to the actions of the Nazis.

It is often said that judging ancient civilizations through our modern lens of “human rights records” is ethnocentric. What is your opinion on this?

My stance can be labeled as “cultural evolutionary”. The reason I deem it essential to assess the Aztecs and Mexico is not to put posthumous blame on those who carried out state-sanctioned ritual violence, but because I acknowledge that civilization is fragile.

Thus, defending concepts such as international law and universal human rights is of utmost importance.

To gain a better understanding of the conditions that could lead to a society with a high rate of human sacrifice, it is necessary to analyze a variety of past and ancient cases, instead of basing the analysis solely on the Nazis.

Additionally, I believe that the victims should be remembered and honored, and that archaeological research grants them the chance to have their voices heard. This thought is not only practical but is largely based on my moral and spiritual convictions.

BLVR: Archaeology, however, can be an unreliable source of information.

The idea of “the mirage of survival” suggests that the facts which are determined to be true are based solely on what is found. In the case of the Mexica site, the lack of human remains might be used to diminish the notion of human sacrifice.

This is similar to how Holocaust revisionists have used the dearth of human remains at camps to downplay the severity of the genocide.

This difficulty of archaeology in regards to death is highlighted due to the fact that death often results in the complete erasure of any evidence of it.

It is certainly undeniable that the more “energetic” a process is, the more unlikely it is to leave behind any permanent evidence of individual events.

In the Mexico and Nazi cases, what we are left with are the installations instead of the bodies, since the installations had to be made ready for more victims.

Thus, it is necessary to be aware of this and modify our investigative techniques to better search for traces around the edges. Even so, these traces do exist.

On the contrary, archaeologists must be aware that certain very visible classes of evidence–such as Ice Age burials and bog bodies–may have survived simply because they belonged to the periphery: zones of danger, liminal frontiers, and the edges of communities where those who did not fit in were dealt with.

Knowing this, we must address this type of evidence in a different manner compared to what we have done so far.

BLVR: You have stated that the ancient Egyptians, the first to engage in the distinct “zoning of death,” including burial customs, were consequently able to concentrate “entirely on the enigma of death on a cosmological level” at the highest circles.

I ponder if there is any similarity in our modern world, with its very deliberately planned and isolated funerary practices ( drive-in funerals! )

Do you think our bond to death (and life) could be different if we had to inter our own corpses, and stay with our own dead, on a more direct level?

TT: Certainly. I’m not suggesting we make any modifications.

Change is always happening, and we can already witness a trend towards funerals that are more involved, in wooded areas, with personal rituals and biodegradable caskets.

The funeral business saw a massive surge in growth during the days of the Victorian age’s major cities, and the atrocities of the two world wars seemed to create a necessity for distancing from death and leaving it to the “professionals”.

We are gradually leaving that behind, and I believe that it is a beneficial evolution. Taking a more proactive role in dealing with death may be a sign of taking greater responsibility for our actions in life.

BLVR: Holding command over life and death appears to be a permanent part of culture.

Taking into account the current situation, one may compare George W. Bush, who gave permission for multiple executions in Texas during the commencement of his presidential campaign, with Saddam Hussein, who does not permit the families of those killed by his security personnel to view the bodies, taking away the traditional ability to grieve.

What is your opinion of the motives behind this? Is it just a way to impose power? Can you give other illustrations of this in the world?

I did not equate the two leaders in terms of the motivations behind their respective approaches to capital punishment.

There are considerable differences between the United States and Iraq in this regard (even though I do not approve of either).

However, I did point out the fact that executive political power is often linked to the power to decide life and death, and that world leaders often make this link explicit.

What is even more remarkable is that in Europe and other places, executions have been entirely outlawed as a form of punishment.

This is a development with no precedent in history and, while I support the initiative, it carries with it certain risks.

In particular, those who have lost a family member to murder must be given assurances that their rights are respected.

This is why I believe that the death penalty cannot simply be abolished without making sure that those who have forfeited the right to live among civilized society are securely incarcerated for life–a modern and likely more humane version of “limboing”.

In BLVRs work, there is an effort to make archaeology accessible to a broader audience, which includes books and TV.

Despite this, there have been some critics among the field who believe that the series on cannibalism, for example, exaggerates the occurrence of cannibalism in primitive societies and is not nuanced enough.

Is it difficult to convey archaeological stories, which could possibly be expressed in multiple scholarly volumes and articles, within the limited time frame of television?

When discussing controversial matters on television, it’s to be expected that critiques may arise from a lack of balance.

To me, experts have a duty to provide information to the public responsibly. After all, it is society as a whole that supports research and learning in universities.

To make something comprehensible, one must contemplate it more thoroughly. At times, specialized dialogue may conceal inconsistencies and issues unseen to the public, yet once exposed to the public’s strict scrutiny they become evident.

Many scientists may try to avoid sharing their work in the public domain due to the possibility of their beliefs not holding up to the open examination.

BLVR: What topic are you planning to explore in your writing after discussing the prehistory of sex and death?

I’ll be obscure. Stuff.

There Could Be Interest in These

The utilization of technology in the classroom has become increasingly popular in recent years. More and more educators are recognizing the importance of incorporating digital tools into instruction in order to meet the needs of their students.

As a result, a growing number of schools are implementing technology in their instruction and curriculum.

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