Archaeology, Human Dignity, and the Fascination of Death

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

An archaeologist excavates a casket lid from the Mississippi State Asylum (image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs)

In 1855 the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened, and by the time it moved in 1935 thousands of patients had been buried on the hospital grounds.  The Mississippi asylum’s story is by no means unique: A vast range of mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and chronically ill Americans found themselves captive in dehumanizing institutions, lost to desperate and distant families and unceremoniously buried by the state.  Much of archaeology’s mortuary landscape is peopled with similar lives that ended in asylums, battlefields, slave quarters, distant workplaces, prisons, and long-forgotten cemeteries.

At its best, archaeology dignifies these lives by treating their stories and forlorn remains with scientific rigor and moral respect.  When the University of Mississippi took aim on the former asylum grounds Mississippi State University’s Nicholas Hermann led a team that surveyed the site to document and preserve the scores of dead patients now consigned to unmarked graves alongside the contemporary Medical Center.  It is this moral notion of dignity that was violated by National Geographic Channel International’s “Nazi War Diggers,” which released (and then retracted) a promotional video last week on the four-episode series documenting the recovery of wartime dead who “lie rotting under World War Two’s Eastern Front.”  This week the channel abruptly placed the series on “indefinite” delay (and removed all traces of it from their web page), awkwardly acknowledging that it was reviewing the series “while questions raised in recent days regarding accusations about the program can be properly reviewed.”

A "Nazi War Digger" team member poses with a partial cranium (image from National Geographic Channel).

A “Nazi War Digger” team member poses with a partial cranium (image from National Geographic Channel).

National Geographic Channel and many of the media following the story have suggested that the show’s fate reflected a firestorm of resistance from the “archaeological community,” which included a collective letter from six professional societies including the Society for Historical Archaeology, Society for American Archaeology, and European Association of Archaeologists, petitions, and blogs.  However, attributing the series’ retraction to archaeological advocacy alone hazards casting the series as mere methodological and legal transgressions being patrolled by a circle of privileged professionals.  The response to Geographic’s unseemly series was not only about unprofessional recovery and analysis methods; instead, it is about the literal treatment and display of bodies and mortuary assemblages as mere things, a moral assault on human dignity that resonates far beyond the handful of scholars who recover and examine the dead.

There is no reason we should simply ignore our fascination with the dead or leave everybody wherever they may now lie; it is perfectly reasonable that we should confront exactly what constitutes “dignified” research on and treatment of human remains; and perhaps in the right hands a project on human remains recovery could be presented on television in a thoughtful, respectful, and intellectually rich way.  However, there was no evidence that this particular series fathoms the complex symbolism of dead soldiers’ stories or the politics of repatriating their remains, instead fixating on the spectacular but dehumanizing visual display of their skeletons.

The "Nazi War Diggers" team poses with their finds.

The “Nazi War Diggers” team poses with their finds.

The material culture scattered on battlefields alongside the dead is reduced to mere things or commodities when we disconnect them from the field of battle and cast them as something other than elements in a mortuary assemblage.  We have chosen to preserve some landscapes wholesale—places like Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, and the Little Bighorn were associated with significant military engagements and mass carnage, and they have been protected along with their archaeological remains and subject to relatively non-intrusive archaeological research or simply preserved.  Much of contemporary Europe, though, is a wartime landscape on which scores of communities now must live; local preservation laws and enforcement vary widely from one place to the next; and in some places there are very few scholars trained to conduct such recovery, which is assumed by a host of well-intentioned avocational archaeologists or mere profiteers.  Consequently, the preservation of wartime landscapes and the repatriation of the dead illuminate a complicated tension between preservation, commemoration, scholarship, and contemporary everyday life.

The University of Mississippi Asylum project is a classic example of the dark histories that shape many contemporary institutions’ ambitions.  Last year the University excavated 66 graves for a new road, and they will eventually be re-burying those remains after analysis.  The most recent project, though, used ground-penetrating radar to confirm that roughly 1800-2000 graves dot the remaining space.  The Mississippi radar survey may simply have compelled the University to scrap its expansion plans because moving so many burials is a complicated and costly venture.  Indeed, the Medical School Dean honestly if indelicately lamented that they simply could not afford the complicated excavation and reburial process.  Nevertheless, the institution shouldered its moral obligations that reach beyond legal codes requiring landowners to move human remains.  Rather than reduce the project to a mere construction expense obeying the letter of the law, UM perhaps understood their educational and moral obligation to conduct such unsettling scholarly projects.  The University of Mississippi may ultimately have lost convenient parking spaces, but leaving the asylum’s patients in their graves secures some sense of moral righteousness.

No single assessment and preservation strategy is suitable for every context.  The ultimate preservation strategy for the asylum’s patients was to simply record locations and ensure that the graves are not subsequently disturbed.  Those graves certainly might reveal fascinating insights into the horrific lives of the people consigned to institutional care, and genetic analysis of the remains could in some cases identify the now-anonymous individuals.  Ethically, though, there must be a compelling research question that overrides our understandable fascination with the remains of those patients.

Jews being loaded onto trains to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942 (wikipedia)

Jews being loaded onto trains to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942 (wikipedia)

This week Neil Silberman assessed a Smithsonian Channel series on archaeology at Treblinka, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” and he proposes that some materials simply should be left preserved: the material culture of concentration camps–which includes modest personal items, architectural evidence, and human remains–in some cases may not really tell us something sufficiently transformative to rationalize archaeological fieldwork.  Prosaic objects like combs and cutlery found at a World War II concentration camp are mortuary artifacts that mean something quite unique because they are recovered from landscapes fundamentally defined by death, terror, and inhumanity, but Silberman suggests we are best served ethically to leave some of those landscapes undisturbed by excavation.

The Treblinka team’s state-of-the-art field methodology does have genuine potential to tell some stories about the Treblinka experience in especially compelling terms and reconstruct the landscape in exceptional detail.  Nevertheless, Silberman is wary of the suggestion that such archaeology will end “doubts about the existence of mass graves” at Treblinka, which risks entertaining holocaust denial as if it is even worth considering; the evidence is absolutely conclusive for more than 800,000 Jews dying at Treblinka (likely more than a million dead total) before the Nazis razed it in 1943.

Silberman’s uneasiness in many ways seems directed toward the ways television trivializes and dehumanizes human experience and reduces the most chilling mortality narratives to visual spectacle (the New York Daily News’ David Hinckley has similar reservations about the reality TV conventions in the context of the Smithsonian Channel’s concentration camp study).  “Nazi War Diggers” clearly embraced our seductive fascination with dead soldiers’ bodies and the uniform tatters, rusted buttons, and firearms that accompanied them to untimely deaths.  There are circumspect and respectful ways to visually present human remains, but that certainly does not include visual display of skeletal fragments (e.g., a bone or skull torn from a mortuary context) or ignoring descendants–there are living families if not peers of the dead in the Geographic Channel’s series, and nations have genuine legal rights and obligations to their deceased citizens.

A Treblinka cremation pit (Wikipedia).

A Treblinka cremation pit (Wikipedia).

Beyond the purely archaeological and ethical failures of the deplorable series, “Nazi War Diggers” really failed to promise any compelling illumination of us and the social world; it presented itself as visual theater evading the morality of the body and conveniently leaving our emotional fascinations with death and the body unexamined.  It is easy to sign petitions and write heartfelt letters rejecting the shallow spectacle of “Nazi War Diggers”: these are fundamentally mortuary assemblages that demand exceptionally painstaking recovery and clear scientific, legal, and ethical codes for analysis and repatriation, and nearly all of us share some concrete moral obligation to our ancestors.

Nevertheless, the show is perhaps only a marked violation of what are otherwise persistent problems with archaeological television.  Television programmers consistently gravitate toward the most emotionally potent, visually arresting, and populist if not anti-scientific dimensions of archaeological narratives.  Television always attempts to provide the world we desire, and when it seizes on archaeology it retreats from the stereotype of the over-educated professor dispensing impenetrable and irrelevant academic rigor; instead, it fixates on riches, corpses, and alien visits interpreted by larger-than-life personalities and self-schooled thinkers.  The results are often emotionally satisfying visual spectacles of the social world and historical past that reflect comforting populist values.  Yet there are still fundamental ethical and moral expectations placed on any archaeological scholarship: “Nazi War Diggers” did not fail because it failed to be visually alluring, weave compelling historical stories, conform to appropriate archaeological method, or turn a profit; it instead violated our standards of moral decency.


Mississippi State Asylum excavation image from University of Mississippi Medical Center Public Affairs.

“Nazi War Diggers” images from National Geographic Channel have been removed.

Treblinka train image and cremation pit image from Wikipedia.

Posted on April 2, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is a stunning piece of writing on a subject I had, frankly, never given a thought to. Thank you for such an enlightened, accessible piece of blog journalism.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, consideration, and respect for the deceased. They were people and their remains and final resting place should be treated with this in mind else we lose our own humanity.

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