Interviewing the Ancient Dead
by Lawrence Owens
"So - what do you do?"
"Well, I travel around the world interviewing the dead."
This is what usually happens in the "small talk" introductions at parties. It's hard to explain the job...it's rather like being a CSI investigator: the bones and mummies of ancient people tell you everything you could ever want to know about their societies.
It resembles a blind date - those casually probing questions you ask to see what sort of raving loony your friends have fixed you up with. So you can usually work out where they're from, what they did for a living, their height and who their parents were. Unlike a normal blind date, however, you have an unfair advantage because you can also work out how old they are, how much they weigh, how healthy they were as children, and even how good their oral hygiene was (without getting too close)...and not get slapped in the process!
My first dig was in the garden aged 5, where I managed to find what I thought was a coal mine (an old bonfire!) and a selection of ‘archaeological' rubbish; that evening I announced I was going to become an archaeologist. Twelve years later I chose Durham, which remains my favourite university...although what they thought of the scruffy mess who turned up in 1993 is, mercifully, unrecorded!
I went to Israel, Jordan and Egypt to dig while I was still at Durham (which I left with a real wrench because my subsequent universities were rather less charming!), and managed to wangle doing my Ph.D. on the ancient Canary Islands (always choose your research area with care!). I dug for a while in South Africa, where I found the oldest item I have ever recovered: a half-million-year-old hand axe. This was amazing to me - the maker wasn't even technically a "modern human" - and it was an incredible feeling to be the first member of my species to ever see this artefact. I have narrowed my focus since then, and work on sites in Peru, Bolivia, Ghana and the Canary Islands.
In Peru we found an ancient cocaine addict... well, strictly speaking, a coca addict, whose teeth and gums had been totally ruined by chewing coca to stave off hunger and tiredness. Some of his contemporaries had died of head wounds, possibly sacrificed or executed, while others had succumbed to diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis.
Some skulls had been artificially deformed during childhood, producing a giant flat forehead and/or a peaked shape that was apparently viewed as being rather sexy, and is still done today in some very remote Andean groups. I can't say a weirdly deformed head does much for me, but I suppose that future archaeologists may not see the charm of pseudo-Celtic tattoos and navel piercing.
All this gallivanting is great fun, but it's the Indiana Jones side of the subject - the discovery aspect - that keeps archaeologists fascinated. Of course, you can't remember everything you ever dug, but some things really stand out. At Pachacamac, I discovered a sacrificed child buried with a gold-alloy sacrificial knife, and a live burial of an infant who had got half out of its burial shroud before - presumably - suffocating to death.
Materials found their way to this site - which is just below Lima - from all over South and Central America, such as Spondylus shell ornaments from the Caribbean, mummified monkeys from the Amazon and an as-yet-unidentified albino animal buried under the ramp of a pyramid built by the Incas.
Sad discoveries like this are something that archaeologists tend to get used to. The discipline has a very long-term view of humanity and there is nothing they haven't seen before - so if you want to know about the effects of climate change, the causes of genocide, famine, warfare, violence...ask an archaeologist. Maybe that's something politicians should bear in mind. For now, I have 80,000 Peruvian "blind dates" to work through so have my hands somewhat full for the next few decades. However, if you have any questions or want to know more about this weird yet wonderful subject, drop me a line - I'll do my best to help!
For more information about the site of Pachacamac and our finds there go to www.ulb.ac.be/philo/ychsma/en/home.html and for beautiful pictures of the site, the finds and the staff, search for ‘Pachacamac' on: www.nazcapictures.com
Lawrence Owens studied Archaeology from 1993-1996 and was a member of Grey College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org