Saturday, April 30, 2011

Historical drama

If there is one thing that really annoys me about historians, then its the lack of scientific regard that often characterises the explanations of archeological finds. Time and time again the general public is treated to interpretation rather than fact, and I doubt this is just because funding requires public interest. I suspect the real reason is because most historians are not seeking answers, but rather romantic affirmation of their own theories

Take this article for example. Under a head line of Girl 'murdered' by Roman soldiers in north Kent it purports to be an explanation of a corpse found in the UK and some of the quotes are telling;
"She was killed by a Roman sword stabbing her in the back of the head," said Dr Paul Wilkinson, director of the excavation.

"By the position of the entry wound she would have been kneeling at the time."

How does he he know it was a Roman sword unless the weapon was still in the wound? Granted a gladius has a characteristic shape but its not a unique shape. Furthermore, how does he know the killing weapon was wielded by a Roman?
Dr Wilkinson said that she had been between 16 and 20 years old when she was killed, and her bones suggested that she had been in good health.

He also believes the body had then been dumped in what looked like a hastily dug grave.
So she was over 13 and therefore wasn't a girl at all. By the age of 20 she would have been considered a mature adult woman.
Dr Wilkinson said the body was found with some fragments of iron age pottery which would date the grave to about AD50, and suggest that she was part of the indigenous population.

Another indication of her origin, according to Dr Wilkinson, is the orientation of the body.

Romans buried their bodies lying east-west, whereas this body was buried north-south, as was the custom for pagan graves.
And would 'murdering' Roman's generally take ethnic burial considerations into account?
Many people have a romantic view of the Roman invasion, Dr Wilkinson said.

"Now, for the first time, we have an indication of how the Roman armies treated people, and that large numbers of the local populations were killed.

I'm amazed at this apparent sense of self importance. Roman history is packed full of examples of how Roman armies treated their enemies, and how local populations were treated also. The Roman's themselves made no secret of their severity. Yet this historian, throwing out bold assumptions with no scientific reserve, would have us believe that this single corpse of a dead woman tells us something unique about Rome?
"It shows how all invading armies act the same throughout history. One can only imagine what trauma this poor girl had to suffer before she was killed," he said.
It seems Dr Paul Wilkinson can imagine a lot! Far too much for his own credibility as a scientist. He has taken the nameless corpse of an unknown woman, whose reason for death has no evident explanation and turned it into a child victim of Roman brutality. He offers no evidence that the woman was a Briton, no evidence that she was killed by a Roman, no evidence that she was killed by an invading army, no evidence she was murdered, as opposed to say, being an executed criminal.

The explanation for Wilkinson's romantic notions seems evident in his own words, "how all invading armies act the same throughout history". This man is pandering to a preconception. He has fabricated a neat little tragedy to explain his corpse in a manner which fits with his own romantic assumptions.


Cyan said...

Romans buried their bodies lying east-west, whereas this body was buried north-south, as was the custom for pagan graves. And would 'murdering' Roman's generally take ethnic burial considerations into account?

Probably not, but we don't know that the executioner dug the grave. If she was buried in the Briton style, it's more natural to assume that the digger was a Briton and not a Roman, but that doesn't say anything about the executioner. It's possible that she was killed by a Roman soldier and that she was buried by her own people.

I understand that this type of work requires assumptions, but you're right about people leaning towards their own romantic inclinations. Modern western society does like a good story about an underdog, and that's what's been fabricated in this article. The reality is that there are a lot of different things that could have happened here.

Good post.

moif said...

According to the article, who ever buried her, did so in a shallow grave, with one foot left unburied. She was also buried near, but not in a local grave yard. To me that indicates the burial of a person of no significance, such a a criminal.

By criminal, I mean by the woman's contemporary society rather than our legal standards. The ancients had some very strange ideas regarding criminal behaviour on behalf of women (as do some people even today)

Cyan said...

My bad. I didn't link through to the original article. One foot left unburied...yeah, it does look like she was buried disrespectfully by her own people for whatever reason made her a person of no importance.

moif said...

Of course the orientation of a shallow grave might be utterly random...

Cyan said...

Indeed. If they couldn't bother to get her foot in, she was probably just tossed in and hastily buried without much regard to custom.

Oleg said...

I get the impression, through the archaeologists that I know, that archeology isn't really treated as a science.

What should be treated as hypothesis or theory, is actually treated more like fashionable thought or dogma.
In other words, a lot of archaeologists stop doing the prediction (retrodiction) / falsification thing.

(Obviously, all scientists are Human, and become attached to their ideas, there are financial and political considerations, and some fairly woolly edges, but mostly scientific ideas flourish or die because of evidence.)