Sometimes Sunday – How Long is Dead Long Enough?

I was going to do my awards today but something is on my mind?

I have spent the morning watching Discovery Channel.  Now I am fascinated by ancient history I never questioned the value of excavations of ancient sites in order that we could learn more about how our ancestors lived and died.

But this morning for some reason it is bugging me.  While the people concerned my have no knowledge of their lineage the chances are the people who archeologists pull out of the ground have living ancestors somewhere.  And even if their bloodline died out is it still okay?

If somone went into our local graveyard and started digging up bodies buried twenty years ago we would scream in protest we would be horrified yet when it is done to bodies buried two thousand years ago we are fascinated.  I count myself as guilty in this I just never stopped to questions it before.  In my parents local churchyard they have been moving graves a couple of hundred years old.  Now in part it was a result of subsidence there the ground had dropped as coffins had decomposed.  While this may have created safety issues it would have been easy  fill the holes and replace the headstones yet some either lost their headstones or were reinterred in different parts of the churchyard.

So as the title asks how long does someone need to be dead before we stop respecting them as a person and they become a specimen?

While there is no doubt over the years we have learnt so much about the past not only from actual bodies but also the grave goods buried with them but how much more can we learn.  Even with new technology we reach a point where all new information only confirms what was already known or leads to further speculation.

I cannot say I have a fixed opinion on this at the minute.  Maybe it is time unless there is some pressing reason for investigating a particular body we should stick to excavating the buildings and leave those who have passed before to rest in peace no matter how old their graves.

What do you think?


18 comments on “Sometimes Sunday – How Long is Dead Long Enough?

  1. As I sit here after reading this Paula, I found myself agreeing with you point by point. I too love history, love the knowledge we’ve gleaned from excavations…but am catching myself wondering what gives us the right to do it. Your question…how long must someone be dead before we stop respecting them as the people they were and start thinking of them as specimens is a good one. And, can’t help but wonder too how I would fee if it were to happen to an ancestor of mine. As the beneficiary of years and years of hard work on the part of one of my relatives and as curator of my own family historical docs and photos…I have to thank those who have gone before and done the ‘digging’, yet it does make me want to give a silent prayer for ‘sorry and thanks’. good post oh majestic one…got my mind working hard for a sunday!


    • was a bit deep and meaningful for a sunday and normsally I wouldn’t think twice watching archeology programmes but there was something about the one I was watching that hit a nerve they were ranting about ancient grave robbers and waht was missing and I just thought how is what you are doing any different?


  2. To me, it isn’t an issue of how long they’ve been dead. It’s more an issue of what is the reason it’s being done and is it being done with the utmost level of care and respect. Without care and respect it is never okay, regardless of the amount of time that has passed.


  3. I plan to study the subject for the next four years! This is a huge issue in the states atm with native americans asking for the bones of their forefathers back from archaeology displays as they are regarded as sacred. Archaeology is one of the youngest sciences and there is quite a bit to resolve about the methods and approach. Primarily the main source of information is a destructive process but I think the finds (once done properly, and under national licence) and the fabric of history they weave are of great value to people. It was fine when you have an environment that preserves writing such as the middle east – so easy to get a handle on life back then, but what about areas with a destructive environment or no writing? The history there (specially if it is our history) could be just as wonderful.
    Lately there is a branch called industrial archaeology – so the date you wonder about is getting closer.


    • I used to think it was great that we found all these things and looked at them so we could learn but recently I feel more and more uneasy about it. When they discussed raising the titanic wreck I was horrified yet opening a pyramid was fine I realised I had my own double standards and however carefully it is done can it ever be respectful to open anothers grave and take out things which their own beliefs required. I don’t know the answers only that the more i think about it the more conflicted I become if we opened it recorded it and sealed it back up again with everything intact maybe that would be more appropriate but when we remove items is that different from a grave robber just because we gain knowledge rather than money does it make it okay. i guess the question we need to ask is how would we feel burying our loved ones and thinking in a few hundred years someone could dig them up and stick a pace maker or plastic hip in a musuem on display for all. Will be interesting to hear from you throughout your course what feelings you have about the ethics and if they change. And good luck with it


      • Also keep in mind that archaeologists do gain money when they find artifacts! The government will be more willing to fund them if they have proof there are things to be found


  4. That’s a tough question to answer. In some ways I think archaeological digs can be seen as the highest respect we could pay to those who’ve gone before us – their lives are so valued and important we want to learn more about them. But, I also see what you’re saying – if they were my relatives, I wouldn’t want their final resting place to be disturbed. It’s a tough call but I guess, if we want to know where we’re going we better know where we’ve been ..


  5. Great post! You really have me thinking. I definitely lean towards leaving the dead to rest. I live in a coastal town and a few years ago, rumors started to float around of bodies being found during some road construction along one of our more natural areas in town. The rumors suggested the city had kept the discoveries hush, hush because they suspected the bodies were Native American and that would mean their construction would have to stop. They gave the remains to the University that happened to want to purchase some of that land. Now the Native American council has gotten involved. The bodies were some of their earliest ancestors. The city won’t give the bodies back. When I drive down that road where they were found, I feel sad for the dead and their living loved ones. I feel like both have been wronged.


    • I think it is even worse when the motivation is purely monetary I wonder what would happen if someone came forward who could prove they were a descendant via dna would they be forced to return the remains then?


  6. A couple of years ago while in Paris my sons talked me into going down into the catacombs of Paris. I don’t know what I thought before going in, but it was a big mistake and tremendously disturbing! Skeletons were stacked all around me, even the bones of babies! I ran out of there as fast as I could.

    I can’t believe they sell tickets and people stand in line for this!
    In my opinion this is desecrating the dead!


    • It is the same as palermo then (not that I have been there) it is a strange one as in palermo they actully intended for their bodies to be on show but still not sure I would want to go in I guess at least there you are visiting them in their final resting place rather than ripping them out of it


      • the money bit I think for me in that case is dependant on who is getting it and what they are doing with it. I know in palermo the money they get from people going in is used to preserve the catacombs as they are problems now with damp and mold not sure who profits in paris


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