Saturday, 2 January 2016

Serving the Need of Knowledge.

I just watched a documentary by Julian Richards, one of my more favoured TV historians, which contrasted two excavations from 4th century British cemeteries. One was a British man who evidently came from a Romano-British background. The other was a young woman who, it later transpired, came not just from the empire but from Rome itself. Apparently, she’s the only actual Roman ever to have been found buried in Britain.

It was fascinating stuff, but as the drama unfolded I found myself strongly possessed of two non-academic reactions. The first was a sense of fascination at the fact that a real human being, albeit bereft of flesh and the life force, was suddenly being released into the air and light after more than sixteen hundred years of burial in darkness and suffocating clay. The second was a sense of unease:

As the lid was being removed from the coffin inside the sarcophagus of the young woman, I felt a jolt. I asked myself whether we have a right to do this – to uncover an individual’s body and expose it to the prying gaze of strangers. To photograph it, to take it where we will, to dismember it if necessary, to scrape bits off it for various forms of analysis, to prod it and poke it and set it up for public scrutiny, and all in the cause of furthering our understanding of the past. Or maybe, if we’re to be honest, it’s really only serving our curiosity. It seemed indecent, and it seemed unjustifiably presumptuous.

It was a sense, not an opinion. An opinion would require careful consideration of the complexities, and would still in the end be arbitrary. Maybe curiosity justifies anything as long as there’s no hurt occasioned or harm done. Maybe the quest for knowledge is an essential component of our vaulted pursuit of light and reason. No doubt it is, but I’m still uneasy.

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