Role-Playing Debate Exercise On Burial Archaeology

I did a fun exercise with my Umeå archaeology freshmen Monday: a role-playing debate about the ethics of burial archaeology. The framework was a hearing at the Ministry of Culture regarding a planned revision of the Ancient Monuments Law.

I assigned randomised groups of up to 4 students roles as archaeologists, neopagans, the Swedish Church, a housing development firm, Satanists, Saami nationalists and recently arrived Syrian Orthodox Turks. Each group got a slip of paper telling them what their opinions were about burial archaeology, above-ground curation of human remains and reburial. I also indicated to each group a few other groups that they liked or disliked. Then they got 20 minutes to prepare their best arguments for why Swedish law should reflect the opinions I’d told them that they in particular had.

The whole thing went great. One Syrian Orthodox student happily role-played a Satanist, and a neopagan student proved quite persuasive as a Syrian Orthodox representative. I played the Ministry moderator, and often had to ask participants to stop making disparaging remarks about each other’s religious beliefs. We concluded that apparently not one single group shared the archaeologists’ priorities on the issues. Afterwards the students immediately demanded another exercise like this one.

Recent Archaeomags

001_CWA058_COVER-finals-1-229x300Current World Archaeology #58 (April/May) has a seven-page feature on the 8th century mass graves in ships at Salme on Saaremaa in Estonia. This astonishing find interests me greatly as the ships and the dead men’s equipment are Scandinavian, and so I mentioned it here back in 2008. One of the sword pommels is an example of the animal-figurine weaponry Jan Peder Lamm and myself have published on and suggest Finnish involvement. And boat burial in and of itself is a theme with which I have worked a lot. Here we seem to be dealing with Scandies who got badly beaten when attempting a raid, and who spent a considerable amount of time and effort burying their fallen comrades in their ships on the beach.

Skalk 2013:2 (April) has another seven-page feature, this one on the Hårby valkyrie miniature that I blogged about in January. It has excellent pictures including a detailed drawing of the interlace decoration on the lady’s right-hand side, showing it to be ring knots typical of the Borre style which flourished c. 850-950. The authors suggest a date already around 800, but do not argue much for it except that they understand that the figurine is Viking Period and believe (erroneously) that the valkyrie’s hair knot is mainly a Vendel Period feature. I was thrilled to read the “Song of Spears” out of Njal’s Saga for the first time, detailing the symbolic links between valkyries, faith, weaponry and weaving.

Current Archaeology #278 (May) has a feature on mass graves at Kilkenny Workhouse from the Irish Potato Famine about 1850. Starving people congregated here for free meals, infectious diseases spread through the weakened population and horrifying numbers died. But the piece is an interesting read: one detail particularly caught my eye:

An early attempt to alleviate the suffering by Prime Minister Robert Peel involved the bulk import of maize, or “Indian meal”, from America in 1846 and 1847. … Stable isotope analysis by Julia Beaumont from the University of Bradford has revealed that three individuals, aged six, seven and 13, preserve traces of a sudden shift from a potato to a maize diet in their bone collagen.

The same technique has recently been used to show that the cannibalised 14-year-old whose de-fleshed bones were found in a 1609/10 Jamestown waste midden was a well-nourished recent arrival from Europe.