Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Knight with two swords...and should we just leave him alone?

Earlier this month a team of hobby archeologists - or archeological hobbyists - unearthed an amazing find in a field in Janakkala in Southern Finland. They were using metal-detector equipment on a site thought to contain prehistoric remains. After turning up a few minor bits and bobs, the detector located a piece of a spear and an axe blade. The group started digging and found the remnant of a sword.

Leave me alone, you ghoulish bastards

At this point they broke off work and contacted The National Board of Antiquities. A 'proper' dig was conducted, and a grave uncovered containing the remarkably well-preserved cadaver of a Crusader knight dating back almost a thousand years to the time of the First or Second Crusade. Most unusually, Sir Anonymous had been buried with two swords. One was a 12th century longsword, of the sort you might expect a knight to carry, the other a Viking-era blade. The knight himself was a fine figure of a man, 180cm tall, and clearly well-prepared to tackle anything the afterlife could throw at him: besides the two swords, he was also buried with an array of tools, including a spear and axe. Perhaps he died with a guilty conscience?

The excitement over this find reminded me of a moral issue I occasionally have problems with. Is it right for us to grub up the remains of the dead from their last resting place, so we can pick over their bones and attempt to recreate their physical appearance using complex facial reconstruction techniques etc? Archeologists have always sought to locate and uncover the dead - it's their job - but this is threatening to become a trend, especially in England, where the rediscovery of Richard III's bones has led to calls for other dead monarchs to be exhumed. Next up is Alfred the Great, a long-suffering, serenely dignified man in life, whose dignity is about to be raped in death.

Richard III's skull

I exaggerate, of course. 'Rape' is a deliberately emotive word, used to ensure that some of you are still listening at the back. The obvious counter-argument is that unearthing the dead and examining human remains adds to our store of knowledge, and that archeology is the only certain way of discovering what really happened 'on the ground' in the distant past. Otherwise we have to rely on informed speculation and contemporary writings, both of which can lead to seriously flawed conclusions.

It's a point worth discussing, though. Certainly our dead Finnish crusader would be outraged at the notion that his grave might be disturbed a thousand years after his death, and must be roundly cursing us from Heaven or Valhalla or wherever his warlike soul found its rest. Is the sanctity of a grave worth more than the accumulation of knowledge?


  1. I don't know the answer. It's too bad these people didn't have the opportunity to make a choice (a check-box in the will, for example). I know I prefer burial to cremation for myself because I like the idea that someday, someone will come along and find my bones.

    1. I wonder if we should not respect the wishes of the people buried: for instance, I doubt that your average 12th century Catholic knight would have wanted his earthly remains to be exhumed by anyone other than a priest.

  2. I don't know. I kind of like the idea of my skelly being in a museum someday, like that Grover Krantz guy in the Smithsonian. I think it's more a concern when there are living descendents or people of the same culture who might be offended by the appropriation of one of their kin without their permission.

    1. Good point. Part of the problem, I think, is that we live in a much more secular society that makes it difficult for us to appreciate the mindset of the long-dead, or their wishes.