The Buried Soul
How Humans Invented Death
Timothy Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford, had remained lodged in my mind after reading his fascinating 1997 work The Prehistory of Sex. Sound scholarship, daring scope, plus stone dildos and rock art of men on skis shagging pastoral beasts. What’s not to like? I caught a glimpse of The Buried Soul when it came out six years ago, and was intrigued; first sex, now death. Must read.
Finally getting round to it provided me with a potently stimulating mixture of thrills, frustration, and revision (or at least, shaking up) of long-held ideas about prehistory. What’s most challenging and refreshing about this book is its combination of non-linear structure, eschewing pretensions to comprehensive coverage, with mostly careful, intellectually muscular reasoning. Taylor jumps back and forth through history, from the remotest reaches of human existence through to Soviet Russia, with constant visits to his own personal relationship to death. These personal revelations, experiences of family loss, archaeological “behind-the-scenes” episodes, and very private spontaneous rituals, are eyebrow-raising at times. To match this kind of confessional daring with challenging, hard-edged observations, and the crafting of genuinely fresh, interesting theory is audacious and to be greatly respected.
As each chapter unfolds, one senses loose threads binding the sometimes disparate historical scenes together. Gradually, though, without allowing the gravity of a totalizing “theory” or “conclusion” to wholly catch him in its pull, Taylor constructs some powerful resonances and perceptions that creep up on you as you progress. His core ideas seem to be perpetually caught between familiar “debunking” mode of academic work, wherein romantic notions are crushed, and an inadvertent collusion with the sensationalist attraction of gruesomeness. “Do cannibals exist?” shouts the first, emphasized line of the back cover blurb—obviously not Taylor’s doing, but one has to be aware of the pull of marketing expediency in the background of any book conceived for a popular audience.
On the one hand cannibalism is pulled into the foreground of debate about prehistory, out from under the carpets that well-meaning but in-denial recent theorists have swept it under in their efforts to counter the deep-rooted prejudices of archaeology’s racist, colonialist roots. Pointing to clear evidence from anthropology that “funerary cannibalism” among foraging people is quite common, re-incorporating the deceased back into the bio-communal spiritual cycle, Taylor speculates that the earliest stone age burials, far from demonstrating the dawning of religious sensibility, may have been the first evidence of post-mortem exclusion, perhaps scapegoating. The soul is left in limbo, in a hole, banished from society.
However, this brilliantly perceptive theorizing is caught in the momentum of the familiar, and almost inevitable “see-saw” effect of ongoing debate. Writers who saw accusations of cannibalism among “primitive” people as all-out prejudicial fantasy went too far in countering this, allowing the truth mixed in with the paranoia, the demonic baby in the bathwater, to slip away. Taylor’s counter-attack is more sophisticated, but he does little to soften the momentum of its reverse movement. His focus on examples of brutality and savagery throughout the book isn’t exactly blinkered, but it is strong enough for me to have recoiled from the sense that his narrative was at times caught by the high-gravity notion, more prevalent now than ever, that modern life is the linear result of ongoing moral progress.
One of Taylor’s refrains is that he refuses moral relativism, feeling himself duty-bound to call a spade a spade and say an ancient society is savage and brutal when the evidence indicates. And it’s hard to overstate how invigorating this attitude is next to the dubious “objectivity” (usually, veiled subjectivity) of most academic work (not to mention the twee romance of the New Age). But while Taylor is a shrewd, sensitive thinker, I frequently felt the need to step back and judge his judgement (I’m sure Jesus said something about this dynamic…). For instance, he makes the point that although the idea that the Spanish conquest of Mexico was a tragic loss of indigenous culture is “an item of anti-imperialist faith”,
… it is difficult to assert with a clear conscience that the Roman Catholicism that swept away the human sacrifices of Aztec religion was not, for all its hypocrisies, repressions and failings, better than what it replaced.
Here we see the see-saw in full effect. The idea that comparisons between cultures is a devilishly complex thing is, in the face of people who make black-and-white judgements in one direction, swept away by the opposing perspective. What’s more, to my view the most viable critiques of the modern world based on cultures in other times and places are based on looking at pre-civilized life (see anthropik.com for some of the best material on this). Taylor, trying to counter the generally flimsy view that “life was better in the past”, focuses on instances where it was clearly worse: brutal Viking societies, ritual murders in the Iron Age, the bloody excesses of Mesoamerica. I’m personally more concerned about the genocidal and ethnocidal decimation of foraging or pastoral cultures visited upon foreign lands by the Christian world. They were and are no angels, but it’s clear from what’s left that there was more to learn from them than how not to do things.
While it’s undeniable that horrors occurred (and occur) among hunter-gatherers, including non-funerary, aggressive cannibalism, it’s strange seeing funerary cannibalism lost in the mix of evidence to show that our naive “noble savage” contingent are plain wrong. I’m conditioned by my own culture, and I’d be unsure about consuming my parent’s bodies when they die. But I also wonder about explaining our own treatment of death to an Amazonian Indian who necks the ashes of his folks with mashed banana when they go. Our noble principles about valuing life are not to be sniffed at; but relating to our Amazonian the case of Diane Pretty, who suffered a prolonged, agonizing death by court order, or telling of our quite routine institutionalized abuse of the elderly, would clearly horrify him. I’d much rather scoff my dad than let him die in indescribable pain. But for us, the former is grossly taboo, while the latter is often—with good intentions—enforced.
It’s clearly not Taylor’s intention to swing us back to the modern = good, primitive = bad simplicity of pre-PC archaeology, and it’s certainly not the overall effect. He briefly alludes to the idea that modern warfare may be considered in the tradition of violent sacrifice; and his fascinating analysis of the preservation of Lenin’s corpse in Red Square could be one of the definitive proofs that atheist scientism is no cure for the irrational, often macabre weirdness of being human. Still, a few more caveats among the moral judgements wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Jumping forward from the idea of ostracization as a motive for the earliest burials to the famed “bog bodies”, uncannily preserved corpses found in peat bogs across northern Europe, finds Taylor at his best. His arguments about their status—scapegoat-like ritual murders of transgressors, he thinks—are a thrilling mixture of attention to detail and bold, imaginative leaps. Reading this, and a few other chapters, found my spontaneous inner review-writer throwing out the phrase “this is popular archaeology at its best!” for consideration as a quick summary of the book.
My judgement of Taylor’s judgements may have settled into the background if it weren’t for the odd final chapter. While his conception of “visceral insulation”—his greatest condemnation of modern life, in its distance from the body and death—is adroit, his use of the denial of “Satanic Ritual Abuse” as its most notable manifestation is bizarre. I confess to a few naiveties on my own part in the past, taking the obvious evidence of the SRA phenomena being largely created by fundamentalist Christians a little too far. These days, I feel that defending the occult and pagan community by claiming “true” Satanists would never do such things is the wrong tack. Taylor rightly ridicules people trying to point out that convicted ritual abusers spelled the names of spirits wrong (so of course they’re not “proper” pagans!). But he also dismisses as an “apologist” the occult historian who wrote of a convicted paedophile, “there was no lineage of Satanism, no connection with any other Satanic group or Satanist”, and that the guy’s motive was “perversion which would have occurred whether or not there had been any occult connection.” When he goes on to draw parallels between people trying to separate instances of ritual abuse from genuine practice of occultism and people who deny the Holocaust, we lose sight of the care and intelligence in much of this book’s righteousness.
It seems clear to me that the latter statement of the “apologist” is true. Is Taylor really laying the blame on the door of occultism? It’s easy as a pagan to condemn the Church when we find child abuse on a massive scale going on there, persistently covered up; especially when they themselves are banging on about the relatively small number of cases found among those who call themselves pagan. It’s easier for non-pagans (whether Christian or humanist) to react with horror to the lurid trappings of Satanism than the blandly familiar ambience of the Church. It’s hard to step back and see that it’s complex, and that people with all kinds of beliefs violate other humans. But as Taylor himself warns in the final pages, we are “still capable of scapegoating”. The way in which he pulls Satanic Ritual Abuse out of the hands of the whitewashers leaves him in persistent danger of fuelling the scapegoating impulse that made the issue such a disproportionate media frenzy. Yes, scapegoating is alive and well.
Modern rational democracies have a habit of exporting their violence, or spreading it thinner, and for this very reason—along with our post-Christian unease with intense physicality—find it easier to morally judge other societies where aggression and perversion are vented directly, in the flesh. But it’s impossible (and quite boring) to leave opinion dangling in some limbo of objectivity, making no judgements. Taylor’s polemic is probably necessary, finely crafted, a buzz to read, but marred by occasional wrong-headedness and a distasteful background antipathy to paganism.
One of his recurring tools for analysis is to see how the treatment of the dead is structured to reinforce and protect the status quo of the living. Similarly, this is how I see much judgement of the long-dead functioning. We cannot naively claim that it’s just good moral opinion to condemn the brutalities of the past (even though such condemnation is often necessary). Such opinion is always feeding into wider cultural debates that are largely to do with supporting or attacking the contemporary status quo.
Taylor’s occasional swipes at the modern world leave him perhaps a little more towards John Gray’s mordant realism than the insidious rationalist pro-modernism of people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. But, poised on the brink of ecological disaster, now is not the time for justifying our current way of life on the basis that we’re not as immediately brutal as some who came before us.
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