Archaeological Zombies

Image by Joseph Hewitt of Ataraxia Theatre.

Archaeology is a famously ghoulish pursuit whose practitioners are always on the look-out for dead bodies to gloat over. If we can't find a grave, then at least we'll try to get hold of animal bones from kitchen middens and sacrificial deposits. I've seen desperate Mesolithic researchers cackle with funereal glee over the toe bones of long-dead seals. Osteologists are of course the worst necrophiliacs of the lot. But nobody's immune. There's an anecdote going around about my old favourite teacher, where he lifts a pelvis out of a Middle Neolithic grave, licks his lips while turning the charnel thing over in his hands, and exclaims, "Now this was a very beautiful woman!".

Less well known are the constant zombie encounters that archaeologists have to put up with. It's not that we excavate a lot of zombies. Soft tissues decay rapidly, and once the main ligaments have dissolved, the zombie can't really move any more. A de-fleshed zombie doesn't automatically turn into an animated skeleton: those are mostly superstition. And cremation pretty much puts a dead guy in his place. No, the dead don't rise much from the kind of sites we usually dig, unless you run into the rare lich king or barrow wight, or work in Egypt. Instead we tend to get a lot of recent zombies shuffling around our working environment.

It starts already at the university. Many lecturers turn into zombies scant years into their tenure, and non-zombies are rare among the adult education students in the night classes. I lost count of the times I had to flee from slavering carrion hordes down the nightmarish Modernist corridors of the South Buildings during my years at the University of Stockholm.

i-2413c9c34064a37937ec59d83d385bc1-fyllhammare.jpgThen you're on your first training dig, and your co-workers turn out to be zombies. I remember this one excavation at Sanda in Fresta where a group of Samhall special-needs workers were employed for heavier tasks. They may have looked like park-bench drunks, and that confused me at first since I thought they were the main site staff, but soon it was all "Braaains... Braaains... Got a ciiiig'rette, buddy?" It's simply stressful, what with all the digging implements around. Imagine what a zombie can do with a fyllhammare pointed hoe, right?

So you go on to grad school, and you need access to data and finds from old unpublished excavations. And sure enough: the retired fieldworkers controlling access to the stuff have all turned into zombies. How can you have a rational conversation about site plans and documentation methods with an old guy at a provincial museum when he's trying to gnaw your arm off? It's ridiculous.

Actually, museums are really the worst places for this. In the exhibitions, in the offices, and of course in every nook and cranny of the stores: it's zombies, zombies, zombies. Those damp concrete tunnels beneath the Museum of National Antiquities... I shiver to think of them. At the very least you always have to get past some semi-decomposed colleague with a key card on a lanyard around her excarnated neck, rasping, "Wearrr glovessss when haaandling the fiiiindssss... Raaaahhh..."

As a profession, archaeology is second only to mortician work in popularity. I mean, most jobs don't involve any handling of dead bodies at all, which means that you'll have to get your kicks strictly in your free time. But nevertheless, before heading into the archaeology business, I think you should ask yourself, "Do I really want to be chased by zombies at work on a regular basis?". Consider your alternatives. In the movie industry, for instance, the zombies are just normal people in scary make-up. You can have a cup of tea and a chat with them between takes. And you won't have to endure the smell. Think about it!

And check out Joseph Hewitt's open-source multi-platform robot game, GearHead!

In other news, the past three months were the best 2nd quarter for traffic I've seen so far as a blogger. Thanks guys!

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In a museum where I once worked, the tiny, unidentifiable body sherds (below a certain, barely measurable size) used to be counted & weighed by provenience unit, and then poured down an access panel into the sub-basement. Now I wonder ... was this some kind of appeasement offering to those zombified former graduate students whose official status of "writing dissertation" meant that their names remained on the registrar's list, though no one had seen them in years ... something to keep them busy, like those mindless tasks heroines get in mythology: counting seeds and so on. Come to think of it, there was sometimes a sighing sound â they used to tell us it was merely steam from the hot water pipes.

Lookin' good, dude!

Once upon a simpler time, when a world could be relied upon to last longer than a few sessions (translation: I was the DM, and I brooked no planet-busting tactics), I sent a group of adventurers back and sideways in Time, to a Lovecraftian equivalent of Victorian-era Egypt, where they took up [strike]tomb robbing[/strike] archaeology as a profession, and a brisk time was had by all.

In conclusion...BRAAAIIINNSSS!

We osteologists are no zombies! That is one of the most blasphemous things I have heard you say, Martin! Shame on you!
Just because I had a teacher who I one day found transfixed, looking at a skull, barely registering my good morning greeting and after a while saying.
"Hey, hey! I mean look at him! Ain´t he gorgeous!"

It´s not about us being zombies. It is just one way that display our equisite taste and superior abilities of seeing the beauty displayed in death. After all, we realize that death is just a different state of being. And that is not truly dead that for eternals lie... I mean, we are no mere simpistic zombielike cultist! We are the custodians of a collection of knowledge of a higher order that you mere archaeologists can barely comprehend!

After all, we all know too well all them Gollums creeping around in the trenches. I swear that I heard you, Martin, once upon a time back in the days I carried out the dignified task of examining your bear phalanxes, I swear that I heard you whispering:
"Myyy precioouuzzzz...." and caught a glimpse of you, crounched over your desk clutching an old vendel period ring in your fingers.

Now we osteologists are above all that nonsense. We know that things and objects are but fleeting things in the oceans of time. But the bones, the bones they retain primordial knowledge and wisdom, carried over wast and stange aeons!

Now, I have been exposed to way too much sunlight and need to rest in my sarco... I mean my bed before getting to work during the cool hours. Also, I hear my sons urgent Iä! Iä!
Enough of this nonsense! You peons carry on your mundane tasks and simpleminded thoughts!

Martin -- great post, and sadly enough applicable far outside of academic archaeology. It reminds me of a quotation I picked up somewhere:

"There are people who die at 40 and get buried at 80..."

Essentially: as a person, you have a choice to either keep developing or to die. Or, expressed in today's theme: it's either brains -- or BRRAAIIIINNNSSS....!!!

Off-topic: In regard to "seriously decomposed brains" P Z (Pharyngula) Myers found a âscience for Christiansâ textbook ,debated at âFrickinâ electricity, how does it work?â… After dissecting the complete ignorance shown in the book about how electricity works, Myers and commenters moved on to the chapter âHistory of the Moonâ Click on âLook inside the bookâ and then click on âChapter One: History of the Moonâ and then ânext pageâ At this point you will either laugh yourself silly, or suffer a stroke from anger.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Is this another alias of mabus? Anyway, so very appropriate for the nuts to come out precisely when has a zombie theme :)

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Hi Martin (in English, for the benefit of your English-language readers) nice to find a fellow Swede here. Up in Umeå we can now read the newspaper by the ambient light at midnight. Alas we have no cool archaeological sites apart from a bronze-age rock carving in my home village. Come up here sometime, we have the world's oldest ski (5200 years old) at the museum. :)

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 02 Jul 2010 #permalink

Thank you, I've never been to Umeå. There's an archaeology department there, but they never post any job ads. As for sites in the area, I think you'd be surprised: check out !