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21 November 2011 @ 10:14 pm
Quote of the Day: Mary Baker  
The cemetery isn't really a place to make a statement.
- Mary Elizabeth Baker


I'm not sure who Mary Elizabeth Baker was, or the context for her little remark.  (Google didn't help me sort that out, either.)  But as a student of archaeology, I thought it was an interesting comment because the cemetery is often the best place for us to learn about the past.  In terms of making a statement about the priorities of a people, their likes and dislikes, and suchlike, a gravesite can be a valuable source...and in many prehistoric cases, the only source that survives.

Just to pick out one of the most obvious examples: were it not for the complex necropoleis built at sites like Giza, Saqqara, and the Valley of the Kings, we wouldn't know a tenth of the information we now have about the daily life of the ancient Egyptians.  It is through the paintings on tomb walls and the wooden models included in the tombs of pharaohs and elite classes that we understand how many basic processes, like weaving cloth or baking bread, were done by the working classes.  From murals of fish and other animals, we know about the existence of creatures now long extinct in the Nile region.  Thanks to well-preserved mummies we can learn about diseases, diet, quality of life, etc.  While some aspects of religion, architecture, and art can be retrieved through other sources, like the vast temple complexes that still survive or fragmentary writings of long-dead historians, it is through the tombs that we glean the most information.

And I don't think that anyone can even attempt to argue that men like Khufu and Khafre were not trying to make a statement when they built those giant pyramids.  Queen Hatchepsut and her mortuary complex proudly proclaim her greatness and pay tribute the great deeds this woman pharaoh completed during her reign - and if that proud statement had not been made, that history would likely have been lost forever since attempts were made to erase her kingship from the Egyptian historical record.

I'm sure that Baker's comment was meant from a humanitarian standpoint - money should not be spent on building elaborate crypts and tombstones when a better legacy can be left by doing good in the world - but I thought it was interesting to twist it a different way, and think about what kind of impact the cemetery can make to the anthropologist and the historian.