Sentimentality When Peering Into The Past

I’ve recently had a heated to and fro on Twitter in regards to a throwaway tweet I’d posted near bedtime. I was watching a documentary about the Mahdia shipwreck and commented that I felt drawn to wrecks in particular as I find the archaeology of them fascinating in an almost romantic way.

Almost immediately a tweet was fired back castigating me for the use of the word ‘romantic.’ Apparently when viewing a shipwreck, I should only hear echoes of the screams of the drowning. What was the inference? Surely not that I make light of the deaths of others? As an historian, amateur or professional, 99% of the people studied are dead. If I was to burst into tears at every historical demise I’ve read about I’d have cried enough tears to raise global sea levels by at least a mile by now.

So should we, as tour guides/teachers/authors/archaeologists have to constantly and publicly mourn our subject cases, tearing at our hair in demonstrative grief, purely so that people don’t think that we are clinical and cold-hearted?

In my opinion, to be an historian of any kind involves a warm heart. If I were icy at my core I’d hardly have developed a passion for learning about the lives of others, centuries dead.

A few tweets were batted back and forth, but 140 characters aren’t really enough to defend this stance, and I didn’t manage to convince the put-out tweeter. Hence, I’m musing aloud on the internet.

I do, of course, mourn lost lives. Particularly, as in this case, of those lost in any kind of violence. I have been known to weep openly when reading books, watching documentaries, or visiting sites where blood has been shed by catastrophe or brutality. I don’t hide or deny my tears. They are what make me and keep me human whilst devouring copious amounts of information about the sufferings of others. But this mourning period passes.

When it does, the void it leaves behind is filled with learning about the lives of the deceased. Death is but a tiny chapter in the history of a person. Whilst upsetting, the manner of death can be interesting. But it is what came before that is what makes my passion for history so all-consuming.

We’ve recently marked the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. Whilst our shock at so many lives lost in a single night is sobering, it is the unique story of the lives of those aboard that is most engrossing. We have a perfect slice of society on board one ship, an era embodied in it. In the case of the Titanic, death is what grabs our immediate attention, and we cannot deny that. However, it is the details of the lives of the passengers that keeps our attention. The minutiae of daily routines, the hopes and aspirations of those embarking on life altering journeys, the similarities and the differences between their own society and ours.

To further my point, let’s look at Pompeii.

In 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. The resulting pyroclastic flow engulfed many towns around the Bay of Naples including Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Thousands of people died that day, and the towns were buried under metres of debris, preserving them in a perfect time capsule for centuries.

The manner of death in a volcanic eruption is not pretty. For some victims, inhalation of ash particles mixed with fluid inside the lungs caused them to drown in internal cement, rather than suffocate. For others swept up in a wave of searingly hot gases, brains would boil inside skulls. All of this is horrific in the extreme. But what these sites give us is a rich mine of information into Roman life.

Archaeologists have been able to determine diets by analysing meals that were carbonised in the eruption. We even have perfectly preserved loaves of bread and eggs that are nearly two millenia old. For the first time we can see roman furniture as it was arranged in the home, instead of relying on descriptions or drawings. We can marvel at what was startlingly different about roman society (hanging images of a large erect phallus in your home to ward of evil spirits) and identify with the things that are instantly recognisable to our modern eyes (a wooden rocking crib in a nursery at Herculaneum.)

I did spend a lot of my visits to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae in quiet contemplation. I did cry. When bodies were covered with ash, their flesh decomposed leaving a perfect impression of them behind in the hardened ashy rock. One archaeologist had the genius idea of filling the holes with plaster so that a cast was made. Whilst that gives us unprecedented knowledge about the clothing and physical characteristics of the Pompeiians (they were plumper than you’d imagine) it is of course sobering to see death throes frozen forever in plaster.

But I spent far more time inhaling my surroundings. After I’d dealt with the death of Pompeii, I could concentrate on the life of Pompeii. I could read the graffiti, prop up an ancient bar, recite a few lines of Aristophanes on an ancient stage. When you look past how someone died, you get to glimpse what they ate, wore, what made them laugh, how they made their wages and what their aspirations were.

From an entertainment point of view, let’s look at Titanic and Pompeii from a different perspective. James Cameron and Julian Fellowes both made lengthy dramatisations of the sinking of the Titanic. Neither spent the entire length portraying nameless people drowning, forsaking all else. Instead they devoted the majority of screen time to the conversations, habits, and customs of those aboard. When Robert Harris wrote his wonderful novel Pompeii, I don’t think he even spent a page detailing the forensic aspects of death by volcano. Instead he brought the Pompeiians back to life by focussing on their routines, culture and society. But the fact is that no-one would watch a film about an ocean liner that doesn’t sink or read a novel about a roman town where everything is peachy. Sometimes we need that dramatic event to reel us in a little.

So here’s the question. Should the manner of these deaths provoke such overwhelming feelings of horror loss prevent us from gaining invaluable knowledge and insight into the past? How long must a person have been deceased before it is acceptable to study their life? Should historians be hanging their heads in shame for gleefully delving into the lives of the dead? Should we refrain from our attempts to find, excavate and document the past in case we disturb human remains? The lines become blurred. Egyptian mummies, for instance, are always a big crowd pleaser in any museum. It’s safe to say that a minority of mummified Egyptians expired in horrendously violent circumstances. But they did still die. Maybe of a long term painful disease. And yet I doubt I would be guilt tripped by online strangers if I had commented on their remains. If a person dies violently, should we really venerate them to the cost of learning about them? What defines a person, how they live life or how they leave it?

If we’re to be crippled with sentimentality, where do we draw the line? Should residents of London simultaneously leave, creating a silent monument which nobody can visit, simply because thousands of people died there due to plague a few centuries ago? Should Parisians be paralysed with their pity of the thousands who perished in the French Revolution? Nonsense. Remembering the dead should not be forgotten but it should not be all consuming. Instead, perhaps we should focus on what the dead have given us from their lives.

So when I used the word romantic, I wasn’t belittling the deaths of those who died during the sinking of the Mahdia wreck. I was marvelling at the precious chance to learn about their lives. I was celebrating that far from being forgotten, these long dead people will be remembered for years to come. Every time someone looks at an exhibit in a museum, or reads a book, or watches a documentary, they will wonder at what made these historical people tick. Perhaps some of them didn’t have a family to mourn them two thousand years ago, but now hundreds if not thousands of people will pause if only for a little while and think of them. Through the unfortunate manner of their deaths, those sailors have achieved immortality. Even when our bodies have gone, archaeologists and historians will still care enough about us that they will want to know more about our own personal stories, and far off in the future, people will remember that we were here. I don’t know about you, but I shudder at the thought of the manner of my death being the only remarkable aspect of my time on this planet. I’d hope that some of my actions and personality traits will be worth a mention when I’m gone, otherwise my eulogy is going to be very short! To put it another way, I of course want people to grieve that I’ve gone, but I want them to be glad that I lived.

I think it’s marvellous that I can feel as if I know somebody long gone by what they’ve left behind. It’s as if, through history and archaeology, something of each of us will remain forever, just waiting to be discovered.

I find that a beautiful concept, even a little romantic.

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