I’m back! As in, back home in the U.S. and back writing the blog! It’s taken me several weeks to get myself together, get over the jet lag, and get myself back at the computer working and writing (OK, if we are being fair, that last thing hasn’t really been happening at the rate it should be). It always takes me a few weeks to shake off the Cyprus life and accept that I am no longer living on a beautiful Mediterranean island. As it is over 100 degrees where I live (that’s over 37 degrees C for my friends in the rest of the world) and there is no sea to float in to find relief, my body and my mind are gripping tightly to the island life; take me back Cyprus, I miss you so!
I’m coming at you from my little apartment in the desert, specifically the spare bedroom that, on my most obnoxious days, I call “the study” in a snooty voice. I’m thinking of renaming it The Fulbright Suite so the blog name makes sense. I shall make a sign and display it on the door like they do at themed bed and breakfasts…..and then whenever someone comes to stay with us, I will say “you will be staying in The Fulbright Suite.” I’m so doing this…
Serious archaeology subject…and go…Ok, so this week has me thinking of monuments, and my recent return to the U.S. has me thinking about, well, living in the U.S. The reason should be pretty obvious as the events of yesterday seventeen years ago have unfortunately provided Americans with more monuments than we wanted. I’m not one to memorialize people or events on social media outlets, but as an anthropologist, I can’t help but think about how we memorialize people, how that is affected by our social, political, and economic worlds, and the place memorializing someone holds or doesn’t hold in the mortuary ritual. My work uses tombs to understand social complexity and economic inequality, so you can imagine I think of this kind of thing fairly often, and especially on days like today.
Someone once said to me in a graduate class when I was a wee PhD student at the start of my degree, “the mortuary ritual is dictated by the survivors, not the dead.” My young brain was like “whoah, that is a big statement and is so true.” The deceased is gone, so the living make decisions about how big your tomb is or how much stuff goes into the tomb with you. The living gather for the funerary feast and visit the tomb afterward to bring libations or other goods to commemorate the person. The living decide.
Recently, my old PhD brain, was like “whoah, that is not even remotely true”, and here is why: the living (and the dead to some degree) shape the cultural, social, political, and economic system in which they live. What the heck am I talking about? Well, our actions are constrained by the societies we live in, our replication or interpretation of that society’s norms can and does make changes to that society in small increments until a tipping point is reached and things seem to change rapidly (even though they had been changing for a long time- it just feels and looks quick). We, the living, don’t dictate what the funerary ritual or the tomb looks like, it is the thousands of actions and interactions that shape our social worlds and the social worlds that are created that dictate how we memorialize the dead. Hmmm, this is way more complicated than just the family or the community of the deceased making a decision.
Let’s take for example, some of the monuments in Washington D.C. The monuments that commemorate “great” presidents are either in a neo-classical style or are directly taken from monuments erected for great leaders in the past. I am referring to the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and the Washington memorial in that order. Why the replication of the ancient Greek/Roman and Egyptian style? Because in the social world that those monuments were built, these styles and the cultures they represent were equated with power, success, democracy (as in Greek democracy), and empire building. All of these things were very important to the U.S. at the times these monuments were built and were part of the cultural identity of the growing nation: The Jefferson memorial was begun in 1939 between the two World Wars; Washington was the earliest, started in 1848 right at the end of the Mexican American War; and Lincoln was erected right at the start of WWI in 1914. I figured Lincoln went up pretty soon after the assassination, but it didn’t, and Jefferson took over 100 years from the end of his presidency. It should strike you, as it did me, that these monuments were constructed way later than you would have thought and at times when power, success, and the American democracy and empire were threatened, and the American social world was shaken and needed to be restored. Hmmm, maybe that is because it’s not about the person living or dying but rather about what it means to the society, and how it fits in with the social world created by the people who live in it.
Maybe this is a bit anecdotal, maybe this is completely wrong. Maybe it makes a point about monuments and funerary ritual. I contrast the presidential monuments with that of my favorite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, there are monuments to Emerson all over the place, and yes some of them are grand, but his grave is simple. Nestled in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery- a rather beautiful place full of large trees and big thoughts- Emerson’s grave stone stands, an unshaped piece of stone, large but not overpowering, affixed with a small copper plaque bearing his name. And that’s it. Emerson lived a big and important life, but his grave is more simple than you would expect. Why? Because the social world in which he lived, cherished and upheld simplicity, nature and the wild nature of humans and the Earth.
What the heck is my point here? Monuments are an important expression of the social world in which they are constructed. They are the outward appearance of what a society is, how it functions, and how it wants to be projected to the rest of the world. Next time you travel to Washington D.C. and walk along the National Mall, or travel to Egypt to see the pyramids or Rome to see the Pantheon or Trajan’s column or really anywhere as we humans love to put up monuments, think about what these things meant to the society who put them up, and what social norms governed the way they were constructed, and then think of how this has changed over time or not, and then have a little freak out because maybe some of these monuments shouldn’t be monuments anymore, and then think of Lincoln and feel secure that some of them should be…and then tell me your thoughts in the comments section!!
*The title comes from an episode of the TV show, The West Wing- it’s one of my favorite episodes, and is particularly relevant for this discussion, our current social world in the U.S. and this week, in fact. Please, if you can, watch the whole episode (Season 5, Episode 10: The Stormy Present). If you can’t, the quote comes from a letter a former president writes to the current president, “Men seek to douse the flame, douse the ideal, to return to a different age entirely, to return to the age from which our forefathers fled. Fundamentalism is a vision, an ideal as rigid as democracy is flexible. And we cannot let it overcome what we have worked so hard to earn. Jed- Go see Lincoln and listen.”
Here is the clip of Jed, the president, reading the letter and going to see Lincoln [the memorial]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyeanUCpIkM