This is from a blog post I wrote in 2008. At the time I was working on my masters degree at the University of Sheffield. The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavations were ongoing and the cremated remains were brought back to the university for cleaning and analyses. There were other skeletons too, including Medieval burials dating from the Battle of Towton Fields. I was one of the volunteers who washed the bones.
Halloween is not a time for the telling of the stories macabre, but to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis, let us do so. – Hercule Poirot
I regularly come in early on Tuesdays and wash the bones from the Stonehenge excavation. The lab is usually quiet with people chatting occasionally, but mostly the few of us there are wrapped up in our work. For me it’s a time of meditation. Washing the small fragments of bones, I wonder about whose they were and and think about how fragile life is. Sometimes we talk about a skeleton whose joints are degenerated and painful to look at, or the skeleton of a small child who never got old enough to walk. There is the stereotype of scientists as being cold and uncaring, but it’s not a fair judgement. We think about the parents of the child who died so young, or how painful life must have been for others who were so old. The bones are handled with respect and all the care we would show our ancestors. In a way we are re-enacting our own modern version of ancient rituals. In the distant past some burials were reopened and the flesh carefully removed from the bones and were then coated with red ochre (which when mixed with water resembles fresh blood). Afterwards the bones were reinterred. I carefully wash the fragments of bone, hardened by fire but still so fragile, rubbing them gently with my fingers to loosen the mud.
I think about Buddhist monks who watch the exposed bodies of their masters decompose, slowly returning to the fields upon which they were laid. They also meditate on life and death, the temporary nature of the physical body, and to view the world with a detached nature.
As I wash the bones, I think about how so many things of the ancient past are now an intimate part of my present. I am living in an extraordinary mash-up of time. In the building where I wash these five-thousand year old bones, there is also state of the art equipment. My life is tied to ancient artefacts and modern technology. Trying to imagine the distance in time creates a wild mental pendulum that slows to its central point of now. All time is now and I am just quietly washing the mud off of bits of bone.
~~All Soul’s Day 2008