Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Bones: Queens, Journalists and Shrieking

Image (c) Wessex Archaeology

There have been a couple of super exciting discoveries in British archaeology recently. One of the absolute best things about Twitter is that I find out about these a lot faster through my network of wonderful archaeology tweeps. One of the most annoying things about this is that I will be cheekily scrolling through my tweets, come across a link, read the article and give out a strangled shriek of rage. Well, irritation, but it still makes my other half look at me like I'm raving mad. You'd think he'd have realised by now. Why would I have such a silly reaction to these wonderful pieces of news? This week I want to talk about an otherwise great discovery that provoked that yowling groan, and why it made me make stupid noises and jump around ranting.

The first one was the discovery of a female burial at Windsor, and included in her grave were some wonderfully rich artefacts. Gold jewellery, a distinctive pot known as a beaker, amber buttons, lignite beads- you name it, this lady was rocking it. The archaeologists themselves were cagey at first- Wessex Archaeology described the Kingsmead Quarry burial as that of an "important woman." Gareth Chaffey, who directed the excavation, tried desperately to encourage reporters to think of the woman in context with her community- to think about the life she led, her potential importance in trade, suggesting she could have been a leader. You can read his remarks on the Wessex Archaeology Blog, and they were pretty damn sensible. Yet mainstream media, Discovery News, the Daily Mail (no, surprise me), and NBC news all went for the royal connection. "Windsor's Earliest Queen!" "The First Queen of Windsor." Cue the NEAAAAAAARRRGH.

There are two massive problems with describing the Kingsmead burial as royal. The first one is an issue of terminology. Queen, princess- these are terms that we have manufactured and specified over centuries of very distinctive monarchy. Queens and princesses belong in interpretations of medieval royal palaces, dynastic marriage and arguments over Tudor succession. They do not belong in prehistory. We have absolutely no way of knowing whether someone living in the Windsor area in around 2500 BCE would have had a conception of a queen. My money says that they wouldn't. It's a completely inappropriate act of ethnocentrism to smear such culturally laden language all over the past. This leads me to the second problem. The terming of a burial as royal suggests that the value this woman had to her community was closely connected to her family, to her lineage. Terming her a Queen makes her body the source of her power- the mother of an heir, the daughter of a King. It removes all sense of this woman as having earned her beautiful grave goods through hard graft, through her position in the community, through her knowledge and wisdom, through her trading nous. To call this woman a queen reduces her to a womb or a chattel, an object revered as the channel for male power. A pretty plaything, revelling in her amber buttons as much as a modern princess might in her designer shoes. Yes, queens can wield power for themselves- Victoria, Elizabeth. Yes, royal women are intelligent, canny and strong. But they do not get hold of power due to their skills. They inherit it from a man, and their primary role is to produce an heir. And it seems like the only way that mainstream archaeological media can conceive of a powerful female figure in the past is to squash her into a royal box. I know the Windsor connection must have been a powerful temptation in this case- but it's symptomatic of a far wider problem. Inappropriate terminology, sexist interpretation, all being peddled to an interested public who lap up the byline and bling, as the journalist gets away with repeating the same tired narratives which press the past into terms so specific to the present as to obscure all its delicious complexity. Apart from being supremely irritating, it's bloody boring.*

I don't know how the Kingsmead woman got hold of her gorgeous grave goods. I don't know who decided she needed them in death. Maybe she did inherit hereditary power. Maybe she was married to a rich, male leader who covered her in goodies. The feminista interpretation of her as powerful in her own right may be as wrong as the sexist idea of her as a queen. My point is that popular science journalism should be exposing this juxtaposition, talking about it, making it clear to the public that archaeological interpretation isn't about splashing modern terms and assumptions on the past. That's why archaeology is so exciting. The world of "Windsor's Earliest Queen" was unimaginably different from our own- you got a flavour of that in the excellent Wessex blog by Karen Nichols. Why is it so impossible for mainstream media to get that message across?

What do you think? Did the Kingsmead coverage drive you nuts? Do you think that the Wessex blog should have been used in the mainstream press rather than just manipulated for the interpretation that journalists wanted? Please let me know.

* In an aside, this isn't just a problem for the media. In my own work, I come up regularly against "Tombe Principesche" or "Princely tombs." It seems like the royal metaphor is still, in spite of critique, clinging on in all its biased glory.

1 comment:

  1. Do you think they'd have referred to a male burial with similarly ornate gravegoods as the 'first king of windsor'?

    ReplyDelete

What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.