Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
From Dr Paul Bahn
Sir, In his article 'The Edible Dead' (June), Tim Taylor is being less than forthright about my objections to the TV series Cannibal. As he is well aware, my principal objection was the utter one-sidedness of its presentation of the case for alleged archaeological evidence of the practice. No contrary views were presented, no sceptics allowed on camera, and there was no recognition of the extremely ambiguous nature of most evidence.
I fear that this fits a growing trend in archaeological documentaries - one need only mention the utterly appalling and one-sided show about cave art in the BBC's Apeman series, or the recent Channel 4 programme Gladiator Girl where an alternative explanation for the cremated remains in question was allotted a very brief mention in this 90-minute documentary, and then brushed aside in favour of the more 'sexy' theory. Programme makers have apparently decided that the viewing public is incapable of weighing up alternative views for itself, and needs to be spoon-fed one pet theory, no matter how weak or preposterous the case presented may be.
Returning to Tim Taylor's article, it too is utterly one-sided in its eagerness to believe every written account of cannibalism, and to interpret any cutmarks or split bones as evidence of the practice. The headline claim that 'There is clear evidence for cannibalism in almost every society and every period' is an exaggeration which ignores, for example, the recent, profound and damning reanalysis of archaeological and ethnohistoric examples of supposed cannibalism carried out by Dr Heidi Peter-Roecher, who is currently the leading specialist in this field (Kannibalismus in der prähistorischen Forschung, 1994; Mythos Menschenfresser, 1998).
It is particularly ironic that he accuses William Arens of 'sleight of hand', when he himself displays a flagrant lack of accuracy: for example, he claims that 'Herodotus's man-eaters find archaeological support, as Jim Mallory and EM Murphy . . . have shown. Herodotus's account of funerary cannibalism among the Massagetae of the Iron Age steppes in the 5th century BC can now be supported by cut-marks in a 3rd century burial of the Uyuk culture in southern Siberia'. In fact, what Mallory and Murphy make clear in their publications on this subject is that Herodotus got it wrong, as they put it, and that most likely the bodies were merely defleshed and disarticulated, because of these people's seasonal movements between the summer uplands and the valleys where their cemeteries were located.
Deaths far from the tribal cemetery may have prompted them to repackage their dead into a manageable and hygienic bundle that could later be placed in the family tomb: 'This process . . . could easily have been mistaken for evidence for cannibalistic practices by an uninformed foreign onlooker.' So why does Tim Taylor prefer to turn Mallory and Murphy's conclusion upside down and believe the opposite of what they say? Perhaps the answer to that question lies at the heart of his approach to this topic.
From Mr Olaf Swarbrick
Sir: I write to question Timothy Taylor's interpretation of cannibalism on the Late Palaeolithic mandible and cranium from Gough's Cave, illustrated in your last issue. Whilst the cutmarks are obvious, the interpretation is unsatisfactory.
The marks on the mandible appear to be on the anterior aspect of this bone, but Dr Taylor does not state if the illustration is of the external or internal surface, and this is not clear from the illustration. I have removed the tongue at autopsy from very many animals, but never from human cadavers. It is never easy. One needs to cut from the ventral aspect of the head along the medial side of each mandible, through the skin and other tissues into the buccal cavity, and to cut the tough and resilient hyoid bone together with the trachea and oesophagus, so as to release the tongue. This procedure does not give cuts onto the anterior aspect of, and at right angles to, the mandible. I suggest these cutmarks arose for other reasons.
I do not comprehend how the cutmarks on the exterior aspect of the cranium could be connected with cannibalism. There is no edible tissue on the skull, and this cranium appears to be otherwise undamaged, so there was no removal of brain tissue. Maybe this was just scalping or some other unknown ritual?
By contrast, the coprolite from the 1,000-year-old Indian site in the usa does seem to be evidence of cannibalism. If human myoglobin was present in the coprolite, as was claimed, it is highly unlikely that it could have got there by any means other than the consumption of human muscle.
Myoglobin only circulates in the bloodstream as a result of very uncommon disorders resulting in muscle breakdown. While such disorders may have occurred in early societies their occurrence is very rare, and thus the presence of myoglobin in the coprolite as a result of intestinal haemorrhage is very unlikely.
From Mr Gerald Rix
Sir: In his letter asking about the sources of water on hillforts (Letters, April), Peter Davies raises a matter which must have puzzled many researchers. Trapain Law hillfort in Lothian, which prompted his letter, is comparatively well-vegetated. But as one moves further north one finds hillforts built on bare stone, usually granite, with no chance of even a token spring. This suggests that such sites must have been havens of last resort for both human and animal breeding stock suitable only for overnight occupation, for repelling a short duration attack or even for hiding below a sky line.
Here in Central France, an excavation has revealed a possible solution to the water problem which may be worth searching for in Britain. Between Cluny and Charolles, there is a site which was originally a D-shaped Roman observation tower built on a virtually bare outcrop of granite. Subsequently it was adapted to become an early wooden motte and bailey castle with what seems to have been a settlement within the bailey with defined fields beyond the wall lines. Some manuscript and other evidence is available which confirms the expected later transfer of the site to a lower and more suitable location, evolving eventually into a traditional chateau.
This material, with an early engraving, pinpointed some areas suitable for excavation and this revealed a pair of small cisterns carved out of the rock and apparently linked to tiled roofs on the central tower and on some wooden outbuildings. Tile pieces in the cisterns and the route of several lines of carved-out square holes for upright beams suggested an internal wooden aqueduct system to carry the heavy winter and spring rainfall to the cisterns, thus providing enough water to sustain a garrison and its horses for a short period, albeit on rationed access.
The normal route taken for peace-time water was evident in gouged-out paths from the castle's two gates to a mid-level spring and the lower river.
From Mr Peter Davies
Sir: In his letter responding to mine, David Evans (Letters, June) suggests that the source of water on hillforts was simply rain. I write as a former Air Ministry/MoD meteorologist. Too little attention is, by and large, paid by archaeological theorists to the practicalities of what they propose. The only 'hillfort' I know that relies heavily on rainfall for much of its water supply is Gibraltar. Large areas of the rock are covered in concrete for catchment which is then channelled into huge underground reservoirs.
It is only in the tropics, with very regular diurnal convective activity, that one could possibly rely on 'free' rainfall. The rainfall of the maritime coasts of North-West Europe is far too variable (and has been since the last Ice Age) for it to be relied upon for a daily water supply - readers may remember recent hose-pipe bans. Seathwaite, in the Borrowdale area of the Lake District (the wettest place in the uk), could conceivably use 'free' rainfall but anywhere south of a line from the Mersey to the Humber certainly could not. There is an over-sufficiency in the winter and an under-sufficiency in the summer. Hillforts would have needed significant water-storage capacity, but where is the evidence for it?
It does not matter whether the population lived within the ramparts permanently or only during times of tension. The daily chore of fetching water still had to be undertaken during any period of occupation - almost certainly undertaken by the women and girls as in many, current, less well-developed societies. It is noteworthy that the British army had to do this very same water-fetching job in the Falklands War, where there was an over-sufficiency of 'free' rainfall.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at email@example.com or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005