As we wandered tonight past the office of a local ghost-tour company who gleefully inform you how they drag massed groups of dazed tourists and over-excited hen parties through the private burial place minor historical footnotess (into their mausaleums no less) for the sole purpose of providing anti-climatical moments of fear, my friend asked me a very good question:
Quite how ethically sound is archeology (of the excavating tombs/graveyards and other assorted burial grounds variety)?
As is not surprising given the nature of a question so firmly buried in history, this got me thinking about my childhood, and in particular my parents propensity for marching my younger brother and myself far and wide across this sceptered isle in search of every rock, ruin and remnant that might have once resembled a castle. Essentially, if it had a National Trust logo my parents (ever the pound-stretching NT members) were pulling up in the driveway no sooner than you could say 'doesn't this look an awful lot like the very similar pile of castle that we saw last summer in Devon?'
Through this somewhat forced education I came to appreciate that there are two places in every castle that draw people like moths to a security lamp. The first is the dungeons, a fact that is unsurprising to anyone who has walked along The Royal Mile in Edinburgh and seen the gratuitous number of Ghost Tour companies cashing in on the public's unquentiable thirst for all things bloodied and miserable. The second however, is the privy, and this to me is far more interesting.
I believe the medieval toilet holds such a fascination as it is the single silvery thread spiralling back through history that connects us with Elizabeth I, or William the Conquerer or even Joe Portcullis-operator in an unremarkable castle in Northumberland. We crap. They crap. And despite all else that may have transformed our lives in the intervening years it is fair to say we do it very similarly. When we stare into a small room containing a stone bench with a whole cut in it and the damp and lingering smell of urine, we get a comforting sense that this is something we know.
History becomes real. People are no longer shadows in armour, no more human than a couple of stitches in the Bayeux tapestry, they are people who need to relieve themselves. People who stand outside a toilet shuffling awkwardly and pulling creatively clenched faces as the person before them does their best to cope with a gruesome dose of the shits.
It is this humanity that is missing when Tony Robinson rips through some anonymous anglo-saxon carcass. It is an object, that was no more alive than an attractively decorated piece of pottery. No amount of average 3D animation of a man in a couple of pieces of fur is going humanise that. He is so alien to us as to be unreal. And so his dignity, his faith and his death are drowned in the sea of history. What matter what he believed about his passing when he is (and indeed was) no more alive than a Middle-English shovel or a two-dimensional Egyptian wall drawing?
We need to reconnect with these people as people. We need to seem them living. We need to see them crapping. Then maybe we would be a little slower to assume a tour through their graves is no more sacred than a gaudy carnival house of horror.