Memorials and the Archaeological Record

This past week in class, we talked about the way in which archaeology can help people reflect on trauma and suffering of the past. I’m interested in the way archaeological records are employed in museums and memorials to emphasize past sufferings. An example that we talked about was Holocaust museums and how the collections of the items can invoke empathy and understanding about the sheer horror and quantity of that horror that happened half a century ago. What Edward Rothstein of the New York Times calls the “archaeology of trauma” can be seen in

Piles of shoes from Holocaust victims at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Holocaust museums across the world (Rothstein). Special effects and simulations, and, more so on the archaeological front, collections of artifacts from the 6 million Jews who were murdered (United States Holocaust), work together to give a museum visitor an intense experience. Other memorials might list all the names of the people who lost their lives, if such records exist and are known. Growing up in Jewish day school for ten years, I’ve been to my fair share of Holocaust museums and memorials. I can say as a first hand spectator that looking at piles and piles of clothes, shoes, suitcases, jewelry pieces, or other various personal belongings from the archaeological record of the Holocaust shakes a person to the core. It gives you the physical objects to visualize the scale of the trauma and is incredibly effective at doing so.

Following the discussion of this topic in class, I became curious about how we then create this reflection on trauma if little remains from the archaeological record. What if there are no artifacts? No suitcases? No shoes? Nothing to point to the atrocity

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. There are names and places of those murdered written on the bottoms of the hanging concrete blocks.

that happened? These questions led me to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This memorial, opened recently in 2018 and inspired by the Berlin Holocaust memorial, serves as a memorial for African American people who were murdered by lynching in this country throughout history (Robertson). This memorial / museum “embarked on a project to memorialize this history by visiting hundreds of lynching sites, collecting soil, and erecting public markers” (EJI). The memorial displays this collected soil, along with the names of those murdered and evocative art pieces that emphasize the historical racial injustice of this country. While we may not have the

Jars of soil collected for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

most personal belongings of every person who was a victim of racial violence, we do have access to art, to names, and to the soil: the soil that was underneath when these murders happened. They provide the context for the history that happened. We can look at that soil and feel the horror of what it witnessed. The art provides our narrative. We can look at the art and feel the pain of what happened. I’ve been brought up with the understanding that objects are what gives a historical event its weight, but perhaps we should rethink that definition. Doing so might stop the erasure of historical trauma that cannot always be articulated through objects.

Additional reading on this topic:

For the Equal Justice Initiative’s piece and video about why building this memorial was important, click HERE.

For more images and a look inside the memorial, click HERE.

Sources Cited:

2018 EJI. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Electronic Document, , accessed November 19, 2018.

Robertson, Campbell.

2018 . NYTimes. A Lynching Museum is Opening. Electronic Document, https:/ , accessed November 19, 2018.

Rothstein, Edward.

2012 . NYTimes. Holocaust Museums in Israel Evolve. Electronic Document, , accessed November 19, 2018.

2018 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution. Electronic Document, , accessed November 19, 2018.

Image sources:

Holocaust museum shoes –

National memorial for Peace and Justice –

Jars of soil –

The process of mummification occurs both naturally and unnaturally, and it has been carried out by various cultures throughout history. Some climates allow for the natural mummification and impressive preservation of the dead due to the extremely hot and dry climate or extremely cold climate.

Some historic cultures, however, have purposefully mummified their dead. There is evidence that the Chinchorro society of South America mummified their dead as early as 7,000 years ago (PRI 2012). Mummies from the time of the Inca have also been discovered – remains of a cultural practice of human sacrifice (NYTimes 1999). There have even been mummies from prehistoric Britons that have been discovered dating back to 1500 BCE (Keys 2003).

Certainly the most well known of the historic mummies are those of ancient Egypt. The mummies of elite ancient Egyptians, boasting impressive tombs, some of which the well known pyramids, underwent the expensive process of mummification following their death as preparation for burial (Smithsonian). We know a fair amount about the mummification process carried out by these people, and in addition we understand why they did it. This preservation of the dead made sure that they would be able to live

The pyramids of ancient Egypt are the most well known form of a tomb that would have housed a mummy.

out a full life in another world. As Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo puts it, “they were obsessed with life! (…) Most Egyptians died by the time they were 40. So they wanted to have a better afterlife. What you see in the tombs is a really careful preparation for eternity” (NOVA 2006).

Believe it or not, a sort of mummification, in a shockingly similar fashion to that of the Egyptians, exists within the United States today. This is the result of a process called cryonics. This process involves taking a recently deceased body, lowering its temperature to -196 degrees celcius, and replacing its blood with antifreeze to preserve organ function (Cryonics Institute 2018). Like the mummification of Ancient Egypt, this industry is expensive, costing up to $200,000 per body. The question remains: why? Quite similarly to the ancient Egyptians, some people are simply not ready to part with the idea of a prolonged life. While it sounds like something out of

This image is from the facility of one company that specializes in the preservation of bodies through cryonics. These cylinders each are meant to house a preserved body.

science fiction, the cryo freezing industry is based on the belief that at some point in the future there will be technology advanced enough to revive a deceased, frozen body, and these people are willing to spend their money on that chance (Cryonics Institute). One Arizona based company currently has “147 brains and bodies, all frozen in liquid nitrogen with the goal of being revived one day” (Guzman 2016). Some companies are even working with countries to try to get the legal rights to begin the freezing process before death in order to increase the health of the body prior to freezing (Weston 2017). While we have a new name for it, this mummification-esque process draws on a desire that we share with other humans of the past to experience a greater life.

Additional Content for more information:

For a straightforward piece by the Smithsonian with more information about the ancient Egyptian mummification process, click Here!

For a youtube video which is the official advertisement video displayed on the website of one of the leading Cryo freezing companies which provides their information on the process of Cryo freezing, click Here!

Reference List:

Guzman, Zack. 2016 NBC news. Electronic document, , accessed September 15, 2018.

Keys, D.  2003   Europe’s First Mummies. Archaeology, 56(5), 16-17. Retrieved from , accessed September  15, 2018

NOVA. 2006  PBS. Electronic Document, , accessed September 16, 2018.

Smithsonian. Electronic document, , accessed September 16, 2018.

Weston, Phoebe. 2017 Dailymail. Electronic document, , accessed September 15, 2018.

Wilford, John Noble. 1999   New York Times. Electronic Document, , accessed September 15, 2018

2018 Cryonics Institute. Electronic documents, , accessed September 16, 2018

2012   PRI’s The World. Electronic Document, , accessed September 16, 2018.

Image sources:

Pyramids image: 2018 Daily Times. Electronic Document. , accessed September 16, 2018

Cryonics image: Ahmed, Syed Sujeel. 2017 About Islam. Electronic Document. 2018 Daily Times. Electronic Document. , accessed September 16, 2018 , accessed September 16, 2018.