I stared at him intently, attempting to memorize every detail etched into his skin. He wasn’t much to look at, but I couldn’t look away. He gazed back with vacant eyes, never acknowledging that I was there, never reciprocating the attention that I lavished on him.
His body lay in a contorted position in a glass case, and for several hours a day, a constant stream of visitors came to see him. Some of them came from County Meath, Ireland, just like he did. Others came from the United States, Argentina, South Africa, Japan — places that exist far beyond the borders of the world he had known.
He had lived a relatively easy life. His diet was rich in fresh vegetables, and his hair was styled as a topknot, held in place with gel made of ingredients from Spain or France. He was rich enough to import beauty products from distant countries; for all we know, he may have been a king.
His death was extremely painful. Someone — we don’t know who — used something, like a stone ax, to split his skull and break his nose. He was the victim of a ritual killing.
After he died, someone threw him into a peat bog, where the cool temperatures and low oxygen levels preserved his body, while the acidic soil tanned his skin like leather. More than 2,000 years later, when several peat cutters were working in a bog in the tiny town of Clonycavan, the man’s body resurfaced. The peat cutters’ machinery severed him below the ribs; startled, they contacted the authorities and said they had found a murder victim.
He gained the epithet of Clonycavan Man and became the subject of many forensic tests. Eventually, he came to rest in Dublin’s National Museum of Ireland — Archaeology. His neighbors, fellow bog bodies called Oldcroghan Man and Gallagh Man and Baronstown West Man, reside in nearby glass cases.
As I looked at Clonycavan Man, his fragmented, incomplete story flashed through my mind. But one thought resonated over and over again:
You could have been my friend.
Archaeology is one of my passions. It lies at the intersection of detective work and three-dimensional history, and to me, few things are more fascinating than broken pottery, grave goods, bog bodies, and abandoned cities.
When I think about people like Clonycavan Man, I can’t help wondering what they were like. I ask myself how they supported themselves, whom they loved, what their world looked like, what they cared about.
Archaeologist Christopher Hawkes once wrote about the inferences that scholars can reasonably make as they excavate sites. He said it’s fairly easy to learn about a group’s technology — after all, we unearth centuries-old tools and material possessions all the time. It’s slightly harder to glean information about a group’s economic system, much more challenging to infer anything about their political and social structures, and extremely difficult to learn about their beliefs and spiritual practices.
Hawkes’ writings don’t address personality. On what we now call Hawkes’ ladder of inference, there’s no rung for individuals’ temperaments and dispositions. And why would there be? Even if archaeologists could look at a body and determine that someone was kind or hotheaded or intelligent, that insight couldn’t rewrite history or lead to new breakthroughs. Archaeologists usually attempt to answer questions about groups and cultures, not specific people.
But to me, thinking about individuals is what makes archaeology so interesting. It’s humbling to learn about them, people who were tiny cogs in a big system that we now know as ancient Jordan or pre-Columbian Peru or Iron Age Ireland. And I’m not just referring to the actual bodies that we’ve discovered beneath pyramids, in peat bogs, and on glaciers. I also mean the nameless masses — those people we’ve never found, the ones I can almost picture when I close my eyes and concentrate. The many, many individuals who together made up a culture, the people whose personalities and stories have been lost over time.
Although their world wasn’t much like the 21st-century North America that I live in, I feel an overwhelming sense of kinship when I think about them. Because, at the end of the day, they’re just people who happened to live when and where they did. I could have been born in their shoes, and they could have been born in mine — but that’s just not how it worked out.
I wonder if the world’s current population would coexist more peacefully if we remembered that we’re all just people living when and where we do.
A few decades ago, a scholar named Fernand Braudel came up with an interesting analogy for human history. He compared long-term systems (things like geography, nature, and climate) to mighty ocean currents that influence everything around them. He then discussed the social, cultural, and economic trends that depend on the large-scale, long-term systems — in this analogy, the deep-water forces that can (and do) push boats, but not as powerfully as the underlying currents do. Finally, Braudel characterized all discrete individuals and events (e.g. Julius Caesar, the Great Chicago Fire) as waves, or insignificant occurrences that come and go quickly.
Braudel’s analogy doesn’t leave any room to describe the influence that a single person can have. I’m almost positive that he wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that an individual can cause a ripple effect. And, if we’re talking about long-term history and the way that our influence will be measured thousands of years from now, Braudel is right. After all, archaeologists can only guess at the role that Clonycavan Man might have played in his lifetime. He didn’t affect his world anywhere near as powerfully as the underlying currents did; he didn’t even have enough clout to change his society’s cultural practices and prevent his own death.
Still, I believe that individuals are more powerful than Braudel thinks. We might not know everything about Clonycavan Man, but university professors mention him in their lectures, and an archaeology museum keeps him on permanent display. He’s been dead since the Iron Age, but we’re discussing him in the Information Age. He’s captivated the imagination of people all around the world, and his current influence must equal (or even greatly exceed) the impact he had during his life.
Again, Clonycavan Man is unique, since archaeology doesn’t usually deal with singular people. It deals with groups and cultures. But every group is a collective of individuals, and individuals do matter to their peers. Long ago, someone must have loved Clonycavan Man — a parent, a sibling, a lover, a friend. Someone must have mourned him after he was gone, must have been traumatized by the way he died. We know absolutely nothing about those family members and friends, but thanks to Clonycavan Man, we’re only one degree of separation away from them.
I doubt that future archaeologists will ever find my remains and use them to learn about my life. When I’m gone someday, history won’t remember my name. But the people I care about will. They’ll still look back at the things I loved and the way I lived. They’ll know about both my mistakes and my triumphs, and they’ll care. And that’s enough for me. It has to count for something.
Clonycavan Man counts for something, even though we don’t know his full story. Even though he was just one person. Even though his culture disappeared many, many years ago.
We have to keep that in mind — every person, alive or dead, counts for something.
That was why I felt near-reverence when I looked at Clonycavan Man in his case. That was why I realized that he and I might have been friends, if I had lived when he did, or if he had lived today.
Through the glass, I glanced at my younger brother, who was visiting the museum with me. We share the same parents, and we grew up side by side, but I don’t always remember to feel grateful for that. That day, I took the time to appreciate that he was in my life and I was in his.
The archaeological record doesn’t tell us anything about the hearts and souls of individuals, but I choose to believe that most people are good, whatever their flaws may be. After all, that’s what my own experience has suggested, time and time again.
If archaeology has added any insights into what the real world has taught me, it’s that we’re all connected. It’s that people matter, now and always.
Those are important lessons.