A few times a year, I get a phone call or a visit that, in the world of fiction, would be the start of a novel. Invariably, I don’t take the bait. Novels are filled with people suffering for the purpose of furthering the plot along.
I’m not that kind of archaeologist.
I received a call yesterday, from a woman, wanting me to go with her and her sister, to an exhumation of her mother. Their mother had died when she was quite young, as did their father. She and her sister had, finally, after all these years, decided to place the ashes of their father with her mother.
I asked, then, why she needed me? The cemetery where her mother was buried was going to do the exhumation. She didn’t need an archaeologist.
She said that, it was her belief and that of her sister, that when they opened that grave, they would not find her mother. They would find someone else.
This is first call. At this point in the conversation, I usually try to end it. You may accuse me of a lack of curiosity, which is fair enough. But these exchanges typically only get crazier as they continue, and once you’ve crossed this line, there’s no going back. They assume you are interested and want to help. They call you for years. I have several of these people that I hear from about every six months or so, whether I answer the phone or not. They are the type of people to leave long messages.
I suggested to her, then, what she probably wanted was the police.
She stated that the body was buried on government property, that the government had hidden the reasons why the mother had died, and that she and her sister had spent their lifetimes piecing together the story of their mother and father, and that the time had come not just to bury the father, but to exhume whomever was in that grave, get a DNA sample and perform an autopsy. The father had left behind a mountain of encoded evidence for the two girls in the form of notes, diaries, and music.
Second call. I’m rubbing my temple at this point.
I reiterate that she doesn’t need an archaeologist here, she needs to get permission from the government to do the autopsy. She needed to contact an estate lawyer to find out what rights she had in this situation, and get a court order if she felt there was foul play.
She countered that it seemed unlikely that the government would allow this, since they were complicit in the foul play. Furthermore, based on the trail left behind from her father, she and her sister believed that the body in that grave was several centuries old, and was actually someone I had heard of. She said that if she told me who it was, I would think she was crazy. She needed an archaeologist to confirm the antiquity of the skeleton and any associated grave goods.
Third and final call. I wish her the best of luck, to contact the estate lawyer, and accepted her invitation to contact me when the lawyer advises her. I have no idea what rights one has in such situations, but I imagine they are interesting.
Over several years in this business, I have encountered this more than once– parents or grandparents leaving behind clues or messages to some cryptic tragedy, or secret wealth, or unimagined ancestral lineage. Most of the descendants are interested, this portion of their family history becomes a hobby. They sit on the porch with glasses of whiskey and talk in low voices with close kin, hypothesizing the possible truths behind what they think they know. But every once in awhile, when the tragedy cuts close to the bone, when the mystery is spun hard enough, intricate enough, real enough, the sons and daughters are consumed. They’re lost, their life courses spun out into the ether, following paths created by people with no understanding of what they’ve left behind.