Aristocratic medieval tombs, Shropshire

We live in truly terrifying times. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America fillsĀ some with jubilation, but many more with bemusement, confusion and/or abject terror for the future.

It is but one shockingĀ dimension of the politics of lies and theĀ hateĀ spreading throughĀ modern Western democracies fuelled byĀ their media machines. We reach a new low in democratic processĀ whenĀ the world’s most powerful nation electsĀ a pussy-grabbing demagogueĀ to rest his small handsĀ on theĀ nuclear launch codes.

What possible perspective can I offer, as a medieval mortuary archaeologist, on Trump’s election?Ā What can I say, informed by a detailed knowledge of past societies,Ā about the present-day Trump phenomenon: the man himselfĀ and those that support and vote for them? I admit I’m struggling to come up with something not utterlyĀ banal or glib.Ā So let’s just keep it really obvious and shallow for now.

Wellington’s Tomb, St Paul’s Cathedral
  1. Trump will eventually die. He’s the oldest USĀ president ever elected and so it might be sooner than later.Ā He won’tĀ rule forever. He willĀ perish. Things will change. The sun will rise again. He will expire. Valar Morghulis!
  2. However and whenever he dies, you can bank onĀ the factĀ he won’t get what he deserves in funerary terms as the presidential candidate with the lowest approval rating EVER. Instead, I betĀ Trump will get aĀ grand funeral. The political classes and the media will duly honourĀ him and his legacy. They will applaudĀ how significantĀ his life was.Ā ConsensusĀ will beĀ created, just as it is contrived after this election for the good of the ‘nation’.Ā Death we are toldĀ transcends partyĀ politics, andĀ Trump will beĀ transformed into one of the honoured dead of the nation;
  3. Trump will not only get an extravagant funeral, I suspectĀ he will design for himself, and/or get others to create for him, aĀ ludicrouslyĀ opulent tomb. It will be orange. It might be setĀ apart in some pompous landscape location, perhaps ruining several native American burial grounds. Alternatively, it might be installed adjacent to those ofĀ his presidentialĀ predecessors andĀ within a national sacred space: a temple to greed and hate, or maybe he will be buried in a bunker on one of his Scottish golf courses….Ā As a rule, the bigger the sociopath, the grander their tomb and the more significant its location. Whatever it looks like, Trump’s tomb will be a lie, of course.Ā It willĀ patch over the disillusion, discontentment, dislike, disputesĀ and dissonanceĀ connected with his memory and legacy. It will probably be a Trump Tower… or else a huge funerary pumpkin…
  4. Almost without fail, sooner or later, along will come the historians, art historians and archaeologists who will buy into the liesĀ of Trump’s tomb and legacy.Ā They will write about how this grandiose monument reveals justĀ how much respect Trump was held in by their successors and servants, not simply his obscene wealth.Ā The rich and exoticĀ materials, theĀ intense labour and the grandiose imagery of the mausolea reveal faith, love, honour, memory and fame used to project Trump’s memoryĀ back into the hallowed past and push it forward to meet aspired futures.
Bronze Age burial mounds, Normanton Down, Wiltshire

This is the perspective I can offer as a mortuary archaeologist: all men must die, all tombs will lie.

We find many traces of similar behaviours in the archaeological record from across the globe. Of course there are great leaders whose tombs are unknown, obliterated by successors or deliberately denied respectful burial. Equally, there are many grand mortuary monuments raised to humble individuals, or as collective monuments to many people, not just leaders. Still, if you look upon any truly opulent ancient tomb or ceremonial monument studied by archaeologistsĀ across the world, I suspect inĀ 9 times out of 10, you are probably looking at a monument raised by craven cretins to a complete numbskull. A mound or building raised to honour a puffed-up delusional prick by their cronies and lackeys, successors or enemies, keen to honour their passing.

Memorial within Chirk church

My point: Plus Ƨa change, plus c’est la mĆŖme chose.

It certainly offers a different view on past monuments. Look upon theĀ Neolithic chambered tomb known at West Kennet. ItĀ may well have been honouring ‘ancestors’ as some archaeologists have suggested, but perhaps it was raised by andĀ forĀ individuals or groups hated with a vengeanceĀ by thoseĀ they ruled in the clan or tribe.

Think of those interred beneath the Bronze Age barrowsĀ on Normanton Down near Stonehenge. TheyĀ were cosy loving family groups? Or were theyĀ likely leaders considered complete wastes of spaceĀ by their contemporaries and those that raised the monument were despised too?

Consider the knights and their ladies honoured in brass and stone in many of our parish churches.Ā Were they really missed by loved ones? Alternatively, perhaps most people couldn’t stand their guts in their own lifetimes and the memorial simply legitimised heirs more than happy to take over their lands and homes.

Fallen Victorian tomb, Llandysilio yn Ial churchyard, Denbighshire

Is this comforting? Probably not! Either way,Ā let’s notĀ buy into the cosy language of some historians and archaeologists who regard pastĀ tombs and mortuary practice as evidence of social consensus, respect, honour, commemoration and valorisation. Most tombs honoured gits and nobs.

If most ancient great barrows were raised over and byĀ colossal dullards, what is key is that many people at the time probably knew this all too well. Archaeologists and historians mustĀ remember this too, and not write studies of the ancient dead that read like extended epitaphs, when those we study were likelyĀ despised by most people who knew them.

West Kennet long barrow, Wiltshire

So, sooner or later, Trump will pass away, and a tacky Trump Tower, or perhapsĀ simply a gold-platedĀ lift,Ā will encase hisĀ misogynisticĀ flesh and bankrupt bones. Many with flock to honour him, but many too will visit toĀ quietly remember how much misery and suffering his political life brought. When that time comes, remember the lies funerals espouse and tombs materialise.

I repeat: all men must die, all tombs will lie.

In this regard, mortuary archaeology gives us a sense of what’s to come.