We live in truly terrifying times. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America fills some with jubilation, but many more with bemusement, confusion and/or abject terror for the future.
It is but one shocking dimension of the politics of lies and the hate spreading through modern Western democracies fuelled by their media machines. We reach a new low in democratic process when the world’s most powerful nation elects a pussy-grabbing demagogue to rest his small hands on the nuclear launch codes.
What possible perspective can I offer, as a medieval mortuary archaeologist, on Trump’s election? What can I say, informed by a detailed knowledge of past societies, about the present-day Trump phenomenon: the man himself and those that support and vote for them? I admit I’m struggling to come up with something not utterly banal or glib. So let’s just keep it really obvious and shallow for now.
- Trump will eventually die. He’s the oldest US president ever elected and so it might be sooner than later. He won’t rule forever. He will perish. Things will change. The sun will rise again. He will expire. Valar Morghulis!
- However and whenever he dies, you can bank on the fact he won’t get what he deserves in funerary terms as the presidential candidate with the lowest approval rating EVER. Instead, I bet Trump will get a grand funeral. The political classes and the media will duly honour him and his legacy. They will applaud how significant his life was. Consensus will be created, just as it is contrived after this election for the good of the ‘nation’. Death we are told transcends party politics, and Trump will be transformed into one of the honoured dead of the nation;
- Trump will not only get an extravagant funeral, I suspect he will design for himself, and/or get others to create for him, a ludicrously opulent tomb. It will be orange. It might be set apart in some pompous landscape location, perhaps ruining several native American burial grounds. Alternatively, it might be installed adjacent to those of his presidential predecessors and 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…. 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. It will patch over the disillusion, discontentment, dislike, disputes and dissonance connected with his memory and legacy. It will probably be a Trump Tower… or else a huge funerary pumpkin…
- Almost without fail, sooner or later, along will come the historians, art historians and archaeologists who will buy into the lies of Trump’s tomb and legacy. They will write about how this grandiose monument reveals just how much respect Trump was held in by their successors and servants, not simply his obscene wealth. The rich and exotic materials, the intense labour and the grandiose imagery of the mausolea reveal faith, love, honour, memory and fame used to project Trump’s memory back into the hallowed past and push it forward to meet aspired futures.
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 archaeologists across the world, I suspect in 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.
My point: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
It certainly offers a different view on past monuments. Look upon the Neolithic chambered tomb known at West Kennet. It may well have been honouring ‘ancestors’ as some archaeologists have suggested, but perhaps it was raised by and for individuals or groups hated with a vengeance by those they ruled in the clan or tribe.
Think of those interred beneath the Bronze Age barrows on Normanton Down near Stonehenge. They were cosy loving family groups? Or were they likely leaders considered complete wastes of space 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. 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.
Is this comforting? Probably not! Either way, let’s not buy into the cosy language of some historians and archaeologists who regard past 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 by colossal dullards, what is key is that many people at the time probably knew this all too well. Archaeologists and historians must remember this too, and not write studies of the ancient dead that read like extended epitaphs, when those we study were likely despised by most people who knew them.
So, sooner or later, Trump will pass away, and a tacky Trump Tower, or perhaps simply a gold-plated lift, will encase his misogynistic flesh and bankrupt bones. Many with flock to honour him, but many too will visit to 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.