For Sale: Old Fashioned Skullduggery

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Secret societies, alleged grave robbing, little black books, Thor, the possible skull of Geronimo, grizzly human remains, shadowy establishment figures, ex-Presidents, conspiracies, the CIA and supreme court judges.
While these may certainly sound like the frustrated ramblings of DeCount O’Blather on a wet-wristed Wednesday wankathon (TM) [don’t think we haven’t heard those rusty bed springs late at night in Blather HQ, mister], they also happen to be involved in an upcoming lot for sale at Christies which has quite a few people in a bit of a tizzy.

Sale em’s Lot
Lot 157 contains memorabilia from the infamous Skull & Bones secret society, based at Yale University. Home of America’s elite, the societies members have included a veritable ‘who’s who’ of establishment figures throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including both George Bush’s, and John Kerry.
Founded in the 19th century, the society owns its own windowless fortress property, as well as a 40-acre Island in upstate New York, where members can get away from it all. Rumours of bizarre initiation rites involve coffins and recounting past sexual exploits. It was one of the last American university societies to accept female members in the 1990’s, following a rather public lawsuit and outcry.
Times have changed it seems. Even the elite are not recession proof. Which is presumably why the current memorabilia are up for sale. Pride of place is what is described as ‘a human skull and bones ballot box, complete with hinged flap’ [pictured above] and estimated at $10,000-20,000. In other words, a human cranium and two human femora, no doubt ‘obtained’ at some stage in the 19th century, for little frat boys to play their little secret games with.

Remains of the Day

The present sale raises some age old questions concerning the exhibition of human remains. Who owns the past? Who profits from it? The prehistoric peoples who are displayed in our museums certainly didn’t give their permission to be laid out in glass boxes. Yet there are valid arguments for their display in the advancement of public education and knowledge. What happens when human remains are excavated from a site that is subsequently built over. Should they be reburied somewhere else, studied, stored in a box for the rest of time, or displayed?
I don’t have an answer. It is a grey area, dependant on many things, involving many more factors. A definite answer today would no doubt change tomorrow with a different case in point. But one thing I do feel strongly about, is that individual people should not be able to profit from the sale of archaeological artefacts. Readers may remember my feelings on similar matters across the water [which incidentally have been recently brought to staggeringly new levels of lunacy with the ‘reward’ of over £3 million, given to a treasure hunter and a landowner for the looting discovery of a Saxon gold hoard].
A Grave Situation
When such artefacts include human remains, as in the case of the Skull & Bones Lot, it tends to make the former situation clearer. People (including the World Archaeological Congress) are rightly concerned that it is up for sale, at all, in the first place. The irony of the matter is, such a sale would be forbidden on ebay, but happily for all those involved, seems to be ok if its sold by Christies. What’s the difference between the two selling agencies? What’s the difference between artefacts…and human remains which have been turned into artefacts? What’s the difference between ‘sourcing and selling’ a gold Saxon hoard and a metal sign from Auschwitz?
If one feels strongly about profiting from the sale of human remains and/or human misery, one should naturally feel the same about artefacts. Surely these things, by their very existence, no matter how they have come down to us, deserve better then to be treated as monetary objects, bandied about by their present ‘owners’. A fitting way to reclaim past abuses would be to ensure, once and for all, that people who ‘come into possession’ of such artefacts, cannot profit by their actions.
Taking away any possibility of making a quick buck monetary value would result in finally giving back a real sense of cultural, historical, archaeological and human value to such artefacts.
And that is something you truly cannot put a price on.