If you’re not slightly freaked out by conflict archaeology, there’s something wrong with you

Bit of easy hit, this one. So, bite me.

My friend Dr Gabe “Legend in his own Lecture Notes” Moshenska, an archaeologist at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, has been roundly traduced by no less organs than the Daily Mail and the Spectator Coffee House blog, as follows:

The DM:

…astonishingly, students at one of Britain’s leading universities have been given permission to walk out of classes if they find dealing with the past too traumatic.

The move at University College London (UCL) is the latest example of controversial ‘trigger warnings’, where academics caution students about some potentially disturbing material.

The alerts are common at universities in the United States and are now growing in the UK, but critics have condemned them as ‘madness’.

Students at UCL taking the archaeologies of modern conflict course have been told that they will encounter ‘historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatising’.

If they feel stressed, they can ‘step outside’ for the rest of the class ‘without penalty’, though they should catch up by copying the notes of another student.

Lecturer Gabriel Moshenska, who co-ordinates the UCL course on how archaeology can help unearth the truth about 20th and 21st century conflicts, said some students had been in the Armed Forces and may have suffered psychological trauma.

The Speccie:

Just when you thought the trigger-warning trend on campus couldn’t get any more bonkers it’s reported that archaeology students are being allowed to dodge discussions of ‘traumatic’ historic events. Yes, students  whose entire academic mission is to dig up bones, pore over old stuff and work out what the hell mankind was doing / thinking a thousand-odd years ago are being warned that such excavations can uncover ‘disturbing’ stuff that might ‘traumatise’ them because ‘bones can be scary’. So they should feel free to nip out of class if it gets too much.

Needless to say, the course leader is devastated. I believe he is ordering a t-shirt to express his feelings as we speak. We can only surmise that they uncovered all this dreadful intelligence by rooting through his publicly available course notes. Slow news day? (Really?? Well, I suppose battlefield horror makes a change from wall-to-wall Euro/Trump horror.)

I didn’t take this module when I was doing my Masters at the Institute, but I do remember being shown the bones room as a new student. Maybe I’ve romanticised this experience in retrospect but I do hope not. The bones room looks out over leafy Gordon Square, and the various remains of collectively hundreds of people are quietly filed away in the kind of utilitarian grey 1960s drawer cabinets that now fetch a small fortune on eBay. We all held and looked at bits and pieces of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Medieval individuals and went “Ooh” and “Ah”, as we were wont to do.

And then the collections manager opened another drawer, and we all peered at the well-preserved skeleton within, and the collections manager said, “This person died in 1911 and we’re not sure quite why we have the bones, they came from [I think he said] University College Hospital…” and I was suddenly a bit freaked out, I think we all were. There is something odd about bones, otherwise people wouldn’t be studying it, the whole “we are just meat-covered skeletons powered by ghosts” aspect is to be honest part of the fascination of archaeology (I won’t ever forget my first and so far only experience of watching a burial being uncovered, even though it was of an infant who died over two thousand years ago; I certainly won’t forget eating dinner with the digging team in the barn where we were staying that night with those tiny, crumbly little bones carefully stowed in a plastic biscuit box on a nearby table). And there is particularly something odd about recent bones.

But conflict archaeology is about more than the Recentness of Bones (an easy straw-man to dispose of here; Moshenska’s course module only covers material post-1914 so some of the assertions in the articles linked above are just wildly inaccurate – I doubt any modern archaeologist or student has ever been truly viscerally upset by the remains of people who died “a thousand-odd years ago” and nobody would expect such.) Twentieth and twenty-first century conflict archaeology is about awful events that are still in some sense alive. They live in the memories of people who experienced and survived them, and in the collective cultural memories of nations who are still very much entities, with stakes in how their past is perceived. In a way that runs deep in us, they matter. It really wouldn’t ever under any circumstances bother Brendan O’Neill to confront and discuss and closely study the physical evidence of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995? Well then he’s a lesser man than I am (but then… yeah).

However, my personal goose-over-the-grave shivers are actually beside the point here, they are merely on the edge of the real experience. Moshenska’s disclaimer is important for people who have or may have suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder themselves. From time to time, veterans come to study conflict archaeology at the Institute, because, of course they do. PTSD can be quickly defined as follows:

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as sexual assaultwarfaretraffic collisions, or other threats on a person’s life.[1] Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how a person thinks and feels, and increased arousal. These symptoms last for more than a month after the event. Young children are less likely to show distress but instead may express their memories through play.[1] Those with PTSD are at a higher risk of suicide.[2]

As I understand it, the important thing about trauma (I am riffing on this book here, thought it’s about developmental childhood trauma rather than trauma incurred as a result of one-off horrific events), is that it is somatic and physical. That is, you can’t stop it just by realising that you are no longer in the traumatic situation and “pulling yourself together”. Or not without a lot of therapeutic work, anyway. Your body chemistry is going its own sweet way, and you may panic, obsess, have racing thoughts, be dysfunctional, be back there. This is all well supported. PTSD was officially recognised as a mental disorder in 1980 when it was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) produced by the American Psychiatric Association, the standard reference work used by all clinicians and researchers working with mental disorders. But its study goes back, obviously, to the “shell-shock” of the First World War (see for example one of the current top experts here).

It’s obviously right that archaeologists, among other specialists, study recent conflict. And it brings with it ethical duties, not only a duty to be aware of the collective societal trauma of the events studied, but a duty of care to students who may have very individual traumas of their own.

It’s such a shame this kind of trolling goes on, isn’t it? A shame for everyone. Now, there is perhaps no point talking about trauma to certain people in the right wing press, who are probably sufficiently in denial of their own past traumas to react defensively to the suggestion that trauma exists in real people just like them, in physical, somatic and psychological form. Even (and this is most odd when you think about it) in people who have fought for their country, on whose side you would very much expect the right wing press to be. But it seems important to continue to point out the existence of trauma nonetheless. If more people paid this kind of very basic disclaimer-led respect to the possibility of trauma, it would simply be a happier, kinder world, and one in which frankly we would get more important work done than the work the above journalists have done so far this week, and the work I am doing now.



  1. Fascinating! “happier, kinder world”? yes. Maybe a warless one as well. If the right wing and militarist thinkers were willing to admit the price paid by those who serve their country in or near combat pay for the rest of their lives, their minds might be changed. As closer to my experience, even the price paid by their spouses and their children lifelong. Interesting post. Thank you.

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