Review: 'The Buried Soul - How Humans Invented Death' by Timothy Taylor

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To understand our own mortality is one of the biggest markers of being human. To seek to control it, even more so.

True, we're not sure whether the anticipation and understanding of death is uniquely human, and there are certainly plenty of arguments to suggest that some animals understand death too, but it might be that the concept of a soul that couples with the idea of death is entirely a human construct. In this way, humans would truly be unique.

In his book 'The Buried Soul', the archaeologist Timothy Taylor takes a close look into when it was that humans first started to create the concept of a soul and started to try to define and control their own mortality -and by extension - immortality.

One of the greatest problems with pre-history and early history is the difficulty in source materials and, by extension, the difficulty in stepping into the minds of those in the past. "The past is a foreign country" a wise man once said, and we are often scant-informed tourists. As an archaeologist Taylor is well aware of these problems and how these have led to what he believes are misinterpretations of the cultural data of mortality in the past, often due to anachronisms created when historians put their own modern cultural perspective onto the remnants of history. Too often we either assume that our ancestors thought and acted exactly like us (and therefore we reject the more distasteful parts of their cultures as false), or we view them as barbarians and so don't bother to properly unpick the layers of why their actions were important and unique to them. While Taylor runs through a whole host of different death cultures, it was his treatment of the above issue that I found the most valuable and interesting in the book.

For example, Taylor centres the majority of his book around unpicking an understanding the funeral of a Rus (Viking) chieftain, returning to the vividly described scene as each of his arguments shed more light on it and the mindsets of those involved. In this funeral we have a rare written account provided by an arab ambassador about how the chieftain was interred in the ground while a huge ship and scaffold were created, ready for his cremation. When complete he was disinterred and laid on a great bed on the ship. Of his slave girls, his favourite apparently volunteered and took part in a seemingly strange and brutal ceremony. She was given the rings of engagement, as if she was betrothed to the chieftain, and, heady on ritualistic wine, went to each tent of his closest men and slept with them. Afterwards she was lifted up above three houses, announcing that she could see her parents and others waiting for her in the afterlife. When she went to the great building of the ship she reportedly found herself hesitating and was encouraged inside. The rings were removed, she lay on the bed next to their chieftain and, with a noose tightening around her neck by the old women dubbed the 'Angel of Death', she was brutally raped by seven men as the crown outside drummed their shields to drown out her screams. 
Timothy Taylor
Why did this sequence of events occur?
How reliable is the account?
What purpose did the brutality serve and what was the slave girl's investment in it?
Why on earth do some historians reject the brutal realities and simply sign off with dismissive statements like: "The happy girl thus went to Valhallah?"
What does this ritual tell us about the purpose of death culture, and the potential danger that the chieftain's soul posed to the mortal living?

Taylor answers all of these questions and more with care and convincing evidence. In doing so he also looks into another brutal and controversial element of history: cannibalism. Since the 1970s it has been fashionable for historians to reject cannibalism altogether, finding it more comforting to assert that it never actually happened and was instead a racist accusation or a misinterpretation of evidence, to the point where I assumed this was likely. But Taylor challenges this in a very convincing manner, taking the stance that cannibalism was - and is - commonplace, but served very different purposes for different cultures, all of which features importantly in how these culture interacted with death and funerary rites. Cannibalism isn't something that belongs in a horror movie, but instead can be a legitimate, useful expression of grief that should not be ignored simply because it is distasteful to western historians. I must admit, after the reading the book, I'm pretty darn convinced he's on the right lines.

In the end, I know that in this blog I tend to trot our reviews of books that I like, leaving those less interesting neighbours by the wayside. But out of my pick of excellent books, this really is one worth paying attention to and picking up for yourself. Taylor's combination of engaging narrative writing as well as the exciting (and potentially controversial) views he has of the pre-history and history he knows so well, makes this a book that is both entertaining as well as being genuinely academically important for any interested in the subject. It certainly convinced me to re-evaluate how I looked at various elements of cultural history, which I think is worth it's weight in gold.

What's more, I couldn't put it down. For a non-fiction book is very high praise indeed. 

More Great Books and Media on Mortality and the Human Imagination:
- Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind - By Yuval Noah Harrari
- The Self Illusion - by Bruce Hood
- Paranormality - By Richard Wiseman
- Gunther Von Hagen's Autopsy Series
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