People we like and admire were godawful racists

So, last week, the 20th of August, was the anniversary of the birth of author H.P. Lovecraft, whose work, as you may know, is something of an obsession of mine. In fact (plug plug) I have an upcoming talk about Lovecraft (well, Lovecraft’s successors mainly) and archaeology at Treadwell’s Books next month. You can read about it here.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I have a really weird relationship, mentally, with Lovecraft. Sometimes, when I want to know that I’m explaining something well, I try to imagine that he is explaining it, or even that he has come back from the dead and that I am explaining it to him — that is, to a very intelligent person with no modern cultural context. When I was all depressed and thought of myself as a failure, I thought of him as the patron saint of failures. 

But — but but but — even this is not the thing I want to talk about. And that is the racism. “Oh Lor’,” I hear you cry, “not HPL and racism again.” But there’s no avoiding it. Lovecraft was a gigantic racist, probably not more racist than the rest of his contemporaries (it was America in the 1920s and 1930s), but just really into it. And it’s central to his work, that revolted terror of the other. 

I’m not going to quote any of his relevant works here — let’s just say that if you want to learn more you can Google “H.P. Lovecraft” and than the n-word and go from there. In an incognito window, possibly. 

And yet Lovecraft is important to me, as is his work — and his work isn’t something you can separate from his racism. You see a lot of people who are very skeptical about Steampunk as a concept (not steampunk in the old sense but in the modern sense) because of its seeming celebration of an era of white supremacy and British imperialism. I get that as well.

And of course that type of racism is implicated not only in history but in the writing of history. And not just simplistic prejudice but the the way in which the idea of racial differences was a fundamental aspect of writing history. 

When I was young, I went to a family reunion in Arkansas. A branch of my dad’s side of the family went off to America around the beginning of the 20th century because my great-great-(great?)-uncle Jack went off to compete in the 1904 St Louis Olympics. While there — the only time I have ever been to the south — we explored the Ozark region, including a trip to, God help me, Branson, Missouri. In or near Branson — it was a long time ago — was an amusement park called Silver Dollar City, which at that time was sort of Wild-West-themed, and where my parents bought me a book on the gunslingers of the old west. And I was like — I was very young, I don’t remember, but I was definitely younger than 11 or 12. 

So imagine my surprise to find the subtext — the text, really — of this book was the gunslinger as race warrior. I was informed, for instance, that Billy the Kid made his name by shooting (or in the book’s words, “closing the rubbery lips of”) an African-American (or in the book’s words, “darky”) who insulted him … I mean, it just went on from there. 

Oh, of course! It’s online. You can read that crap for yourself. It even has the original illustrations.

I don’t actually know where I’m going from here — Lovecraft’s racism was odious but an important part of his valuable work. This book’s racism was odious and just casual — it was all understood that both the writer and the reader despised black people. 

But there’s a lot of non-despising racism out there as well. Take this image, for instance, from The British Commonwealth: A Family of Peoples (1961 edition). My scanner is broken, so here’s a photo from my phone. 



Check out that caption. But it’s all in the service of trying to be nice about the Gilbert Islands, just in a really offensive and patronising way. 

And there’s a lot of it around. I can’t help but love this stuff for its goofy squareness, but it’s definitely weird and unpleasant and racist, and it’s important not to let the comforting goofiness distract me from that. 

Now, most of this stuff is of no value — Victorian writers were a bunch of racists, no shit. But when I locate some good stuff I’ll put it up here. Until then, I’m off for the weekend. Regular service will be restored on Monday or possibly even Sunday night. 


People we like and admire were godawful racists


I am pleased to announce that there are three winners for the banner design contest! Coincidentally, there were also three entrants! Seriously, I kid. I mean, not about there being only three entrants, that part is true, but they were all great entries. You’ll see them rotating in the banner space above this blog before long. GHP prize packets are currently on their way to winners Fran Dale and Cherrelle Clayton. Email me your address, other winner Edwin King, and I’ll send your packet off to you first thing next week.


Fran’s entry, shrunk down to fit the column.


Cherrelle’s. I love the moustache!


And Edwin’s, acknowledging the ancestral spirits of my tribe.


Movie Monday: The Eagle (2011)

I actually forgot that today I was going fire up the old Netflix and take in a historical film — blame it on the fact that it’s a holiday and therefore doesn’t feel like a Monday, maybe? So instead I thought I would talk about one I saw relatively recently, 2011’s The Eagle

Now, most criticism of this film has focused on two key points: first, it isn’t very faithful to the novel, and second, it isn’t very good. 

But what I actually want to talk about today is the portrayal of the Picts in the film. In the movie, our hero travels north to find the lost Eagle of his father’s legion. He runs into some Picts, or “seal people,” as they’re called. They might not even be Picts, but what else they might be I don’t know. Britons of some kind, I guess.

Or maybe post-apocalyptic Inuit mud men. Observe:


Judge for yourself.

Now, I do not know what motivated the director to make these choices, but I have a theory, and I like it a little. Consider, if you will, Kingdom of Heaven. In that film, Ridley Scott exaggerated how well Christians and Muslims in the Crusader kingdoms got on during the period he was covering. His argument was that he needed to portray that the level of trust between the two groups was highly unusual — that the low-level squabbling of the period would have been as shocking to contemporary observers as full-on peace is to modern viewers. You can also see this in The Tudors, where the costume designers put Henry VIII in clothes that say “sexy athletic guy” to modern viewers, because the clothes that said “sexy athletic guy” to the Tudors would look crazy to us. 

Now, again, I’m of two minds. On the one hand it’s fucked up. Here’s a little more of a reconstruction, although it’s a wee bit later. 


So maybe the director is trying to make some kind of weird meta-point, or maybe on the other hand he’s just being a lame-o and covering shit with mud and skulls because he’s a lazy person who loves the familiar exotic. 

But on the other other hand, fucking around with the representation of the Picts and turning them into fantasy animals is a grand old tradition. Check this bad boy out: 



And what’s interesting is that that weird fantastic Pict commentary was intended to be compared to Native Americans, with the purpose of indicating to European readers that Native Americans were similar to Picts — while here we have Native Americans being used as the comparison to help the viewer understand Picts. 

Movie Monday: The Eagle (2011)

The vicar of Little Stukeley

It might have been Great Stukeley, actually. 

Many years ago now, I was asked to appear on BBC Cambridgeshire doing a segment about burial practice. They took me to whichever Great Stukeley and had me stand in front of these Roman-era burial mounds they have there and talk about how people were buried. It was kind of odd because I was there, standing next to them … but we were on the radio. I’m sure it made sense to the producer in some way, but it didn’t make any to me. 

After the recording, we went out to lunch, and with us was the vicar of Great Stukeley (or possibly Little Stukeley), who was a nice guy, probably around my age. I don’t really remember anything about him except that he had very good hair and cool glasses, and I think I mentally filed him under “cool vicar.” And like all cool priests, he was really interested in the topic, so we talked about it. 

And he was critical — I mean, sympathetically, understandingly critical — of what he saw as a bad tendency toward individuality and self-expression in funerals. He talked about the music that people chose to play; the most popular choices, he told me, were [some sentimental pop song of the time] and “My Way.” And he looked a little concerned, and he said: “but it’s not about doing it your way, is it? It’s about doing it Christ’s way.”

Now, I’m sympathetic to his plight. Here he is, the local representative of the National Religion of Non-Dogmatic Theism, and he wants to talk about something a little more like Christianity, while most of his parishioners see him as a kind of civil functionary whose job is to perform some kind of emotionally fulfilling closure ceremony. It’s a tough world for a keen young cleric. But from my I-love-funerals position, what I love is that some of his parishioners would include grave goods

He told me that he’d heard this kind of rolling, clanking sound as one of his parishioners was taken away in the coffin. When he asked the mourners, they informed him, confidentially, like, that the deceased had been provided with some of his beloved Guinness to see him through the afterlife. What was the poor vicar going to do? I assume that when you do a theology degree and get sent to Little (or Great) Stukeley, the last thing you expect to encounter among your congregation is heathenism

It made me think, as many things did in those days, of the pioneering research of Mike Parker Pearson. To grossly over-simplify, in the Olden Dayes people believed that what you found in a grave signified what people thought the afterlife was going to be like — probably because this is what the ancient Egyptians loudly insisted? I dunno. In the 20th century, archaeologists, particularly in America, began to get into the idea that it was something more than that. It was about displaying your wealth and social status in a big old event so people would know what a big deal you were. They constructed elaborate systems for determining a society’s complexity by the number of different levels of social hierarchy implied by the goods in graves and all that. 

Now, if you stop and think about this for ten minutes, you’ll see that it’s horseshit on its face, but I think they didn’t really know what else they could do with this data. So along comes Parker Pearson and he delivers, in a single article, an axe kick to this whole theory. He studies burials in modern Cambridge and identifies that — surprise, surprise — not only is there no correlation between social status and how elaborate your burials were, but in fact there’s some inverse correlation, with marginal groups like Travellers and carnies having these very big and splendid funeral monuments. 

And there are like ten different points implicated here that I don’t have time to go into, but I’m going to talk about two because one lets me use some photographs and the other relates back to the vicar. 

OK. Photo one first. Here is an image of Winston Churchill’s funeral: 


Now here is a photo of Winston Churchill’s grave: 



(Sir Winston Churchill’s Grave, Bladon, by Neil Hanson. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0)

Enh? Enh? 

The other thought was that this was a great example of the ways in which ideology in burials was all weird and contested and mixed up by the different people who participated in it, people who were all part of what from our high level archaeologists would call the same culture. 

Eh, blah blah death, blah blah funerals, blah blah beer cans. The point of the story is the poor vicar with his agenda running smack bang into the murky world of using pop culture and consumer bullshit to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have. 


The vicar of Little Stukeley

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 1

OK, before I begin, I had as many entries to the contest as prize packets. Which is cool — everyone wins — but I don’t want people to think that they only won for that reason! I really liked all of the entries. I don’t know if I can pick a grand prize winner, so I’m just going to spread them out evenly. Watch this space for the actual banners. 

Anyway, with the admin out of the way, let’s talk about burials. Obviously, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, because a) I spent the better part of a decade thinking about burials like every day, and I still think about them quite a lot, and b) burials are way more interesting to most people than most other archaeological topics. You tell someone about the domestication of wheat (or whatever), chances are they’re probably not too excited. But a plastered skull, that’s some shit. 

Now, in my period, the middle ages, you get some odd stuff. For instance, hoity-toity types like the house of Habsburg-Lorraine in the late middle ages and post-medieval period had a lot of commitments. They needed to show their connection to several different churches, monastic orders, you name it. The solution was ingenious. 

When a Habsburg died, he or she was eviscerated. The heart was put in one urn, the intestines in the other and the eviscerated body in a coffin. The deceased was then buried in three different places, spreading the royal patronage around a bit and encouraging pilgrimage. It’s an extreme example, but that kind of thing was not uncommon throughout the medieval period. In this case it went on well into the modern era. They mixed it up a bit, too, in a complex pattern of who was excluded from where that is detailed in a fascinating article by Estella Weiss-Krejci. For instance, the body of Habsburg wife Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg (d. 1829) is buried in the main vault — and so are her entrails and heart, which should usually have been sent to different churches. Henrietta’s body was included in the family vault, but her Protestant innards weren’t welcome in the other churches. 

They also left out the guy who assassinated a close relative. Fair enough. 

But to achieve true creep-power overload, let’s go back — way back — to the origins of human civilisation. Let’s take a look at some skulls from Jericho: 


Holes filled in, eyes replaced with shells … that is a pretty fucked-up ancestral memento to want to keep in your house. Here are some other examples from a site in Israel: 


Look at the shifty expression that guy on the left is wearing.

I don’t have a good image of this but there’s a burial from some Neolithic site of a woman cradling one of these goddamn things, looking into its fakey dead eyes for all eternity. I think the idea is that your grief over your dead relative will be driven out by the stark nightmare of her burial? 

But then again, they may not be relatives. At Catalhoyuk in Turkey, burials under the floors of houses were long presumed to be dead ancestors. Creepy, but you get the idea — they are the “foundations” of the house or whatever. Observe: 



Only they may not be ancestors after all. An article in 2011 pointed out that there isn’t really any evidence from the skeletons that the people buried under the floors were related to each other. The authors suggest that this means there was some other principle of association going on here other than boring old biological kinship, like the house itself was some kind of family unit. But that is putting quite a brave face on it, surely. Maybe the basis for a family’s success in Catalhoyuk was the collection of murder victims they hid under their floors. 


People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 1

Lunatics: Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg

I have always been fascinated by Bohemond of Taranto. Such an exciting character, such colourful times he lived in. So many tense and gripping incidents in his story. He could be the protagonist of a novel. Well, in fact he is the protagonist of a novel, Count Bohemond by Alfred Duggan. 

Alfred Duggan is someone I should talk about more on this blog, honestly. 

But the romance and the sorta-kinda heroism and the just general … accomplishments of Bohemond make him the kind of character you can admire, like a pirate, while not actually wanting to ever go anywhere near him. He was more like Hannibal Lecter than Dirk Dauntless, I imagine. 

That is the kind of historical character I get fixated on a bit sometimes: undeniably a thug and a bully, and undeniably someone who lived his life in a way that is, to put it mildly, hard for me to empathize with. But somehow impressive nonetheless. 

But that style of historical violence addict can sometimes go too far even for me. Case in point: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. Like most people who know about the Baron, he came to my attention when reading one of Peter Hopkirk’s books about interwar Central Asia. But I really got into him when my friend James Palmer published a biography of him. 

I’m not going to spoil the book — you should read it — but suffice it to say that Ungern-Sternberg was a combination of eccentric and just utterly horrible. He was a Westerner fascinated by Buddhism, and there’s nothing too unusual about that, but the form his took was a little different from your typical spiritual seeker. Like, for instance, he got very enthusiastic about the idea of restoring the Bogd Khan — the traditional monarch — in Mongolia, as part of some kind of mystical monarchist thing.  His particular brand of murderous bloodthirstiness went well with Mongolia’s demon-haunted mixture of Buddhism and traditional beliefs. He adopted a sort of Genghis Khan-type personality and may or may not have been referred to as the “God of war.” He was also a fierce anti-Semite. And I mean an anti-Semite even by the standards of a Russian aristocrat in 1920. 

In any event, he set up as a warlord in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War, nominally part of the White army but in effect answering to no one but the voices in his head. He used to feed people to wolves and so on. 


Not a guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley; he has sheep killer eyes. Or, to be more accurate, burn-you-alive eyes, or make-you-climb-a-tree-and-stay-there-all-night-and-shoot-you-when-you-fall-out eyes. 

Like most real psycho tyrants, he didn’t last. He was captured by the reds and shot. Somehow, his policies of beating people to death with sticks or conscripting random strangers into his horde failed to endear him to his own troops, who tried to kill him. 

He’s turned up in a few novels and games as a villain, but doesn’t seem to have the cultural penetration you’d expect from a legendary maniac. It’s probably because his mania was in the context of the Russian Civil War, something not a lot of us care about. But he’s worth a look if you like psychotic mass murderers with outrageous wardrobes. 

Maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word there. 

Lunatics: Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg