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Seductions of the Soil Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Rebecca Myers

In his famous "Alas, poor Yorick," scene, Hamlet stands beside a newly dug grave, holds up the jester's skull, and says: "Here hung those lips I have kissed I know not how oft." He laments that humanity is no match for the earth, which over time will turn even the most fortunate of us into dust. It's a reflection that has resonance for more than just the prince of Denmark, according to Jennifer Wallace's Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination (London: Duckworth, 2004; $25). A lecturer in English literature at Cambridge University and an amateur archaeologist, Wallace looks at the impact archaeology has had both historically and psychologically. From the anguish of seventeenth-century gravediggers to the romance of antiquarian William Stukeley's work on Stonehenge and Avebury, she explores why we dig and what role the imagination plays in excavation.

Digging the Dirt

After a somewhat weighty introduction, she relies on an array of sources--philosophic texts, historic documents, modern poetry and fiction--to build her themes. The 1815 exhumation of Scottish poet Robert Burns illustrates the challenges of unearthing bodies without exploitation, while Heinrich Schliemann's work at Troy highlights excavation's political pitfalls. But it's Wallace's study of Freud, who compared the depths of the mind to the depths of the earth, that is most riveting. Freud's obsession with archaeology--he liked to "fondle" antique objects while he ate--has interested psychoanalysts more than archaeologists. For Wallace he's a clear example of the "seductions of the soil." She describes how Freud visited Pompeii in 1902 and became both tantalized and haunted by the plaster human figures, common emotions elicited by those remains. "The earth teases the archaeologist with its promise of material evidence, the literal fulfillment of the search for answers," Wallace writes, "but offers only the imprints and traces of that evidence now vanished."

Rebecca Myers is a writer-reporter and book reviewer for Time.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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