Sunday, July 26, 2009

The (alleged) Death Bed Terror of an Archaeologist

This story is about a real person, but it should be noted that the entire story is based on second hand accounts and rumor, and I do not claim that the story is true, though the information contained in the commentary is accurate.

Clarence "Pop" Ruth was a significant figure in Santa Barbara County archaeology in the early-through-mid 20th century. Professionally a teacher and later principal of Lompoc's school, Ruth collected artifacts in his free time and displayed them in his home in Lompoc (in northern Santa Barbara County) and in a small museum next door to his home. His collections formed the basis of those at the Lompoc Museum, and by providing a tangible link to the past, did promote local archaeology. However, his means of collection, falling short of archaeological standards (especially as they developed in the later half of the 20th century) was considered by many member of the local Chumash Indian community (as well as many archaeologists) to be grave robbing. As a result, Ruth is a controversial figure, to say the least, in the history of Californian archaeology.

Some years back, I worked with someone who had known Clarence Ruth. He told me the following story concerning Ruth's death:

As Ruth was dying, he was uneasy, and seemed to be seeing things that no one else could. in his final moments, he became terrified, and began to scream that the spirits of long-dead Chumash Indians were coming to drag him away to Hell for disturbing their graves. And with that, he died.

Commentary: As noted above, this story is based on rumor and hearsay, I don't claim to know if it is true. It is, perhaps, worth noting that I have only heard this story from my colleagues in archaeology, and those of them who know it tell the story with a certain strange and unnerving relish. Part of this may come from the fact that most archaeologists are abhorred at the destructive way in which many non-archaeologists and self-styled "avocational archaeologists" remove artifacts from sites. The fact that one such person allegedly died while suffering for these methods gives some of my more bellicose, and perhaps less empathetic, colleagues a sense of justice.

It's important to remember that during Ruth's time, the non-systematic removal of artifacts from sites was a common activity and generally frowned upon only by the Native American community who held that this activity was nothing more than theft and grave robbing. Archaeologists, Native Americans, and law enforcement now refer to this sort of activity as looting, and when it is done on public lands (or on private lands by anyone other than the land owner) it is considered theft and carries legal penalties including prison time.

It is however important to note that, during most of Ruth's life, this sort of activity was acceptable, and the fact that Ruth made his collection public and used it to help establish a museum does indicate that he was something more than just a simple treasure hunter or artifact seller. Whether or not this was an acceptable excuse for Ruth is open to debate. As an intelligent and educated man, Ruth certainly would have had access to information on modern archaeological techniques, should he have chosen to make use of them. Also, as a resident of Santa Barbara County, Ruth may have had the opportunity to learn more about proper archaeological methods from the leading anthropologists of the day, many of whom frequented Ruth's home turf. In the early 20th century, this would have included Alfred Kroeber, J. P. Harrington, and David Banks Rogers. In the mid and late 20th centuries, this would have included James Deetz, Michael Glassow, Brian Fagan, and Albert Spaulding. And this is just a small sampling of the notable anthropologists and anthropological archaeologists who have lived and/or worked in the area.

While Ruth's activities were not out of the ordinary for people of his generation and his willingness to share was rather unusual, Ruth did have ways to gain the resources to do better. And so, when the Lompoc Museum's web page explains simply that Ruth was a "man of his time", the statement is both accurate and disingenuous. And so, right or wrong, some of my colleagues may enjoy this story simply because it is a way of expressing disapproval.

Another reason for the telling of the story amongst archaeologists may have something to do with our own profession's rather checkered past. In the late 19th and early 20th century, much archaeology was little more than grave robbing. Even those archaeologists who practiced the most advanced methods and used the latest techniques did so without regard to the Native American communities that were often affected by the archaeologist's work. While times have changed and archaeologists are better about this now, even many of my current colleagues view the modern descendants of the people being studied as irrelevant, though this view is increasingly a minority opinion.

So, this story may also serve to confirm to us that we are different from the "grave robbers" of the past. We use better methods, are less destructive, and are more likely to consider the descendants of our study subjects. And, so we tell ourselves, we don't have to worry about being dragged to Hell by angry spirits.

Of course, when all is said and done, it should be remembered that one definite reason why this story continues to be told is simply that it is a creepy story, and those stories, whether true or false, always carry on.

Sources: Personal Accounts

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