Romeo and Juliet of Romania

Daily Mail image 11:34 GMT, 23 April 2013 Cluj-Napoca individuals

This is one of those articles I put away for development later.  It was supposed to be a quickie…

Much of our time in heritage-related work, that could be devoted to research, study, outreach etc. is currently devoted to finding money. This problem is not limited to Ireland, but in a country where we are closing A & E units, and increasing costs, taxes and the like, on what seems like a daily basis, neither the government nor the public are interested in diverting funds towards heritage.  Naturally, those of us in the heritage industry feel somewhat aggrieved, while at the same time hoping that monies which might have come our way in the past are being better directed towards health and education.  Part of our frustration however lies in the realisation that Ireland could supplement its income through tourism, which would benefit greatly from the nurturing of the heritage industry.

I digress.  This devotion to the pursuit of money, mostly in order to keep people in jobs, leaves us wondering: how do we entice people towards supporting their heritage?  While this may seem cynical, it has a practical benefit in terms of outreach – it is teaching us to communicate our research and people’s own heritage to them, which is what we should be doing, particularly if we work for organisations funded by the public purse.

So what makes heritage attractive to the public?  What draws in a person, that might otherwise have no interest in their local landscape, history or archaeology?  There is an assumption, for example, that Americans of Irish descent will have an interest in the communities from whence their ancestors came, and those ancestors themselves.  If the migration was during the famine, their interests might widen to the famine itself, and perhaps the workhouses and the related history.  If this is not the case, they may have an interest in the general history and archaeology of Ireland, but again, they may not.  From what I have seen, for many people, history and archaeology are interesting only if they can find a point within them, to which they can relate their own story.  Often, the interest lies more in genealogy than a wider, more general history.  So they tend to want to trace back their family tree, or find the homestead of the generations ago.

It is more difficult then, to draw a person’s attention to something where they might find no common ground. What is it that might grab the public’s attention?  The excavation of the supposed Richard III was illuminating in the public interest that it generated.  For me it seemed almost silly, this hype over discovering a body and using various methods to establish personhood, but I suppose we talk about these things so often, we almost assume that they are common knowledge.  And so while parts of me were sceptical about this study, and in particular the nature of the excavation, it brought the public deeper into our sometimes exclusive sphere, and that is a good thing.  It’s just a pity that it took a king to do it!

So when I saw this article on the Romeo and Juliet couple, it again made me think of how we present heritage to the public and how the interest that certain discoveries generates reflects back on us.

Romanian Insider seems to have been the first English language source to break the story online.  Probably because of its enigmatic title, “Romanian archeologists uncover Romeo & Juliet: medieval couple buried together with hands clasped”  it was not long before it was picked up by other sites and shared.  Let’s break down the title before moving on to the piece itself.  Here, for me are the “buzz words (sorry)” :


Romeo and Juliet


hands clasped

Ooooh!  Already I want to know what going on!  I’m picturing some Braveheart/Shakespeare melange fronted by that Blackadder man!  Interestingly, there is no image of the excavation or the remains with the original article, which given our ever-increasing reliance on visuals, shows how strong the title was, that the story still generated such interest.

To the article.  Allow me to emphasise the parts that stand out in bold:

“Archeologists investigating the site of a former Dominican monastery in Cluj have uncovered a remarkable tale of love, preserved in the bones of a medieval grave. Two skeletons, of a young man and a woman, were found clearly buried together with their hands clasped for eternity.

“Dubbed Romeo and Juliet by the archeological team,…

“The remains belonged to “a young couple of around 30 years of age, a man and a woman buried together, facing each other and holding hands. It’s a strange case, a sort of Romeo and Juliet. The man appears to have died in an accident, as the sternum was broken by a blow from a blunt object and the woman buried with him could have had a heart attack on hearing the news, there isn’t really any other explanation for her death,” said Adrian Rusu.”

Let’s start with how they drew us in and made it sexy.  ‘Love’ and ‘eternity’, they could have popped up a picture of the two holding hands and left it at that.   It would have probably gone viral.  But no, they tied them to a Shakespearean tragedy and while they were at it, decided that the female died of a broken heart.  “There isn’t really any other explanation for her death.”

Let me assure the recently dumped that there are myriad other ways for a person to die that won’t leave traces on the skeleton and death from a broken heart is a decidedly rare medical occurrence.  The last quoted sentence is a a bit of porky pie.  There may be translation issues of course, it has not been easy to trace original Romanian texts on the excavation (I may not have tried hard enough).  For example, the death of the male is attributed in one source to BFT to the sternum, while in another to the hip.  And the images that turned up on the Daily Mail, may be of the excavation, (similar pipes on show in a video from Huffpost) but the sources are not cited and they do not turn up elsewhere.  Furthermore, they don’t necessarily match the description of two skeletons facing one another, even with taphonomic changes taken into account – either the images or the description are wrong or misleading.

My aim here is not really to rip the representation of the excavation to shreds, but rather to examine what it means.  Firstly, I feel it is a good example of what it takes to grab the attention of the public when we are confronted every second by new information, new news, new images, new gossip.  Without the Romeo and Juliet moniker, the skeletons would probably have been attractive to the romantics among us because they appear to be holding hands and based on the archaeologist’s interpretation, it seems that one of them was wounded in an assault or accident and that the other simply gave up and died on the strength of it.  There were two other inhumations at the same site that only appeared as afterthoughts in each article, though scientifically, they are hardly less important.  Thousands of skeletons are excavated every year but go unnoticed, slipping silently into the archaeological record.  If we do a search on Huffpost, which would be monitoring the web for popular stories and then reporting on them, the tag “skeleton” reveals the following:

Crooked King Had Parasite Problem, New Study Suggests

King Richard

Mummies Reveal Ancient Egyptians Wore WHAT On Their Toes?

Mummies and toe-rings

Surprising Skull Discovery Has Historians Scratching Their Heads

Not-James Cook, first European to arrive in Australia

Cleopatra’s Murdered Kin Claim Stirs Controversy


What Rare Fossil Find Reveals About Early Humans

Pre-human fossil from around the time of Lucy

Unearthing the Truth About the Gay Caveman (VIDEO)

“The new hot media trend is “outing” 5,000-year-old skeletons from the apparent sexual confusion of their caves. But does the story of the so-called “Gay Caveman” hold up?”  Unfortunately, the video no longer seems available for this one.

5000 Year Old Warrior’s Skeleton Found Near Rome

Again, this title’s attraction is self-explanatory: Rome, warrior, skeleton, 5000…

The Joe Soaps of archaeology rarely, if ever, make the headlines.

Secondly, the Romanian Romeo & Juliet story displays how far an archaeological team is willing to go to draw the public’s attention, or at the very least, it shows that archaeologists are also susceptible to the odd sensationalist notion.  Turning around and sharing their Romeo and Juliet idea with the public, to me, is questionable.  Furthermore, suggesting that the female suffered a heart attack, and that there is no alternative explanation for her death is highly questionable.  But, archaeologists and perhaps historians (though I imagine they have less room for manoeuvre) are often guilty of this.  We don’t give the public the credit that they deserve; we assume that they will only be capable of processing one line of theory, and often we go on to present such theories as fact.  Most of our work is interpretation or supposition.  I understand completely how trying to convey the seven ideas that we may have on one event can be tongue-twistingly confusing and frustrating for both presenter and listener, but neglecting to mention that the favoured theory is theory only, is in my mind the equivalent of telling a lie.

It seems that we are unable to generate a sustained, long-term concern for our archaeology and history.  I feel that we are trapped by an ability to only create fireworks, to grab the attention short-term, to remind the public of the existence of our shared heritage temporarily, and hope that the more we do it, eventually something might stick.  Heritage is hidden in plain sight.  It is all around us, our museums are drowning under the weight of it, our country even is often held fast in bad ideology by it and yet to most people it is invisible.  Why? Is it somehow unrelatable?  Occasionally one sees celebrities on these genealogy shows crying because their great, great, great, great grand-uncle suffered some indignity and they are suddenly emotionally connected with a person to whom they might previously have never given a moment’s thought.  I suppose in  a way our struggle is similar to those of charities, to make the starving and suffering more human (as opposed to a 2D image), so that we will want to share our money (back to money) with them.  Perhaps this is why it is more difficult to make a martyr out of  hill than a skeleton.  We can’t really relate to fields. Unless of course it is The Field.  Or a field or landscape to which we can tie ourselves or our family.  Sometimes, if a site is lucky, it might find itself written into the origin myth of a people or find significance simply by being named in a tale.  Otherwise it is an inanimate object or place, something behind a ditch, that we vaguely register as we drive past.

Until we find a way to make heritage as emotive as something like soccer, we will remain reliant on Richards and Romeos to save our heritage and share it with the public.