June 27, 2011

Pothead Willie Redux

It seems like Fox News is actually quite liberal... with the facts.  They appear to have originated the rumor that digging up Shakespeare and looking at his teeth will tell us if he smoked pot, when even the Daily Mail acquitted themselves nicely.  I blogged about this insanity yesterday, of course.  But today Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience did her due journalistic diligence and talked to Prof. Thackeray (and yours truly) about his plans for analyzing Shakespeare's remains (click on over to LiveScience to check it out).

Now, I don't know if drugs stay in hair and keratin for four centuries, but if they do, this seems to be a plausible way to see if Shakespeare had recently taken drugs.  That is, if Shakespeare's hair and nails are still there after four centuries.  Which is kind of unlikely, to be honest.  I also question what this test will really tell us...

  • Does testing the Bard's hair or nails for cannabis or cocaine tell us how widespread the practice was in Elizabethan England?  Or whether it was an acceptable thing to do in that society?  No.  
  • If drug tests do show that Shakespeare indulged in mind-altering substances, what does that tell us about his craft? Nothing, really. 
  • Are you more likely to slog through Titus Andronicus if you thought Shakespeare was high while writing it?  No.
  • Will some crackpot on a school board somewhere in America try to ban Shakespeare because of our moralistic "drugs are bad, mmmkay" mentality?  Quite possibly, but crackpots will be crackpots.

Perhaps the biggest question for me, though, is: is it an appropriate use of scientific resources to dig up a famous dead person and find out bits and pieces about his or her life because we're curious?  I tend to come down on the side of "no", but this may just be because I am trained as a bioarchaeologist rather than as a forensic anthropologist or a palaeoanthropologist.

Bioarchaeologists work with individual skeletons to answer questions about populations.  My current research seeks to know more about migrants to Imperial Rome, for example.  I am interested in individual migrants' lives, but one person's life doesn't make sense unless you know something of the range of variation within the population.  Forensic anthropologists, on the other hand, take the individual as their research subject.  Their field is about identifying unknown, modern individuals, which is possible because they have a reference population: all of us.  Palaeoanthropologists are kind of in the middle.  They find individual skeletons of a certain species, and they don't tend to have more than a handful of individuals to constitute a population.  So basically any new skeleton that is found helps refine and revise their understanding of hominin evolution.

My point here is that so-called "forensic archaeology" is often difficult for me to understand.  Yes, it's undeniably Sexy Science and a lot of fun to act like detectives with a high-profile ancient case to solve.  But without a thorough understanding of the ancient population (the Average Joes) from which an individual (the VIP) was drawn, it's hard to reconstruct their lives - from Mona Lisa to Zachary Taylor, Shakespeare to early Christian martyrs.  And this kind of investigation almost always singles out the privileged few who "shaped" society while ignoring the millions of others who did the actual hard work to make that society function.  My other complaint about forensic archaeology is that too many people draw from the evidence conclusions that are based primarily on our contemporary assumptions.  We need to remember that culture changes; what we think of as abnormal, immoral, unethical, or against the law today may have been perfectly acceptable among a different society in a different time period, and vice versa.

I guess we just have to wait and see if the Church of England allows Thackeray to open Shakespeare's tomb to scan the bones and take samples of his hair, nails, and teeth.  Seems kind of unlikely, but I am amused to hear that Thackeray is working within the letter of the "curse" - "Blessed be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he that moves my bones."

Today's main take-away lesson?  The Daily Mail has better reporters than Fox News.  But that's no surprise, really.


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