Attila the Fraud and the Politics of Burial


A 16th-centiry re-imagining of Attila on a silver medallion (image source: wikipedia)

A few weeks ago a very strange story was doing the social media rounds: Hungarian archaeologists had found the tomb of Attila the Hun.  Now, if this was really the case, it would certainly represent one of the most important finds in the history of archaeology.  Strange then that it was only reported by what can only be described as a fringe news source, the World News Daily, which has previously reported allegations that Indonesia’s horned beast man had been captured, a mermaid skeleton had surfaced in New Zealand, and that a half-sasquatch girl had been born in the US (don’t think about that last one too hard).

Stranger still that accompanying the story was a photograph not of a Hunnic burial, but of a Chinese mummy.  I’m sure that very few people were actually taken in by the story, but that did not stop quite a few archaeological Twitterers, Facebookers and even some institutional accounts hitting that ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button.  In fact, if you look at that story today, more than 136,000 people shared that story on Facebook.

Needless to say, the story was a load of old tosh.  I don’t know whether it was based on any truth whatsoever, if the quoted authorities were real or had had their identities hijacked.  Neither do I know if indeed a rich ‘Hunnic’ burial had been found in Budapest, which would be a newsworthy discovery in itself.

If we can salvage something from this nonsense, it’s an excuse to recount the little that we do know about Attila’s demise.  Priscus (a contemporary Roman diplomat who had earlier encountered Attila) reported that Attila’s death in AD 453 was the result of an over-enthusiastic celebration of his most recent marriage, which ended with a particularly severe nosebleed (a later and probably less reliable account by Marcellinus Comes implicated a wife in his demise).  Following this undignified exit, Attila’s corpse was allegedly put into three successive coffins of gold, silver and iron.  A river (we don’t know which one) was temporarily diverted and his tomb was dug on its bed.  Afterwards, the river was set back on its course, forever concealing the grave.  I don’t think we need to contemplate the logistics of diverting the Danube in Budapest.  We can probably rest easy, the scourge of God remains securely tucked up in his tomb.

Although the hoax tells us nothing about Attila or archaeology, it does reveal the way in which this kind of rubbish can be promulgated by social media.  This is only possible because of the excitement generated by two combined factors: (1) we have disturbed the dead, a practice not exactly encouraged in our society and (2) the dead has a name.  Currently, such exhumations have captured the imaginations of the public and the media in an especially acute manner.

But perhaps they have always aroused such excitement.  Excavating the graves of historical leaders stokes the myths upon which contemporary identities are built.  If you want a slightly depressing taste of this, you can read the discussion below the Attila news story.   However, all burials tap into a very special kind of morbid fascination.  Strangely personal connections are drawn between the digger and the deceased, partly because digging up dead people is a strange thing to do in our society, and partly because it’s a reminder of our own mortality.  I wrote about this in my very first blog, and returned to the theme in a later post.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the peculiar power of names.  With a name, bones that were previously numbered specimens become re-inhabited by personality, even if that personality is largely one of our own creation (take Richard III for example).  That can be a personal name, but it can also be an identity label: woman, man, child, Saxon, Roman, slave, prince.  It all goes back to that most basic human act of needing to classify things, to fit them into our world view and attribute them some kind of value.  We pull something from the ground and ask “but what is this worth”?  But is that a fair or even useful question to ask of the named and the anonymous dead?


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