The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Death Bed Terrors

This post is cross-posted at my ghost stories site, but as it deals with the history of archaeology, and specifically the archaeology of the area where I did my MA research, I thought I would also post it here.

Note: 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.


Kay said...

Sheesh, that story has such potential but your little one paragraph leaves a lot to be desired. Let me try my hand at it.

Part 1

The room was dark. The light from Clarence’s bedside lamp made feeble attempts to penetrate the gloom but to no avail. Propped up on his pillows and racked with a cough that seemed to pull itself with tumultuous pain from his chest, he lay exhausted staring with unseeing eyes at the few people who had bothered to brave the rain in order to be present. The night nurse sat dozing in a creaky rocking chair, her hair fallen forward to cover her eyes. Jack and I stood nervously at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to say, unsure of what to do.

The fact that he was dying was well known, the question remained only of the when.

Another racking cough and he sits up heaving, the bed shuddering under the movement, the veins in his neck suddenly florid and bright against his dusky skin. The nurse opens one eye and then goes back to her thoughts. Jack moves forward and reaches for the glass of water on the nightstand when suddenly Clarence’s hand shoots out and he latches on to Jack. I can see his nails biting into Jack’s arm and I watch in silent horror as the glass slips and shatters on the wooden floor. The nurse sits up with a gasp and Jack cries out more in surprise than anything… but Clarence doesn’t seem to heed the sound. His eyes are suddenly very round and white, jutting from his skull like glowing orbs of madness. Rivers of sweat flow over his bald head and his mouth opens and closes as he struggles for breath.

“The dirt… the graves… the scent of the….” His whispers are loud and Jack doesn’t look him in the eye as he tries to untangle himself, but Clarence holds on, his fingers tightening bunching the fabric of Jack’s coat into a ball. “I can see them all…”

The night nurse is up now, a look of dogged determination on her face. Roughly she pulls at Clarence from the other side of the bed muttering about his need to rest. Together they pry his fingers away and force him back down against the pillows only to move backwards as another coughing fit seizes him convulsing his body up in a spasm that lifts his chest towards the ceiling. It seems to go on forever, until I think there simply cannot be anything left inside him to cough up, no more air, no more blood, nothing.


Kay said...

Part 2

When it finally subsides, his body seems to have shrunken. He lays quietly, still blinking stupidly up. We stand suspended, the room suddenly hot and crowded. I feel the need to cough my self, to somehow force air into the stagnate space that seems to wrap itself around us.

He speaks, his voice raw from the coughing, “They won’t let me go quietly into the night.”

Against my won judgment I hear myself ask, “Who?”

There is a moment of silence and then he sits bolt upright, eyes wild, hands clasped in front of his chest, “They’re coming, They’re coming! They drag themselves from the dirt, they know where I am…”

We surround him, touching, pleading, cajoling, the nurse’s eyes are bright and Jack’s breath is ragged, but he will not be quieted. His voice increase in pitch, in fervor and he glares in terror at the empty corners of the room. “They don’t understand… you don’t understand… I never meant to hurt anyone…. No, please no… Don’t Take Me!”

He is weeping now, face slick with tears and sweat and snot, his body wound tight and his muscles clenching. The nurse fumbles in her kit for a needle, something must be done to quiet him but he fights us off and screams at his ghosts.

“To Hell, then, to hell… you long dead apparitions, you have come to drag me…” Gleeful laughter bubbles up from his cracked lips and his eyes roll back into his head, their whites a sharp contrast to his now flushed pallor. Again the nurse struggles with the needle, again he fights her off.

“You can’t take me, foul ancestors! I won’t let you… You can’t… Oh God, Please don’t let them… NOOO… I BEG of you… Leave Me In PEACE!...” and then with a high pitched wail that chilled the very marrow of my bones he collapsed.

We stood frozen, the nurse with her needle posed, Jack with tears on his cheeks, me open mouthed and shivering.

He was dead, his features frozen in a look of abject horror. His eyes refused to be closed and I finally just pulled the sheet up to cover his face. The wind howled against the house and I thought I heard an echo of his final cry. Stumbling we turned to leave but I could feel him there behind me. I knew his eyes in death were still open, staring at the ghosts he had disturbed in life.

Kay said...

Had to split it up because blogger doesn’t trust that I’m not a spammer.

Anyway, that was fun. I should rewrite more of your ghost stories…. Several of them could use more gumption and flair.

Anthroslug said...

So, um, bored today?

Kay said...

Not at all.

It was a good use of 20 mins while I ate breakfast.

I guess I should start writing my next book and stop trolling your blog eh?

Anthroslug said...

Oh, I'm fine with you "trolling" my blog, I just figured you were bored, rather than having fun.

You know, it you wanted to re-write the ghost stories, I think that we could reach some arrangement...

Kay said...

Really? Because that would be Awesome Fun!