Grave Goods – Becky Wragg Sykes
Welcome to Grave Goods, an occasional series of interviews in which we ask a person of interest to select five items to accompany them to the afterlife. For this outing, we have the magnificent Becky Wragg Sykes.
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist, author and Honorary Fellow in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, and the author of Kindred, an unprecedented and intensely fascinating exploration of the current knowledge of our fellow humans, Homo neanderthalensis.
Tools of the Trade –Seeing as this is my version of the afterlife, I’ll permit a few liberties with how objects function. To carry on as a hybrid archaeologist–author, I’d like two things. First, my silver trowel necklace will be able to morph into an actual trowel, should I come across any promising sites to excavate in the underworld [sudden pondering: if the underworld is literally beneath us, is its sky therefore all the layers of human history?].
Second, as a writer I would like both pen & paper as well as a laptop so I could record my impressions of the world beyond, recall memories, and create new explorations, stories and poems. But also the laptop will have a gizmo by which means I could send my work back to share with the living; maybe a little connection to a computer in a random internet café (do those still exist?!) where one day someone happens upon them.
Food for the Journey –Food is one of the great delights of embodied existence and the idea of never eating again is terribly depressing. I tend not to snack but feast at big meals, so would grab something from my funeral party. I’d like everyone to celebrate with a buffet of my favourite meals, from roast dinners to a gorgeous tofu, chilli, lime and mint dish my husband makes. But definitely also plenty of noodle-based dishes, I adore them! Assuming some magical properties are available to me, I’d pop some noodles from the feast inside one of those ever-refilling pots from children’s nursery rhymes. They would then transform into every possible sort of earthly noodle delight, whether soupy or fried, and those would be some consolation on the journey to and during eternity.
Memento Vivere – The things that bring me greatest joy are my family, and feeling a transcendent connection with the world. Since there are literally 10,000+ photos and videos on my phone, choosing one image to bring those emotions to mind would be very hard. So instead I will take with me a sculpture made of rocks and sand as mementos. First, a section of Torridonian stone from Scotland: comprised of sand and pebble beds up to 1 billion years old, the eroded remnants of vanished mountain ranges already vastly older, it reminds me of the immensity of the life’s deep story to which I belong. It also signifies glorious days up in the Highlands with my husband. And second, set into the stone will be a series of tiny bottles filled with sand. The grains will come from beaches where I’ve played with my children, to remind me of carefree days enjoying the land, the water, the sun and the creatures that share it with us.
Ex Libris – the book or text you are least likely to tire of reading –Forever is an awfully long time, so something that I can submerge myself in, and which stimulates meditations on time itself might be worthwhile. I don’t re-read many books, but some of those I do have that quality, including the first four of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series of novels, featuring wonderful Pleistocene world building. They’re comforting too, as stories I first encountered during my teens and which set me on the path I am today.
An absolutely astonishing book I’ve returned to several times (yet nobody I meet has read it) is The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman. Strange, beautiful and unsettling; a melding of supernatural folktale and historical novel spanning centuries. Despite spareness in language it evokes empathy for entities who are mortal, but very much Other.
And right now I’m just embarking on The Mirror and the Light, the final part in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy focusing on the life of Thomas Cromwell. The first two books are luminous, with writing that embodies hiraeth, a Welsh term for that weird homesick emotion for places lost, tipping from love to sadness, though in this case it’s for past worlds of lives lived and lost; in some ways similar to The Forest Of Hours.
Lucky Deposition –Assuming the deathly realm is physically separate from that of life but still observable, I’ll bring a temporo-scope, something I just made up that resembles a telescope, but looks across time rather than space. It would be bittersweet to use, since while I couldn’t talk to my loved ones left behind, I could still keep an eye on them.
The temporo-scope would also allow me to watch Earth at any moment in history, so I might turn it to the deep past, where being able to observe what Neanderthals were really like – the things that were precious to them, what they said around the fire at night, how they reacted to meeting us – would certainly keep me occupied.
A Message from Beyond the Grave – an entirely discretionary option – leave a note for a future generation to find –
As an archaeologist, I would say feel free to dig me up and find out whatever they can.
As someone who works and thinks on geological timescales, I would ask their forgiveness for bequeathing them the Anthropocene.
As a human, I would advise practising compassion, quoting Carl Sagan: “the vastness is bearable only through love”.
Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is an archaeologist, author and Honorary Fellow in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. Alongside her academic expertise, Rebecca has earned a reputation for exceptional public communication, with her writing featuring in The New York Times, The Times, The Guardian, Aeon and elsewhere. She is a popular speaker, appearing on programmes for BBC Radio 3 and 4 such as Front Row, Start The Week and The Infinite Monkey Cage, as well as numerous podcasts. Rebecca is also co-founder of the influential Trowelblazers project, which highlights women archaeologists, paleontologists and geologists through innovative outreach and collaboration.
@LeMoustier / rebeccawraggsykes.com
Kindred is the definitive guide to the Neanderthals. Since their discovery over 160 years ago, they’ve metamorphosed from the losers of the human family tree to A-list hominins. While 21st century scientific understanding of Neanderthals is complex and fascinating, much remains inaccessible outside the specialist literature.
Praise for Kindred
‘Beautiful, evocative, authoritative’ – Professor Brian Cox
‘Important reading not just for anyone interested in these ancient cousins of ours, but also for anyone interested in humanity’ – Yuval Noah Harari