Friday, March 15, 2013

The Oppenheimers of archaeology?

"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night."
E.A. Poe, Masque of The Red Death.

The news is filled with stories about archaeological digs.
All over the world researchers and scientists examine the remains of old settlements, fortresses, dwellings, and even graves for answers to questions about our past. By piecing this centuries long study together we get a better picture of our history. Combined with the narratives of the period - the stories told by people at the time and recorded for us to read - the archaeology fills out the picture. Often adding details thought unimportant or not understood by the people of the time. Sometimes these researchers are left with more questions than answers, and at others mysteries are solved.
Archaeology has given us much insight into the human condition.
Archaeology, like history, is a passion of mine.
Archaeology, like all forms of inquiry, can be hijacked and abused.
There are many ways the physical evidence of our history can be manipulated in order to benefit some group or ideology.
Perhaps the most nefarious is one we see at play right now, under the streets of London.

In London, currently, there is a team of specialists working with a dig team to unearth a plague pit. It is thought victims of the back death were buried in this pit, and the 'mystery' of what exactly that pathogen was and how it worked, along with questions about immunity, are all said to be the reasons for exhuming these human remains. These remains are, after all, graves - even if very old ones. As in all archaeological digs, the act of opening a potential (or literal) grave is weighed. The justification in this case is the 'black death'.

If we, my humble readers, were to assume that all men where good, and that all efforts where honest, and that a pathogen like the 'black death' would be off no use to anyone but the people who fight diseases and design medicines to save us from them.... well then we can stop reading here, and head back to our daily tasks without so much as another thought. We are in safe hands.

If, on the other hand, we are to be even the slightest bit sceptical of the motives of the people with the influence to arrange the opening of a plague pit in London then  we must consider some darker possibilities. Possibilities of a decidedly more Faustian order. What if some of the people funding this dig are not interested in cures, but in something else entirely?

The black death was a brutal killer. It destroyed entire nations, cause religious panic, and lefts entire settlements empty.
It killed hundreds of millions in Europe alone.
A huge fraction of mankind was killed by this plague like disease.
The dead piled up so high, they were buried in lime pits or burned in pyres.
It was a hellish pandemic. Literally the stuff of mediaeval nightmares.
The exact nature of the pandemic is still unknown.
The disease itself remains somewhat of a mystery and a controversy.
Could modern science cope with the black death? This is the question we are told is at hand. But is there another one?
Yes. Indeed, there is.
Could the black death be improved upon and weaponized? Now this question is a scary one.
Let's honestly hope and pray the answer is a resounding 'Hell, no'.
But, if there is any chance the black death can be weaponized,  the people digging this pit have considered this.
That like some modern day Oppenheimer they knowingly open Pandora's box. They hope what they find is used for good, and to prevent death - but at the same time they  must understand what could happen if this kind of discovery was to fall into the wrong hands. They know that what they find could possibly be (mis)used to kill millions, maybe even billions.
If this is the potential price for the answers they seek to the questions they find most interesting, we must ask ourselves: Is that a gamble we are all willing to take?
If I were in there shoes, I would like to think I would not do it. But, I would refuse knowing someone else would, and perhaps that is worse.
Well, willing or not - the dice have been thrown. We must now hope the 'black death' proves to be useless to the bioweapons industry.
Let's hope the madmen are disappointed.


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