The Archaeology of Assassination: Grief, Gore, and Glorification.

In this blog post I will look at three examples of assassination and the material that has been left behind from them. These objects and archaeological sites are poignant reminders of the grief the loved ones of those targeted felt upon their death, as well as the intense fear of those present when these assassinations occurred. These objects are emotionally charged, with some containing the biological material of the assassinated. Often these types of archaeological artifacts are controversial regrading their display, but they seem capture the public interest in museum settings. These examples are just some of the famous archaeological materials, sites, or ‘relics’ left behind from some of the history’s most famous assassinations. 

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1864)- Objects: The Derringer pistol of John Wilkes Booth and the lead bullet from Lincoln’s autopsy.

John Wilkes Booth entered the theatre box of Lincoln and his wife on the 14th of April 1865. This was a mere 5 days after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant, bringing an end to the American Civil War. Booth shot Lincoln once in the head using a 5.87-inch tiny derringer pistol. The tiny ‘pocket pistol’ was only armed with one shot, and the lead ball fired from the gun entered below Lincolns left ear before it was retrieved during his autopsy at the White House by Dr Edward Curtis. The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, with the pistol itself on display at Ford’s Theatre. In 1940, the War department allowed the weapon to be displayed along with other relics associated with the assassination. 

Interestingly, there is a poll on Ford Theatre’s website asking whether the murder weapon should be on display, and if so, how should it be displayed? Four presidents have been assassinated in the US (all with guns), with two of the firearms used on display whilst two are not. The Buffalo history museum currently displays the pistol used to assassinate William McKinley in 1901. Are these weapons a gruesome oddity, or are they important artifacts associated with death that should be put on display? Are they glorifying the assassins who pulled the trigger, or are the glorifying the ones who were shot by these weapons? We may never know the answer to these questions, and whilst these artifacts are undoubtedly significant historical archaeological artifacts, the loved ones left behind and their grief should always be considered in the display of such trauma related objects – in the case of Lincoln, over 100 years has passed since his death, meaning immediate loved ones have died also.

The pistol used by John Wilkes Booth (Source: loc.gov)
The bullet that killed Lincoln (Source: history.com)

2. John F. Kennedy (1963)- Object: The blood-stained dress of Jackie Kennedy.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of Harvey Lee Oswald is perhaps the most famous assassination of all time. Kennedy was shot in the head on the 22nd of November 1963 as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Bullets struck both his head and neck, and he slumped onto his wife who held his head as they sped to the hospital a few minutes away. Nothing could be done to save JFK, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour after the motorcade had commenced in Dallas. One of the most iconic images surrounding the assassination is Jackie in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. Jackie kept the blood-stained suit on hours after her husband’s death. She was seen wearing it as she accompanied her husband’s body to Air Force One and as she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office. Jackie was sending a clear message, stating ‘I want them to see what they have done’ – the first lady wanted the world to know what had happened to her husband. The pink suit became iconic, an outward display of glamour as well as grief. So where is the suit now?

The pink suit was brought to the National Archives for safe keeping, and Caroline Kennedy agreed in 2003 that the suit could go on display once 100 years had passed. The suit is kept in a controlled environment for preservation and will be shown to the public in 2103. What a fascinating piece of archaeology this suit is and will become, with the bloody remains of one of the most famous men of all time splattered across the garment. The suit is shown in the iconic photographs of a formidable, grieving widow. The suit will serve as a reminder of the distress Jackie must have felt having been seated next to her husband and sprayed with his blood upon the impact of the bullet that killed him. Jackie suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, suffering from nightmares, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems in the time that followed. That pink Chanel suit is both a physical and emotional reminder of traumatic death and dying as well as the strength of one woman, showing that even the most powerful in the world are not immune to such tragedies.  

Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel suit (Source: lessonslearnedinlife.com)

3. Julius Caesar (44BC)- Place: Curia of Pompey.

Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman Senators at the Curia of Pompey (built in 55BC) – a meeting place at Pompey’s Theatre. Led by Brutus and Longinus, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the senators after tensions rose when Caesar was named dictator perpetuo. He was stabbed on the 15th of March – infamously known as ‘the Ides of March’ in 44BC. In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) claimed to have found the spot where the assassination took place. In Largo di Torre Argentina square, Rome, a 3m wide structure was found by archaeologists. Augustus (Caesars’ adopted son) is known to have built a structure matching the description of the concrete building described by researchers – allowing excavators to confirm the significance of the site. The site was a cat sanctuary before researchers began to carry out excavations of the complex – and continues to house cat colonies today. At present, the ruins can only be observed at the street level above.

In 2022, the area the Curia of Pompey is located, known as the Area Sacra, is to open to the public as an open-air museum. Restorations will begin in the area, where the ruins of other Republican era temples are located, with the aim of opening after the Covid-19 pandemic to attract tourism. Is it wrong to use the site as a tourist attraction, knowing that this is where one of the most infamous assassinations took place? Is this an element of dark tourism? These are questions that many will consider as the structure becomes accessible to the public, but there are many other archaeological sites that ‘showcase’ assassination or public execution. Such sites may include gallows or beheading sites that can be found in many historical places across the UK. What the Curia of Pompey does is highlight and humanise the death of a world leader who has become more than a mere man in the two thousand years since his murder. Perhaps the archaeology associated with his assassination will allow the public to think more about his death, and the bereavement of his family and allies that followed.

Area Sacra where the Curia of Pompey is located (Source: Lonely Planet)

Sources

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