Review: No Bone Unturned, Jeff Benedict

The problem with nonfiction is that I always want specialized stuff and the libraries don’t want me to have it. Or, the other problem with nonfiction might be, there’s just not enough of it out there. I wanted to read loads more books about looting and other cultural property issues, because I enjoyed Stealing History and was interested in the issues it raised. I don’t think I appreciated it enough for portraying the complexities of the issues, like the compromises archaeologists have to make with collectors if they want to have any opportunity whatsoever to study looted antiquities. Then I read No Bone Unturned and learned better.

No Bone Unturned is a love letter to anthropologist Doug Owsley, and in spots it is also the story of Kennewick Man, a 9000-year-old skeleton unearthed in Washington whose ownership was hotly contested by archaeologists, American Indian tribes, and teh government. There is a thing called NAGPRA which says that if human remains are unearthed that can be connected to an existing American Indian tribe, then that tribe gets the remains back to be buried. Archaeologists who inspected the bone structure of Kennewick Man said that it did not resemble American Indian bone structures; the Umatilla tribe said that their oral tradition made it clear that Kennewick Man belonged to them. Hilarity ensued. (Not real hilarity. Angry hilarity.)

The problem with No Bone Unturned is that I felt throughout it that Jeff Benedict thought I was a very, very stupid person. It was full of stuff like “Doug believed that the government was trying to suppress science. To him, this was just plain wrong. The bones did not belong to the Umatilla tribe, and archaeologists should have a chance to prove it.” I am not quoting verbatim from the book but I MIGHT AS WELL BE. The story of Kennewick Man is essentially interesting, and so were many of the stories Benedict was telling throughout the book. But the style of writing irritated the hell out of me. Complicated issues were in play, but Benedict barely touched on them, because he was so wedded to this narrative of Doug Owsley standing up to the monolith.

This isn’t to say that I disbelieved any particular aspect of the story Benedict was telling. Doug Owsley sounds like a cool, smart, good person, and it sounds like the government behaved really, really badly over Kennewick Man. But the simplistic style of Turner’s writing made me feel like I was being sold a bill of goods. I am not having a go at journalists who write books! I know that journalists can write good narrative nonfiction that nevertheless engages with the complexity of the story they are telling, because I have read, for instance, And the Band Played On.

Has anyone read a really good book about archaeological preservation, or looting, or cultural property controversies? I’m interested in those things right now! Share the booky love!