iMahal Interview Series:
David Gimbel
July 22, 2001

iMahal:  National moods certainly affect the mindset of young people. And there are many examples of radical changes in government and national mood, in the US and other countries.
Gimbel:  True. I am currently learning about another one. My fiancée's family is Filipino. They also have a strong sense of history because of events such as the Japanese occupation and the Bata'an death march, as well as the earlier annexation of the Philippines as an American colony. So I think that we live in a world that is in constant flux and we have to be aware of the social forces that affect it. I think that this is one of the reasons that I'm so deeply interested in archeology. Archaeology for me is a way to look at culture and documents and then try to explain changes that happened in the world, so that we might learn from our history. I think a lot of these changes are reoccurring. One of the primary functions of governments, corporations, universities, and other institutions is to control and define social power on one level or another. This is not a value judgment, but simply a fact about how human societies function and how certain systems function.

Before we move on from my childhood, I thought I might mention a particular experience that had an impact on me. When I was very young, in the early 70s, Franco started to allow political dissidents to return to Spain. This coincided with my grandfather's retirement, so he moved back to Spain. As a boy I spent most of my summers there. We would spend time in the Pyrenees or along the coast. My grandfather had worked at the American Museum of Natural History. He was a deeply cultured person. He wasn't a man of any real means, economically speaking, but he was obsessed with history, literature, art, and music and he loved to go around and visit different sites. For example, I remember him taking me to Altamira, the famous Paleolithic cave site in Spain.

He took me to see many castles, museums, and monasteries. But I have one particular memory where we went to a small church in the Pyrenees. was piled to the ceiling with human skulls and bones..
We met a priest inside the church and he asked me if I wanted to see something very interesting and special. Of course I said fine, and I was with my grandfather. It was explained to me that ten years previous to that they had been doing some construction on the church and they had knocked down a wall. They had found a room behind it and in that room there was a trap door. The priest took me in there and he pulled up the trap door and underneath was a huge chamber, and it was piled to the ceiling with human skulls and bones, victims of the Inquisition.

With Grandparents in Spain
With Grandparents in Spain
This is typical of Spain where a macabre thing might be presented to you as an interesting oddity. Many churches contain human relics, such as the organs or body parts of rulers, saints, or martyrs. But in this particular instance, all these people had been victims of the Inquisition. I thought about that a lot over the years, and I think it had a profound impact on me, because at that time Spain was still under the control of fascists, and my grandfather had very left-wing sentiments. I was always told: don't discuss politics in the street, and don't discuss my politics, or one day they will come and drag me off and drag my wife away. So I remember looking down at those skulls and bones and recognizing that these were victims of the Inquisition and realizing that although that was a very distant point in history, that history was in a sense continuing in Spain, that it was an active part of what I was experiencing. If you made certain political statements, or you spoke to the wrong people, this might happen to your family.

All photographs copyright and courtesy of David Gimbel or Archaeos



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