Medieval skeleton from Morigny-Champigny. Source: wikimedia
I am sick to death with a worn-out archaeological cliche. In archaeological writing, and media discussions of mortuary archaeology, the ‘straw man’ we want to avoid is apparently the disgusting uneducated public showing ‘morbid curiosity’ in the archaeological study of ancient human remains, graves, tombs, cemeteries and other funerary traces. Of course there are manifold emotional, religious, social and political dimensions to digging up, displaying and interpreting mortuary remains in the modern world. It might be sometimes useful to contrast good archaeological and heritage practice with voyeurism and sensationalism as well as the flagrant robbing and destruction of mortuary contexts for economic gain. However, it is often bang out of order to criticise non-archaeologists for displaying morbid curiosity.
I am not alone. Faye Sayer and Duncan Sayer criticise this phrase’s use in archaeological literature in a forthcoming chapter in a book I am co-editing called Archaeologists and the Dead contracted with Oxford University Press. Also, one doctoral student of archaeology – Katherine Crouch – as rightly converted its use for her own blog as a positive phrase. Therefore, clearly others see a positive side to morbid curiosity. And yet time and time again ‘morbid curiosity’ is trotted out as the evil we must avoid and the sin we must purge in seeking an enlightened and respectful mortuary archaeology.
‘Morbid curiosity’ as a phrase is used again and again as derogatory, as the basist and most ugly of human responses and engagements with the dead. This straw man is annoying for a number of reasons. It is a phrase of archaeologists who wish to engage the public in death and the dead but only on specific terms. It is a term of snobs and a term of the elite. It is an insult used to throw at anyone who isn’t a professional and isn’t an archaeologist and doesn’t care about the high-brow ethical debates regarding the treatment of the archaeological dead. To be morbidly curious is seen as ignorant, as well as to be poor and (most importantly) disrespectful. Sayer and Sayer go further and associate it with our society’s obsession with shame and corporeal exposure, but I will leave you to read their own work when the book is published later this year or early in 2016. What I would also focus on is the fact that mortuary archaeology is not deemed to be entertainment. The archaeological dead are serious relics for science. They should not be fun, not cause us to smile, not interest our curiosity and cause us to react, write and respond outside out of hazy but sanctioned parameters of sobre and reflective engagement.
Of course, archaeologists rarely mention what actually constitutes ‘morbid curiosity’, but my argument is to follow Sayer and Sayer and suggest that morbid curiosity is actually key to the popular appeal of mortuary archaeology. That is why the media are so interest, for example, in the current Crossrail project investigating hundreds of early modern skeletons at Liverpool Street.
First, let us pick apart the negative associations with the phrase. If it is so bad, what are the museological correlates for ‘morbid curiosity’ to be avoided at all costs? In the display case, what makes one skeleton a focus of ‘morbid curiosity’, or indeed, what precisely do we do to expunge curiosity of morbidity? What makes a skeleton a focus of ‘scientific interest’ and a valuable educational resource and NOT a focus of fascination with our mortality? The way we choose to display the dead is incredibly varied, depending on the quality and character of the preservation of mortuary remains and whether human bodies are fleshed or skeletonised, are cremated (or not), are articulated (or not), are associated with other human remains (or not), and whether they are placed with in appropriately lit and accessible spaces with informative, helpful and comprehensible text, associated artefacts, dioramas etc (or not….). My point is that there is no inherent strategy of display that constitutes the triumph of, and celebration of ‘morbid curiosity’. There are displays which help to inform and contextualise human remains more effectively than others. Likewise, there are ways of framing and situating human remains and mortuary artefacts in relation to other material aspects of past societies, but curiosity in mortality is not restricted to one approach more than others.
Pentre Ifan Neolithic tomb
Ok, it might be tempting to see ‘Victorian’ museum displays of skeletons in unassociated display cases or as unlabelled ‘curiosities’ as evidence of disrespect and ‘entertainment’. Yet even these human remains have, could and will attract all manner of emotional reactions and engagements depending on the background and knowledge of today’s visitor. Hence, even stark displays lacking context needn’t foster an emphasis upon morbidity over other dimensions and stories which skeletons and other mortuary remains evoke. Conversely, it escapes me which strategies for display promote limited or no morbid curiosity.
What is more, to character the complex and varied activities of antiquaries and early archaeologists who acquired and collected human remains from across the work as merely one of ‘morbid’ or ‘intellectual’ curiosity is a gross simplification. Moreover, it is an unhelpful gloss that obscures the often racist, classist and other socio-political and ideological contexts within which human remains have been appropriated and circulated in Western collections and museums. As a straw man argument condensed into a phrase, ‘morbid curiosity’ denies, rather than reveals, the history of archaeological thought and practice.
So perhaps morbid curiosity is not evident or promoted by specific display strategies, but instead resides in our intentions and experiences as curators and visitors only: in the way we choose to display mortuary remains and the ways we choose to engage with gravestones, megalithic tombs, skeletons and graves. If so, what dimensions of curatorial practice and visitor behaviour are evidence of curiosity? Interest, awe, attention to the human remains? Are promoting talking about or reading about the dead displays of public morbid curiosity? Surely all manner of responses and engagements should be encouraged, not a restricted mode of sombre, silent reflection. Museums and heritage sites ARE NOT undertakers and they are NOT cemeteries. We are not dealing with the recent dead nor the presence of their mourners, which might provoke all manner of contraventions and criticisms on visitor behaviour and decorum. Yes, it is important to recognise these were the remains of past people, but not past people who demand a specific code of dress or conduct. Surely talking, laughing, observing, reading and a full range of emotions and engagements from excitement to fear and disgust are to be tackled and facilitated by the display of the human dead. Curiosity is central to all of these, not for expulsion.
At a time when archaeology is trying to make itself more and more engagement and relevant to our society, it is decisively ridiculous for archaeologists to turn on the public – including generations of school kids as well as teachers and other visitors – and treat them as simply displaying ‘morbid curiosity’ unless they work hard to demonstrate a higher, more worthy, interest in human remains by attaining degrees and donning white coats. Conversely, not only would I argue that morbid curiosity is enhanced by, and satisfied by rich, varied and detailed displays of human remains and mortuary contexts in museums and heritage sites that connect people to life, dying and death in the human past, as well as make them reflect on mortality, disease, disposal methods and commemorative practices in the present. I would go further still and suggest that ‘morbid curiosity’ should be embraced – and indeed partly as a form of voyeurism – to look, to enquire, to encourage us to spy upon past lives and past deaths. This fascination with the deaths of others needn’t be negative. Instead, for children and adults, it can be an integral part of why people show interest in mortuary archaeology. Let’s stop being snobs at the very time we are espousing public engagement with all facets of archaeology. Let’s start focusing on the power and value of morbid curiosity, rather than treating an interest in dying, death and the dead as revealed by archaeological methods and techniques as aberrant and/or deviant.
Did curiosity ever kill the corpse? No, curiosity has never killed a corpse. The corpse is already dead. What damages mortuary archaeology and its goals and aspirations to reveal the human past as well as to be relevant to and inform contemporary people about disease, dying and death is not interest in mortality. We should foster public engagement and debate as well as high-quality mortuary research. This is not inherently disrespectful!
So, disrespect and disregard for the archaeological dead hardly ever stems not from morbid curiosity. It might do sometimes, with an unhealthy obsession with dead human material in itself, rather than the stories it might hold. Treating cadavers and bones as art or the focus of perverse fantasies can be seriously weird and deviant, but it isn’t fair to tar all interest in what mortuary archaeology tells us about humanity’s engagements with mortality with this brush.
Instead, we disrespect the dead through ignorance, by closing museums, shutting down Historic Environment Records, trashing ancient burial sites by unwanted and unnecessary development, condoning the robbing of heritage sites including tombs and graves, showing flagrant disregard for the views of descendant communities and squandering of limited resources available to educate and research the ancient dead. We also disrespect the dead by fetishizing the study of only the ancient rich and famous of the past to the disregard of the majority as I have argued here. Which is why, in response to a recent History Extra article, we should ignore historian Dan Jones and his banal bid for us to stop being ‘squeamish’ and dig more royal bones up. Embracing morbid curiosity is not an argument for unbridled tomb-raiding, but for both fun and simple, as well as careful and clever, mortuary archaeology exploring variations in the disposal and commemoration of the dead over time and space rather than the singular hunt for royal stiffs.
Of course the real problem with criticising morbid curiosity is that archaeologists are yet again shooting themselves in the foot by criticising themselves whilst maintaining their expert privilege as authorities to identify it without defining its characteristics. In contrast, we all should be morbidly curious and archaeology possesses an increasingly complex and varied set of ideas, approaches and debates, as well as methods and techniques, to investigate death in the human past and also to explore the significance of death and the dead to ourselves in the present. Funerary archaeology is about both provoking curiosity and offering strategies to satisfy it.