Rebecca digging skeleton at Roundway2
One of my students, excavating a Bronze Age burial in Wiltshire, 1999
Human remains on display in a Swedish museum, 2012

For mortuary archaeologists, whether they work in a lab, in the commercial sector, in a museum, or teach and research at universities, an integral part of our work is about dialogues with the living as much as it is about dealing with the dead.

Dealing with the public isn’t always easy given the morbid nature of our discoveries and interpretations. Digging up, analyzing, interpreting and displaying human remains, graves, tombs, cemeteries and other kinds of memorials, involves avoiding many ethical and moral pitfalls and facing the challenge of avoiding imposing modern sensibilities onto past societies. There are also numerous challenges in how to be ‘sensitive’, ‘respectful’ but also to clearly communicate exciting discoveries and interpretations that can be revealed through the detailed study of mortuary data and contexts.

The public and popular culture are embedded in every stage of mortuary archaeology. We work in and with different contemporary individuals, communities and contexts. Moreover, throughout the history of the study of mortuary practice by archaeologists, our contemporary attitudes and practices have both shaped, and been shaped by, the ancient humans whose remains we find and study. For these reasons, mortuary archaeology is indelibly public archaeology, and a popular kind of public archaeology it is indeed.

From Conference to Book Project

I have published on some of these issues over the last 6 or 7 years. I am now exploring the interface between mortuary archaeology and its context in the world today through an edited book project, provisionally entitled: Dealing with the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology and Contemporary Society. The idea for this book came in 2010 when I co-organized with Dr Melanie Giles (Manchester University) two conference sessions aimed an explicitly bringing together archaeologists from governmental, museum and commercial archaeologists, heritage professionals and university academics to discuss the politcs, ethics and wider engagements of mortuary archaeology with contemporary society. To engage difference audiences and speakers, these sessions took place at two very different venues. The first was at the Southport IfA (Institute for Archaeologists) conference in April 2010, the second at the Bristol TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group) conference in December of that year.

Following these successful conference sessions, during 2011 we commissioned papers presented at either venue plus additional papers to create a sizable collection of new research. The latter part of 2011 and most of 2012 involved a lengthy and rigorous peer-review process for the papers. Mel and I are now co-editing the book and we aim to submit the manuscript to a publisher for their consideration in November.

National Historical Museum, Stockholm: A Mesolithic lady hunter, on display for all to see, 2012.

A Timely Book

This is a timely book. During the last few years, mortuary archaeology has hit the headlines again and again in the UK, from the consultation by English Heritage and the National Trust over the claims by Pagans for the reburial of human remains on display at the Keiller Museum, Avebury, to the discovery of the grave and skeleton of Richard III which has been followed by disputes over where his remains should be reburied. Duncan Sayer has lobbied for changes in legislation pertaining to the archaeological excavation of human remains in the UK and every year, mortuary data contributes exciting new information about the human past as well as fresh controversies over when, how and why we should dig up the dead.

A Changing Climate

Moreover, the intellectual climate of debate is shifting fast. Tiffany Jenkins’ sociological study Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections and Duncan Sayer’s archaeological perspective Ethics and Burial Archaeology (both authors are contributors to this new volume) have made important in-roads into the study of the character and public interface of mortuary archaeology and the display of human remains. Myra Gieson’s recent edited book Curating Human Remains focuses on the UK and the museum situation. Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz’s edited book The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial also contains a significant section on the international context of ethics and politics of mortuary archaeology.  Hopefully, our book will dovetail with, and extend, the debates presented in these books.

What’s in the Book?

It is premature to circulate all the details of the book ahead of submission for publication. Still, here are a few hints to whet the appetite of future readers.My own contribution to the book considers how cremated human remains are displayed in UK and Scandinavian museums, a hitherto underinvestigated topic given that so much of the discussion about the display of the dead in museums focuses on mummified bodies and articulated skeletons.

Mel’s paper looks at how Iron Age chariot burials are visualised in publications and museum displays. She looks at previous attempts and how they are shaped by the theoretical contexts of their day, and shows how we worked in dialogue with archaeologist and artist Aaron Watson to create a new image of what chariot-burials may have been like.

The remaining chapters address the North American, European and UK situation, deal with the digging up and display of the dead, and different strategies of engagement with the public. There are papers debating the controversial wrapping of Egyptian mummies at the Manchester Museum, chapters considering the public engagement with the excavation of mid-nineteenth century cemetery containing the graves of African freed slaves on St Helena in the mid-Atlantic. There are papers dealing with the shifting identities imposed upon the women from the Early Viking-age Oseberg ship, to papers exploring the benefits of digging without barriers to public engagement and observation with early Anglo-Saxon graves in Cambridgeshire. Archaeologist’s own mentalities are investigated and the contrasting strategies for displaying the dead are explored worldwide from Peru to China.

In short, it is proving to be a very exciting project to work on. I am halfway through copy-editing the chapters. I will give you more information about the contents of the book in due course.