This month’s theme for Doug’s Archaeology blog carnival is the ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ about blogging. I chose the Ugly.
Ugly Mortuary Archaeology
My blog is about mortuary archaeology in its varied manifestations: ‘Archaeodeath’ I have called it. By the title you can guess something of the content. What I am not doing is a forensic or physical anthropological ‘bodies-and-bones’ blog, reporting and discussing grisly details of human remains past. I’m not saying I won’t occasionally mention them, but I won’t regularly do so. The fact is there are already those who do it better. For example, I have started following some of these such as Strange Remains and Bones Don’t Lie.
Some of what these bloggers report are the really ‘fun stuff’ of mortuary archaeology: mass graves, frozen mummies, diseased skeletons etc etc. from around the world. This is stuff with strong popular appeal. Ugly stuff. Stuff that both fascinates but repels, topics that might be ‘sensitive’ to some potential viewers on grounds of age, religious faith and ethnicity but are uncanny and compelling to the majority.
My blog might not be so body-and-bone obsessed. Still, in my 6 months of blogging, I have discussed modern and ancient death, burial and commemoration. I have discussed gravestones, crematoria, memorial landscapes, burial sites and tombs. I have reported on my own excavations of Bronze Age and early medieval burials. I have used images of many of these to support my text. I have expressed strong views on the excavation of Richard III and gained disapproval from more than one medieval royal necrophiliac. So while not as corporeal as some mortuary blogs, I am writing in public about the sensitive topic of human mortality.
Is Mortuary Archaeology Blogging Too Ugly?
Almost all of the material reported by these blogs, and mine, is already in the public domain and it is global. But some blogs, including my own, are making fresh observations about material in the public domain, and sometimes reporting on new and previously unpublished material. This raises a wide range of issues regarding ethics and respect.
For example, how do I and these bloggers contend with the descendant communities who might find the representation and discussion of such human remains offensive or disrespectful? What about those who object to the discussion of death on ethical grounds or with regard to ‘taste’ and sensitivities?
So, do we risk becoming becoming too insensitive to the sensitivities of our topic? What constitutes a ‘ghoulish’ blog entry? How ugly, visceral, and ‘in your face’ should we make our discussions in mortuary archaeology in the blogging arena? What measures should we make to avoid too ugly/insensitive/grotesque a portrayal of death, burial and commemoration in the human past through our text and visuals?
Conversely, when is it absolutely necessary to communicate and explain scientific discoveries through a discussion and visualisation of human remains? Is it ok to go further and report on grisly discoveries, uncanny finds and morbid topics, and actually go out of one’s way to horrify and disturb one’s blogging audience?
Of course, museums face these debates all the time. What has been said about this amidst the archaeological blogging community? Has anyone discussed this before? Has anyone objected or complained about you blogging about the archaeology of death?
To put all this simply, I fear we may become the archaeological equivalent of the cast of my favourite show: The Walking Dead. By this I mean that we are constantly encountering more and more gruesome cadavers and despatching them in all gruesome ways, just to survive as bloggers! Is this really what mortuary archaeology is about?
Is Mortuary Archaeology Too Beautiful?
Conversely, there is a danger of archaeologists writing about death to wrap it in as many layers of concealment as the shrouded and encoffined cadavers we encounter in our excavations. We have to ensure that we do not beautifying death in the past, concealing it, embalming it and burying it with euphemisms. If we do, are we really communicating our subject matter effectively and accurately?
Have archaeology bloggers, consciously or unconsciously, decided not to blog about issues that are too affecting, too disturbing, too upsetting, to uncanny? Have they experienced being told to remove images that are too offensive to potentially offended groups that do exist, might exist, or might one day exist? Do you live in fear of trolls from whatever source attacking your opinions on death, burial and commemoration in the human past? Is there any litigous groups or individuals out there homing in on archaeology blogging?
The fact remains that in the world of mortuary archaeology blogging sits on a spectrum between two extremes and where it sits will depends as much on the reader as the author. What is offensive and disrespectful to one reader will be interesting, compelling and scientific research to another.
It is important is to remember that ugliness may be in the eye (or hollow eye-socket) of the beholder, but it is an important issue of concern for how we write about and visualise death in the human past. Do we make our mortuary archaeology blogs beautiful or ugly, or a bit of both?
At one extreme, we risk making the death too bold and grisly, too visceral and animated – the past becomes a never-ending stream of re-animated cadavers shambling forward to greet the ever-horrified audience: Walking Dead Mortuary Archaeology!
The alternate extreme is blogging in a fashion that is overly sensitive to imagined offenses and disrespect, simpering and fearful undertaker archaeology. Here, we rebury the dead in the way we write, concealing it from anyone and everyone who might be touched or troubled by it: The Mortuary Archaeology of the Loved One!
Between these extremes, I am not even sure a balance is any better. We might risk merging these two extremes; showing the horrifying reality of death and rendering it beautiful, a form of mortuary archaeology ‘plastination’ where we fetishise skeletons and mummies and live in respect and awe of their beauty and worship the scientific information they ‘possess’. In this scenario, archaeology becomes all about bodies, bodies and more bodies: The Mortuary Archaeology of Body Worlds.