The session had an adequate, if quite low, attendance, c. 25


What happens when it rains on the funerary parade? How do mourners cope when a memorial collapses? What happens when enemies gate-crash the wake? What if there are so many deaths from famine or disease there are not enough people left to conduct the funerals? How do you cope when the deceased proves not to be dead and gate-crashes their own funeral? Unexpected, embarassing, humiliating and distressing, and perhaps in some cases emotionally and/or socially earth-shattering. When death is a time of mourning, loss and socio-political crisis, ensuring funerals and monuments go to plan can be fraught with difficulties and challenges. Sometimes funerals and memorials fail.

A range of agencies – environmental, geomorphological, vegetal, animal, human and material, can affect the progress of funerals and memorialisation in unexpected ways. The lack of resources and people, including the presence or absence of key survivors, and the absence of the cadaver (i.e. lost at sea or killed away from home), can also motivate different mortuary procedures. So while we tend to assume funerals were ‘planned’ and monuments ‘designed’ in the present and in the past, the choices and realisation of plans and expectations often shift and adapt. Sometimes funerals and memorials have to be fully revised in the harsh reality of multiple pressures and circumstances. Furthermore, funerals and memorials emerge as much out of conflict as consensus, and can be the focus of all kinds of disruptions as a result of discord.

We had to reschedule due to cancellations

Hence, funerals are not mechanical factory-lines, nor are they ad-lib performances. They demand rules, expectations and procedures, and informed by the knowledge of participants and funerary specialists, and can be guided by the wishes and expectations of the wider community. They also reveal the universal human ability to adapt in response to unexpected events and circumstances.

The EAA session rationale

These issues were the focus of a recent session I co-organised with Ruth Nugent and Dr Estella Weiss-Krejci. This took place on the first morning of the Istanbul EAA – the 20th annual conference of the European Association for Archaeologists. The session was entitled ‘Dead Ends, Funerary Flops and Monumental Failures: Archaeologies of Mortuary Disasters‘. The abstract and preliminary details of the session were outlined previously on this blog here.

The session aimed to look beyond funerals as intentional and designed sequences of events, but instead to foreground the expedient, incomplete, ill-conceived, rushed, disrupted and discordant aspects of mortuary practice and mortuary commemoration. The session challenged archaeologists regarding how we might identified and interpret ‘mortuary disasters’ in the archaeological record. Mortuary practices are almost always interpreted as meaningful and discursive, and while this is important for archaeological interpretation, the practical, contingent and unexpected disruptions to mortuary practice fail to get the attention they deserve.

The aim was less about identifying individual cases where funerals and memorials ‘failed’ as to understand the relationships between failure and success in past mortuary practices. Furthermore, the aim was to explore risk-management and fail-safe strategies in mortuary practices in the human past, and understand the range of agencies affecting mortuary variability and mortuary change which can often be driven by, and inspired by, fear of failure and by unexpected disruptions.

Together, these themes aimed to foreground the distributed agencies involved in mortuary practices and explore methods by which archaeologists can explore failed funerals, mortuary aberrations and monumental anomalies beyond the anecdotal.

In the end, one of the organisers and two presenters from the final line-up couldn’t make it to Istanbul. The final contingent comprised of 7 papers, two posters and an impromptu Introduction by my good self.

The Introduction

I kicked off proceedings with an unscheduled Introduction in which I tried to draw together some of the broad dimensions of the session’s parameters and foci. My conclusion was that an archaeology of mortuary disasters is not about identifying when things went wrong, but charting how past human communities dealt with and responded to unexpected events. From mass-burials associated with catastrophes in the human past (plaques, earthquakes, famine etc.) or the affects of a landslide in revealing partly decomposed corpses, from responses to collapsed tombs to dealing with a body that won’t burn on a pyre, we are not looking for simply things going wrong, but for how failures were averted, and how they were tempted in cases of increasingly complex mortuary procedures. Such examples reveal the complex interaction of human and non-human agencies, habitus and happenstance, in dealing with death in the human past and the human condition.

The first three papers gave us contrasting perspectives on mortuary disasters, and disaster aversion, from prehistoric settings.

Catriona Gibson pointed the way


First up, Catriona Gibson presented ‘Curst Be He That Moves My Bones’. Rest in Peace or Rest in Pieces. She explored the re-opening of Bronze-Age burials and the manipulation of human remains, focusing on commercial excavations in the Stonehenge landscape. Less about failure, her paper identified the range of ways in which ‘inhumations’ were subject to multiple post-burial engagements including the removal and manipulation of bones. As well as identifying the rich range of evidence for engaging with the dead post-burial, Gibson also suggested a new interpretation for the capping materials situated over these graves. The dynamic between burial and re-opening was evidently one that pre-occupied Early Bronze Age communities and demands further attention to both the grave-cuts themselves (and evidence of re-cuts) and the ways graves were sealed and marked.

James Johnson: are you not entertained?


Through his paper Recipes for Success or Failure? James A. Johnson focused upon gender differences as revealed in assemblages of grave-goods. He outlined a theoretical approach to considering ‘success’ and ‘failure’ within the Iron Age mortuary practices of the Ukraine. Again, Johnson was reluctant to identify what constituted a ‘failed’ burial in his particular cultural context, but he did challenge our presumptions regarding what constituted a ‘success’ and by putting anomalies in context.

Polanyi and a familiar quote


Next, Tamas Polanyi addressed ‘Indoxicating Death‘: building a framework for understanding the micro-politics of death using as his example the Bronze Age cemetery at Kajaszo, Hungary. His approach was intended to embrace the practical ‘becoming’ of mortuary traditions on the local scale, an approach that has considerable merit. Polanyi was thinking of local variations between individual graves and how these need not relate to status in life, but to unfolding sequences of mortuary procedures within and between funerals.

With Gibson looking at post-burial manipulation, Johnson exploring grave-good assemblages, and Polanyi engaging with cremation practices, each study challenged and extended our engagement with mortuary programs as contingent and variable in response to potential stresses and circumstances. Together, they set the scene for more specific discussions of failure and flop in the archaeological record. Subsequently, we left prehistory and moved into proto-historic and historical archaeologies.


My paper then proceeded after the break and moved the discussion into the early medieval period. Entitled The Disruptive Early Medieval Dead, my focus was upon looking at early medieval graves as locales for disruption of the dead by the living, and as sites of memory where the dead can disrupt the social fabric as inhabiting presences long after the funeral. As such, my focus was equally less about ‘failure’ per se, and more about how fear of failure and fear of the dead may have driven mortuary practices and commemorative monuments.

The paper focused attention on Viking-Age hogback stones from northern Britain as an architectural form that created the sense of a solid space – encouraging disruption from the living to engage with the dead sealed within their spaces, and yet simultaneously affording the sense of a  potentially disruptive corporeal presence in the tenth-century churchyard. Then, I showed how the hogback stone at West Kirby, Wirral, reveals features that suggest it was a failure, or perhaps more appropriately it might have been rushed to avert failure. This questioned not only our assumption that incomplete or poor-quality mortuary monuments reflect limited socio-economic resources or crude artistic capabilities, but sometimes that are better understood in the context of the mortuary fail-safe technologies.

Goldstein on Fort Ross


The next paper took our attention to northern Cailfornia and Lynne Goldstein’s excavations at the Fort Ross colonial cemetery of Orthodox Russian settlers and local native American groups. For Goldstein’s paper was entitled Mistakes and Adaptations on the Frontier. She explored the fluid and complex communities in the frontier context, suggesting that they were an ideal environment for exploring how failures were averted and compromises made in mortuary procedures. She developed this argument through the data from her excavations for rules and anomalies in the disposal of the dead in relation to Russian orthodox traditions.

A further dimension of mortuary disaster of note was how the archaeological intervention revealed possible perceived ‘failures’, such as how the cross marking the cemetery cut right through the centre of a grave. This showed clearly how the authorities were able to shrug this off, since the intention of erecting a cross was deemed respectful. In short, it reveals how explicit failures of respect and attention, in the right climate, can be readily dismissed and re-packaged, if authorities and communities wish to do so!

Ljungkvist on Gamla Uppsala


We moved back to the first millennium AD with John Ljungkvist’s Building Big and Sometimes too Fast. He focused on the three big mounds from Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, dating to the 6th/early 7th centuries AD. His first point was that these mounds were structurally ‘risky’, second that they did themselves ‘fail’ because much of the subsequent attention in the Viking Age (hall-building and mound-raising) need not be seen as ‘respect’ but an appropriation of mounds that had failed to retain their specific associations and knowledge of their occupants. Perhaps failure is about forgetting, whether a passive process or an active imposition by successors? His third key point was that the creation of failure was facilitated through the 19th-century excavations of the mounds that compromised their already problematic integrity. Archaeologists it seems can ‘fail’ the very dead that they strive to honour and explore.

Estella and her dateless memorials


The last, but not the least, of the papers was by Estella Weiss-Krejci entitled Reading Intentions. She explored European mural monuments of the 16th to 18th century, and focused attention on cases where the names of the deceased are never filled out but left blank. Through a detailed contextual analysis, she argued strongly that here the identification of ‘failure’ by scholars is a failure of interpretation only. She argued instead that in the complex nexus of memorial creation and funerals, these were sometimes left blank on purpose. Here, we have a clear warning about not imposing our assumptions of what constitutes a ‘mortuary disaster’ onto other times and places where they might be inappropriate.

Sjoling, Prata and Hennius 

There were two posters associated with the session. One that was definitely connected closely to the theme was called Pagan, Christian or Both? It concerned the Iron Age/Early Christian cemetery at Gnista, Sweden, where a poorly executed cremation burial was uncovered: grave no. 5. Was this a deliberate semi-cremation, burnt in the pit in which the remains were found? Or was it a cremation-gone-wrong? Is it an example of religious syncretism, a continuation in the normative use of cremation but with the end-result of an articulated interment?

Venue Disaster

The session venue was a bit of a flop of its own! In addition to the intense heat, the noise of the ineffectual air con making some speakers near-inaudible, and the light streaming through the inadequate blinds made the powerpoint projector screen invisible for large parts of many talks. I was furious that despite all the money, time and energy that speakers put into the talks and travelling to Istanbul, we had such a poor venue. Still, the local conference volunteer helper did his best to help, even if these issues were beyond his control.


There remain many areas where approaching ‘mortuary disasters’. Engaging with funerary flops is more than charting archaeological anomalies. Instead, exploring them can be the basis of a far better understanding of past communities’ choices and adaptations to historical circumstances and unexpected agencies. While the papers presented at the Istanbul EAA only outlined a few of the many avenues for such studies, I think the session achieved its main goal of bringing ‘dead ends’ centre-stage in current debates in mortuary archaeology and did so using a combination of prehistoric and historic case studies.