My office was the venue of a deathly conversation today: simultaneously a funerary first acquaintance, a mortuary moot, a skeletal summit, a deathly discussion and an oration of obsequies. There was even some vampiric verbiage.
I didn’t insist on darkened windows. I didn’t confess my nocturnal blood-sucking practices. I never revealed my near-immortality! Quite rudely on reflection, I didn’t offer to share immortality or slaughter our mutual enemies by opening their coffins whilst they slept. In short, it was an interview without a vampire: not much was at stake.
Instead, me and my guest had a cup of tea and sat through a long and interesting recorded interview about my career in, and views about, mortuary archaeology.
Who was my guest? My interviewee was none other than the Manchester mortuary mistress of the macabre herself: Katherine Crouch.
Katherine’s doctoral research is focusing on the fascinating topic of “The role of human remains and mortuary archaeology in British contemporary culture“. Katherine has been busy interviewing many archaeologists about their experiences and views on the study of mortuary remains including skeletal material. I talked to Katherine about my views on mortuary archaeology, the challenges the subject faces and the discipline’s attitudes towards both the ancient and recent dead.
What did I say? I honestly can’t recall; it was a dazzling whirlwind of waffle. In any case it is supposed to be anonymous.
Having said that, I could have mentioned the challenges of dialogue between physical anthropologists/bioarchaeologists and mortuary archaeologists; I may have talked about questions of the merit of studying palaeopathology and of age and sex determinations from human remains. There was possibly mention of the expense involved, as well as the benefits gained, from the battery of scientific techniques to human remains. I think someone may have uttered views on the challenge faced by the concept of ‘prehistory’, which remains one of the most persistent and negative chronological and conceptual divisions employed in archaeology today which affects dialogue between mortuary archaeologists working on different periods.
Regarding how mortuary archaeology interacts with popular culture, somebody may just possibly ranted about the popular obsession with past mortuary celebrities (I may have ranted about Sutton Hoo Mound 1 and Richard III). I vaguely recall musings over the biases towards the display and study of intact mummified human remains or articulated skeletons to the detriment of disarticulated human remains including cremation practices (specific museums might have been mentioned). There could have been a discussion of my personal engagements with human remains and death more generally from uncovering Anglo-Saxon skeletons, exploring English churchyards, investigating rune-stones and the challenges of dealing with the excavation of a Viking boat grave where human remains did not survive. Absence as well as presence, were key points made.
In summary, it was a fun couple of hours nattering about mortuary matters. I don’t think I’ve been interviewed before about my views on mortuary archaeology. I fear that I probably learned more from the process than Katherine did! Still, I wish Katherine all the best with her research, which is promising to make an exciting contribution to the study of death, burial and commemoration by archaeologists in the UK.