I recently gave a talk at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference hosted by the University of Manchester entitled “Digital Communities of the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology Online. This was the last presentation in a rich and varied session entitled Ok Computer? Digital Public Archaeologies in Practice organised by UCL public archaeology gurus Chiara Bonacchi and Gabriel Moshenska, digital archdruid Lorna Richardson, and MMU’s radiocarbon messiah Seren Griffiths. I was extremely nervous at presenting in the company of experts in the theory and practice of digital archaeology. Still, it was an opportunity to explore what I see as pressing issues in how mortuary archaeology is being interpreted and envisioned online. I was particularly grateful to Alison Atkin and Katherine Crouch who discussed the topic with me in advance of presenting, and to Alison for suggesting the term ‘Digital Public Mortuary Archaeology’ and the acronym ‘DPMA’ for discussing mortuary archaeology’s online engagements with the wider public beyond the academy. Background I began by explaining the various strands of my research that have led me to present the paper, namely:

  • Previous publications on dimensions of public archaeology’s engagements with mortality and commemoration:
    • Williams, H. & Williams, E.J.L. 2007. Digging for the dead: archaeological practice as mortuary commemoration, Public Archaeology 6(1): 45-61
    • Simpson, F. & Williams, H. 2008. Evaluating community archaeology in the UK, Public Archaeology 7(2): 69-90
    • Williams, H. 2009. On display: envisioning the early Anglo-Saxon dead, in D. Sayer. & H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp. 170-206.
  • My ongoing research into early medieval carved stone monuments will be touching on how we present, interpret and debate this data online as well as in museums and churches, as discussed here.
  • The Speaking with the Dead project (2011-14) has involved a travelling temporary exhibition and thinking of new ways of using online media to engage the public with the mortuary dimensions of cathedrals and churches.

How Does Mortuary Archaeology appear online? Mirroring the complex dimensions of archaeology more generally, I identified some of the key ways in which the archaeological dead appear online, including:

  • International/National Media
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter etc)
  • Wikis and other encyclopedias
  • Blogs and other open fora
  • Project and Society websites
  • Heritage and museum websites
  • Teaching outlets for University courses and publicly available lectures on YouTube, Vimeo and elsewhere
  • Archaeological archives and databases
  • Academic and popular e-books and journals articles
  • Digital Projects geared for teaching and researching mortuary archaeology and physical anthropology

I didn’t mention it in this list, but perhaps I should also add, on reflection and through points raised during discussion and online:

  • Images, blogs and other online products of visitors to museums and heritage sites.
  • Video games

Many of these sources mirror the appearance of the archaeological dead in contemporary media. However, many, from ADS archives to blogs, wikis and fieldwork projects, provide far more detail and far more complex strategies of representing and communicating the dead, than can be found in real-world scenarios. I haven’t conducted a full survey, so any examples or additional categories are welcome. My point was simple: why are mortuary archaeologists agonising over museum displays and the visibility of the dead during fieldwork projects when most people can and will access the archaeological dead online? Even a simple google search will spill out thousands of images of fleshed and skeletal dead bodies retrieved and studied by archaeologists. Many of these are created by archaeologists themselves, but many more are in use by journalists and the public. Meanwhile, HER data and Archwilio (in Wales) will give the public freely available details of thousands of mortuary sites and monuments. The archaeological dead are everywhere, so why do we confine our discussions to human remains in museums? Problems with DPMA So the digital world provides unparalleled exposure to the public of the archaeological dead from excavations and other forms of fieldwork, through museums to broader archaeological interpretations of mortuary variability and change. This is uncensored (or largely uncensored) and global in its reach meaning that the archaeological dead feed a worldwide audience. Indigenous groups and those opposed to the display of the dead might as well focus their efforts on museums, since the horse has already bolted before they could shut the stable door where it comes to the world wide web! Set against this background, I argued that it simply wasn’t good enough to adopt a zealous stance proclaiming the need to pour the findings of archaeology online without carefully and critically engaging with the ethical, political and pedagogic ramifications of displaying the dead – through texts, drawings, photographs and video – online. For example, how do we real-time video the excavation of a grave and tomb without affecting how we do it, how we talk about it and how we interpret our findings? Equally, it is simply not good enough to foster a climate in which the fear of ethical concerns leads to the self-censorship of the public from the archaeological dead online. Online, the archaeological dead speak in many ways to the living and we need to be candid about our choices of what to show and what not to show, and why. The dead should not be open access, nor should they be hidden away. Navigating between these extremes will be a complex minefield of issues involving stakeholders, descendant communities, politics and ethics. In terms of problems with current online dimensions, I identified some key issues which I think are shared by many online media (as well as those in more traditional forms), reflecting our societal priorities and media fetishes, but also I feel reflect an uncritical rootedness in traditional media. These include the current obsession with:

  • Fleshed body and articulated skeletons (downplaying disarticulated, fire-transformed and other past human remains)
  • Celebrity and freak corpses (with less attention paid to communities of the dead)
  • Discovery-orientated media reports (rather than debate and syntheses)
  • Science-focused reports, sometimes focusing on the technological application rather than results achieved (downplaying low-tech mortuary archaeology).
  • Excavation-focused studies that fail to account for non-intrusive mechanisms of engaging with the archaeological dead.
  • Anti-historical views that portray static situations rather than processes of change.
  • Normative in focusing on particular cultures and their established, shared habits: a culture-historic approach to death and society
  • Debate-poor – much of what is online is reportage, rather than discursive, which limits our ability to use online media to create discussions over death in the past and mortality today.

Potentials for DPMA Having set up the problem that, currently, there is no debate, no critical research and no engagement with the issue of how we create DPMA beyond spilling our data online, the simple conclusion to jump to is that the vast majority of mortuary archaeology online is not being geared to, or related to, public archaeology’s current aims and objectives. Instead, it is direct spillage – or leaking – of existing research into the public domain via the world wide web. Whether top-down, bottom-up, community engagement or global in reach, mortuary archaeology is wrongly being treated as a special subcategory of archaeological material where ‘respect’ is demanded. This caricature as a subdiscipline, relevant only when digging skeletons and analysing bones sells us short. I argued that mortuary archaeology is more than a subdiscipline, it affects us all, living and dead, relates to many kinds of archaeological material and cotnext, and has implications far beyond archaeological research questions. In the brief presentation, I simply raised the potential of online archaeodeath, via various different projects, of engaging and tackling in current debates beyond reporting on new excavations of famous or infamous corpses. These included the suggestion that:

  1. DPMA project might wish, for practical, ethical, but also theoretical grounds, move beyond the intact cadaver, critiquing and questioning our corporeal obsession to consider alternative mortuary media from artefact assemblages, cemeteries and gravestones to mortuary architectures and landscapes. Let’s face it, we live in a cenotaphic commemorative culture, and at the 100th anniversary of the Great War, it is perverse that mortuary archaeology focuses on bodies when the vast majority of remains we explore are about corporeal absence and citation.
  2. projects with DPMA objectives and components might wish to emphasis both individuals and communities of the dead – augmenting heritage locales and museums with additional information about past deathways.
  3. DPMA can explore both death in the distant past, but also death in the present and, furthermore, engage with the future of death
  4. DPMA might wish to engage with the affordances, even agencies, of non-human beings – from animals, plants and geology – in our discussions of death in the past and present, and this might offer new narratives utilising the potential of digital media beyond standard narratives
  5. as identified in the ‘Speaking with the Dead’ project, we actively de-centre narratives away from the living, to consider the dialogues – material and immaterial – between the living and the dead
  6. rather than simply considering DPMA as a special kind of archaeology, we explore the potential of mortuary matters being of far wider interest than simply archaeologists interested in death, disposal and disease in the past.

Summary I summed up my argument with the following points and suggestions. We should:

  • regard DPMA as more than extension of what we already do.
  • create bespoke DPMA projects that harness public interests in mortality and develop public participation in mortuary archaeology
  • foster new kinds of community online, including social media, including but also extending beyond those with a geographical focus, and fostering their interests in particular mortuary remains
  • emphasise how we interface with monuments, heritage sites and landscapes by enhancing but also challenging senses of community and identity through DPMA
  • tackle mortality through DPMA beyond bodies, an exclusive focus on living people and even archaeology itself

Postscript: Returning to the Pillar of Eliseg This brings us back full circle to how we tackle the Bronze Age mortuary remains and the ninth-century AD commemorative monument. For this monument, human remains were scattered, cremated and interred, or absent. Texts, materials and place spoke of the archaeological dead and how they were remembered by past communities. For archaeological projects like this one, DPMA is more than a dimension limited in space to the locality of the monument, those interested in specific time-periods, or to activities within the duration of the project itself. Instead DPMA makes us think about extending discussion, debate and fostering communities online in different ways. This is as far as my thoughts have taken me on this subject, but I look forward to alternative views and suggestions of further public archaeology projects already online with mortuary dimensions.

Post-postscript (19-04-15) 

I have teamed up with University of Sheffield postgraduate student Alison Atkin to write up some of these points for publication. Today we have submitted our draft manuscript to a journal.

Post-post-postscript (01-12-15)

Our article is now published!

‘Virtually Dead: Digital Public Mortuary Archaeology’