We need a debate on how archaeologists and heritage professionals – as death-dealers for the ancient dead – also deal with contemporary attitudes and practices surrounding death. What do we do when colleagues and friends in our line of work pass away?

Death Dealing

Archaeologists deal with ancient skeletons, mummies, disarticulated human remains, memorials and mortuary contexts. This makes as atuned to mortality and mortuary concerns? Well, maybe. Maybe not. I would suggest not. You see, archaeologists and heritage professionals may be death-dealers, investigating, analysing, interpreting and synthesising narratives about death in the human past for modern audiences. However, we rarely reflect on how we as a profession deal with our own mortality and with those of colleagues.

So no, this isn’t another post about how we deal with the ancient dead. I want to talk about the fact that there is a need for archaeologists and heritage professionals, and indeed other academics, to consider more closely their relationship with death in their professional lives. This includes the study, in comparative context, of how archaeologists engage with, participate in, write about, and mourn the passing of fellow archaeologists.

As I enter middle age, I am only beginning to realise how archaeologists, like so many, not only have to live with the loss of loved ones – relatives, partners, friends, children, work colleagues, students, pets and prized possessions. We may also reflect more, and even make plans for, our own demise. In addition, archaeologists often take on, in various ways and with different degrees of perceived obligation, the professional and personal research of the dying and the dead. This involves dealing with more than intellectual legacies. In person, by phone, or via email, we may have to deal with dying and dead archaeologists and their next of kin.

There are a wide range of scenarios. These might be archaeologists we worked with and for, or it might be archaeologists whose reputation and legacy of publications and presentations, excavations and surveys, create the obligation/association with us.

Gives us some examples Williams I hear you cry!

Example 1: Festschrifts for the Dead

I face regular invitations (sometimes read obligations) to invest time and labour in working towards Festschrifts – which in most cases are a celebration of life, not of death. However, sometimes, not uncommonly, these taken place after the individual has passed away. They remain a celebration, but they become a different ‘beast’ and the editors and authors write differently ‘for the dead’ than they do ‘for a gift to be presented to a living person’. I recently heard of a case where the ‘in preparation’ Festschrift was taken around as a manuscript to be shown to the dying man. The book sadly came out after the academic had died.

I’d like to learn more about how we write differently for the dead…

Example 2 – Dead Archives

I recently got a letter from an academic whom I have never met, telling me that another academic I have never met has the archive of a third archaeologist who I never met and is long dead. Would I be interested in this archive? What are my motivations and obligations here? Obligations to the discipline? Obligations to my research? Obligations to the dead?

Example 3 – Dead Libraries

‘Would you like his collection of books for your University library?’, I am asked by the widow of a very famous and eminent medieval archaeologist. Currently, colleagues and I are negotiating for the storage at the University of Chester of multiple collections of books and journal runs by retiring and dead scholars. In an age where libraries detest books and journals, preferring e-journals and e-books, this is a difficult point for negotiation… There is more than a recycling service in operation here. The dead person would have wanted the journals and books used by students – part of their legacy for future generations. This isn’t idle junk! So our obligation is to ensure we only agree to take on collections that will be used and used well… A complex process.

Example 4 – Editing for the Dying

I edit a national journal. A few years back, I receive a submission from an ageing archaeologist who is unable to see properly and has all manner of health issues that affect his ability to write, research and edit his own work. An inordinate amount of help and guidance was offered to said individual by colleagues, referees and myself as editor. This is offered knowing that the said individual is determined to end their career writing a paper that revises and heavily criticises their own heavily cited and influential article in the same journal some four decades earlier. The article is published while they are still alive, but the effort put into it reflect a deeply felt and respectful awareness of the complex and unfolding health issues relating to the individual and their likely death, admitted by the author himself, during the course of the editing. Knowing this individual has now passed away, but after having seen the final publication, it was both touching that, even though I never met him, I was able to show my respects by helping him reach this paper to a satisfactory conclusion whilst he was alive. His son thanked me personally and other scholars have since shown their gratitude that I did the right thing but ensuring it reached publication in an appropriate and timely way. Was this work for the living, work for the dead, or a bit of both?

Example 5: Editing for the Dead

I accepted a journal article for publication early last year but (as is usual) the article required minor revisions before publication could proceed. Sadly the first author became ill and unable to communicate. Then, in September of this year, he got well enough to communicate and promised to revise the manuscript. I then heard nothing. Last week, I learned that the person had passed away in December. So now I face a particularly challenging task of being editor of a manuscript requiring only minor revisions before publication, but the first author has ‘passed on’. The second author, referees and others are proving an invaluable help. More than any other obligation I have on my very full plate at the moment, I am determined, if possible, to ensure that this author’s work does not languish unpublished. I may have never met him, but I will ‘do good’ by his legacy and get this out in the Journal to the highest possible quality.


So, as you see, the dead haunt us, direct us, demand work of us. We are never allowed to rest, and we are all creating work for each other and long after death we demand action. Is this post-human, post-death agency? Archaeologists ‘digging for the dead’ here takes on many more dimensions than is usually considered.

There are many further examples of how archaeologists find themselves working with and for the dying, and the dead, or writing in their honour and remembrance. We are not only dealing with the mass of ideas, influences, discoveries, methods and theories that many influential archaeologists leave behind and are inherited, tackled, dismissed and derided by former students and rivals. Dealing with dying and dead archaeologists can involve the very practical and personal obligations to manage the distribution and reallocation of book collections and runs of journals, to see incomplete or even near-complete publications through to print, to see archives deposited in relevant museums and other repositories, and to ensure their legacy in terms of ideas and incomplete projects run their course.

This leads to all manner of questions. What guidelines of behaviour, professionalism, ethics and so on, are we following in dealing with work colleagues and professional contacts during their dying process and their death? Are we right to take on these obligations? Do we do it for ourselves and our self-interests or do we really do it for the dead? How do we know the dead are happy with our work for them? Are there lessons of this for our interpretation of past mortuary practices and the narratives we create about funerary obsequies revealed in graves, tombs, cemeteries and other mortuary environments?