I’ve been busy marking and scheming over the last two weeks but I’m now back with a new Archaeodeath blog entry!

In a previous entry, I outlined a long-running book project I have been working on, now contracted with OUP and due for publication in 2016. This is now called ‘Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society‘. The book looks at the intersection between mortuary archaeology, contemporary archaeology and public archaeology through 18 original research chapters, an Introduction by editors Mel Giles and myself, and a concluding Commentary by Professor Lynne Goldstein.

The book has a British and European focus, but papers also touch on the American and global scene too. There are sections looking at interactions and contexts in which mortuary archaeology operates to engage and relate to wider contemporary society during fieldwork, in the museum environment and through various media and popular cultures. I am all set to get the final draft manuscript back to OUP by 1st July so that production can begin. It is an exciting time creating a truly unique and distinctive book, the likes of which haven’t been attempted before.

One of our final decisions is: what do we use as the front cover? Which single image encapulates this book’s many themes and issues. This isn’t a book about human remains per se, but about mortuary archaeology in all its manifestations. It isn’t a book about the reburial and repatriation debate, it is a book about the many complex intersections between mortuary archaeology and the contemporary world in which it takes place. This is a book about Britain, Europe, North America and the world. How can a single image promote this diversity?

In my previous experience with this kind of situation, publishers like the easy route of selecting an image from inside the book itself. Within our book there are plenty of images we could use, of bog bodies, mummies, skeletons, disarticulated and cremated human remains, and various images of cemetery excavations and artist’s visualizations of past funerals. Mel (my co-editor) and I might chose one of these. The publishers might have a view on which makes the book most marketable.

Still, I am putting forward another suggestion; one which might not prove the final decision, but one that raises a series of issues in itself. The photograph is taken by me in 2012 and it is of a medieval sarcophagus containing an adult skeleton on display at Norton Priory, Cheshire. The reasons I like this are as follows:

  1. It foregrounds public engagement with mortuary archaeology at a well-known heritage site
  2. It doesn’t just show human remains, but a skeleton within a material context: the sarcophagus.
  3. The living person is a child and this helps to emphasise how this and many other museum displays of human remains are aimed at children as well as adult audiences.
  4. The image prompts the imagination in two directions; first the archaeological dead prompt the imagination towards the many processes in the life of the person, their dying and death and the mortuary practices leading to the burial. In the context of this book in particular, the skeleton and sarcophagus’s context of discovery and excavation and then translation and arrangement for display are all prompted. Conversely, the image shows a living person but shrouded by the curtain of her own hair, prompting speculation regarding the living experience and engagement with the archaeological dead. Was she smiling, was she sad? Was she interested or bored?

In all likelihood, this won’t be the final front-cover choice for the book. Still, views on the use of the archaeological dead to promote academic work and sell books are very welcome.