My latest edited book is out now in all good bookshops and also via the internet: Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society.
Co-edited with Mel Giles (Manchester University), the book has a Foreword by Mike Parker Pearson, Introduction by Mel and myself and a reflective concluding chapter by Lynne Goldstein.
There are a further 18 sizzling deathly chapters exploring the archaeological processes and experiences of digging up graves and other funerary remains. Other chapters investigate the significance and experience of displaying the dead in museums. Further contributions interrogate broader intersections between mortuary archaeology and contemporary society, including how we write about, visualise and engage the archaeological dead in contemporary society, both through academic publications and the media. Multiple papers consider the intersection between archaeological practices and contemporary death ways.
Soon after I started this blog in 2013, I initially reported on the book project. Later that year, I outlined the provisional contents. Last year, I presented an update on the decisions regarding the choice of front cover here and I recently promoted the book at the Dead Relevant conference organised by my students and hosted by the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
It is both a relief and a delight to see the final product with the cover image of my choice: my daughter meeting a medieval skeleton at Norton Priory.
In the Introduction, Mel and I explore current issues and debates on the connections between death and society. For example, I explore how the intangible dead inhabit our museums and heritage sites as well as human remains. Sutton Hoo, for example, is a classic example of this: a landscape of mounds and many kinds of mortuary contexts. The artefacts and contexts speak about the dead more than bones.
Cremation on Display
My chapter in the book explores the particular qualities and affordances of cremated human remains on display in museums of varying size and remit. I propose that discussions of the display of the dead in museums have focused nearly exclusively on fleshed human remains (mummies and bog bodies) or else upon articulated unburnt skeletons. Cremated human remains have received less attention, yet they are ubiquitous for museums with prehistoric and early historic archaeological collections.
I suggest that cremation offers a variety of opportunities to exhibit and explore mortuary variability, mortuary processes and mortuary change in past societies for today’s largely cremating public. Yet while cremated remains are presented in a wide range of fashions and contexts, and bring the ancient dead ‘to life’ within museums in often sophisticated and intelligent displays, there is the need for further explicit debates about the significance cremation offers about mortality in the past and in the present.
On this blog, for example, I’ve talked about the display of cremated human remains and artefacts and materials from cremation graves at the British Museum, the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, the Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, Weaver Hall Museum and Llangollen Museum.
In the book, I use the Hjemsted Oldtidsparken as an example of a heritage centre displaying cremation, and a town museum – Colchester Museum – in which there are varied and rich displays of the cremated dead. These are joined with the South Jutland Museum, Haderslev as an example of a regional museum exhibiting the cremated dead. Finally, I address the Swedish History Museum’s displays of cremation.
As a collection, and as a chapter, I am proud of this volume and I hope it brings a fresh range of debates on the relationship of mortuary archaeology and contemporary society to the public’s attention, as well as to scholars and heritage professionals. The book aims to move beyond the specific, important, but more familiar themes of reburial and repatriation to consider the archaeological dead as social actors in contemporary society, and mortuary archaeologists as a distinctive kind of ‘death dealer’ for our time.