I’ve recently heard it said that British archaeologists are adverse to displaying the dead, more so than the Irish and ‘Catholic’ nations. It is argued that popular religious dispositions correlate directly and simply with attitudes and practices surrounding the excavation, investigation, display and publication of cemeteries and graves, including human skeletal material. However, I think this fundamentally misunderstands not only the colonial legacy of appropriation and display of mortuary remains, but also the complex nature of British death ways and and their rich non-cadaverous, cenotaphic, engagements with mortality. Taking these into account helps us to appreciate why mortuary dimensions are often subtle and yet ubiquitous in our contemporary heritage environments: museums, ancient monuments and historic buildings.
2 years ago I posted about death-defying heritage as it pertains to abbey ruins, using the superbly conserved vestiges Buildwas Abbey, Shropshire – an English Heritage site – as a case study. This is part of a broader argument I would make: while most ‘public mortuary archaeology’ and ‘mortuary heritage’ has focused on the display and dissemination of research on human remains, it is actually the case that mortuary dimensions are far broader and more subtle than is often appreciated. Indeed, much of it is cenotaphic, not by design but by biography. The cadaver only implied via de-contextualised spolia on display and/or grave-slabs on display but raised up to ground level. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, as at:
I suggested that the lack of attention to mortuary matters is part of a heritage discourse focused on ‘living’, rather than dying and the dead, for the Middle Ages. Ruins become vehicles for imagining past lives for monastic communities, not past deaths or past commemorative practice. This is despite the key role of mortuary practice in relations between patrons and religious houses in medieval Europe.
Yet the unlabelled, widespread presence of mortuary monuments tells a mortuary story through its failure to be explicitly told. It reveals how mortuary practice and commemoration practice are not told, they are experienced; walked over and around, touched and considered, outside of the official guide books. There is more archaeodeath to these environs than might first appear and is officially articulated.
For Buildwas, in my previous visit I discussed displays of graves as a small and overlooked dimension of the heritage experience, with graves on display in the chapter house and church. However, I missed the spolia, which I saw for the first time on a visit this spring. I was struck by the presence of the dislocated dead: without captions, without context, and seemingly with minimal care, displayed as if in a museum’s warehouse.
In a room previously locked, were benches upon which architectural and mortuary fragments were displayed, including floriate crosses and text-inscribed grave slabs. None of these have been the focus of research or publications to my knowledge. They are floating, anonymous, body-less, yet still mortuary in their original significance and mode of horizontal display.