Canal-side memorial at Llangollen, Denbighshire

Mortuary archaeology researches the relationships between death, memory and material culture across time. This means the archaeology of death and burial stretches back to the Palaeolithic and reaches up to the post-medieval period. But how recent can archaeologists study the dead?

Well, I’m delighted to say that a new book has just landed on my desk, fresh off the press from Sweden: the doctoral thesis of Dr Sian Anthony: Materialising Modern Cemeteries: Archaeological Narratives of Assistens Cemetery, Copenhagen. In this, Sian explores burial, memorials and landscape in the very near-past: from the 19th to the mid-20th century.

This follows a trend of the last decade where, from different perspectives, archaeologies of the contemporary past have been exploring death, burial and commemoration. Sometimes this will involve the study of human remains and graves (as in cases where war crimes and crimes are being investigated), but more commonly it will involve studies of gravestones, tombs,  memorials, mausolea, monuments, cemeteries,parks and gardens as well as less formal places and spaces, architectures and material cultures, associated with mourning and commemoration.

Burma railway memorial at the NMA, Alrewas, Staffordshire

This work has attempted to show how mortuary archaeologists can explore mortality today as well as yesterday, offering fresh ideas, methods and perspectives on our supposedly ‘familiar’ deathways.

This blog has explored many of them over the last 3 years or so. For example, I’ve explored memorial benches, gardens of remembrance, cemeteries, churchyards, war memorials, churches, cathedrals and landscape monuments.

Finnish cemetery

Alongside my other archaeological research interests, I’ve also been writing a series of research articles exploring death in the contemporary past, focusing on cremation practices and war memorialisation in the UK and Scandinavia. Most of these are available to read on my page and I have a series of forthcoming articles on the mortuary archaeology of the contemporary past.

Aberdare crematorium and gardens of remembrance

For those of you interested, here are my published outputs addressing death and memory in the present day:

Williams, H. 2014. Monument and material reuse at the National Memorial Arboretum, Archaeological Dialogues 21(1): 77-104. doi:10.1017/S1380203814000117

Williams, H. 2014. Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum, International Journal of Heritage Studies 20(4): 393-414.

Williams, H. 2012. Ash and antiquity: archaeology and cremation in contemporary Sweden, in A. M. Jones, J. Pollard, M. J. Allen and J. Gardiner (eds) Image, Memory and Monumentality: Archaeological Engagements with the Material World, Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 207-21

Williams, H. 2011. Ashes to asses: an archaeological perspective on death and donkeys, Journal of Material Culture 16(3): 219-39. DOI: 10.1177/1359183511412880

Williams, H. 2011. Archaeologists on Contemporary Death, Mortality 16(2): 91-97. DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2011.560450

Williams, H. 2011. Cremation and present pasts: a contemporary archaeology of Swedish memory groves, Mortality 16(2): 113-30. DOI: 10.1080/13576275.2011.560451

Walls, S. & Williams, H. 2010. Death and memory on the Home Front: Second World War commemoration in the South Hams, Devon, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20(1): 49-66.

Holtorf, C. & Williams, H. 2006. Landscapes & memories, in D. Hicks & M. Beaudray (eds) Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 235-54.