Of course there were many high-quality research endeavours and investigations in 2016 in the field of archaeology. But was David Bowie the greatest discovery of mortuary archaeology in 2016?
Many are perpetuating the myth that 2016 was a particularly aberrant year of celebrity death. Actually, social media is turning into mortuary archaeology fast in many regards and it isn’t the fault of 2016 per se.
Social media is an ultra-public environment where we get to create our own digital tombs, traces, and images. It is a space where we can mourn and remember digitally. Facebook in particular, is obsessed with an evangelical zeal to make us remember; memories are business and power. The media can tell us who to remember and how to remember with more, not less, manipulation through our online social networks.
Not only are increasing numbers of social media users dying and their accounts are remaining as public memorials and traces, not only are there increasing numbers of digital memorials (some via these same sites and dedicated pages), but so our obsessions seem to be increasingly focused on dead people, their deeds in life and the manner of their demise. Dead celebrities dominate our media. Dead fictional characters are mourned when they perish in television shows. Our DNA and ancestry dominate the online activities of many.
So is all social media about mortuary archaeology in one way or another?
Mortuary archaeology in the making: we are all joining the digital archaeological record and defining our journeys (digitally) towards that destination with increasing self-awareness.We are all mourning online for those we know but more often for publicly mourning those we didn’t know at all.
Mortuary archaeology in the doing: as increasingly researchers are using social media to explore the traces of people’s engagements with mortality and identity. In different ways, we are all using social media to explore our mortality through our profiles and reading news of deaths, history, archaeology and ancestry.
Mortuary archaeology in the engaging: a medium by which we can talk about death and engage modern audiences to death in both the distance and the recent past through the bodies of dead people, their material cultures, monuments, architectures, cemeteries and landscapes.
Mortuary archaeologists in the being: increasingly there are those who are carefully choreographing their social media to ensure their deaths are ‘manufactured’ in a fashion of their choosing, as memory and as art.
Again, we find that mortuary archaeologists and other online death-dealers are only part of the mix and appear implicated in all these categories.
And so we turn to the question of who has been the most influential individual in the burgeoning environment of digital mortuary archaeology in 2016? Well, it would have to be a celebrity – a well-known international personage – who has died and created an online digital expression that reflects on mortality and their identity(ies). I think if we are all digital mortuary archaeology sooner or later, and some of us are self-professed mortuary archaeologists.
In that regard, what do we make of David Bowie? He more than any other of the many 2016 celebrities, created his own death as art. Indeed, in his video for Black Star, Bowie takes on multiple personas in visualising a body’s (his body’s) discovery and a skull mobilised in ritual practice aimed at remembrance, resurrection or reincarnation. The end result is left questioned, but the journey is clear.
So, is Bowie in death both mortuary archaeology and archaeologist? Bowie was exceptional, unique for some, but his death is part of a broader digital trend in which we are all mortuary archaeology, and perhaps also, we are all mortuary archaeologists.