Not every year, but most years, I attend the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting. On 19-21 December 2016, the latest conference was hosted by the University of Southampton’s archaeologists. They were celebrating their 50th anniversary as an academic discipline at Southampton in 2016. This was my 18th TAG in 23 years!

Despite the distance from Chester, I was delighted to attend and present as well as to see a die-hard core of four of my undergraduate and two of my postgraduate students there too.

Well done Southampton for a well-organised and entertaining TAG, with highlights including:

  • a Christmas market and suitable social events including the TAG party which followed the Antiquity Quiz;
  • an enjoyable particularly mortuary archaeology-ladened academic programme (although the official theme was ‘Visualisation’);
  • a fascinating Keynote Antiquity Lecture by Prof Rosemary Joyce of Berkeley about the contemporary archaeology of nuclear waste disposal in the US entitled Visions of Nuclear Landscapes: Seeing from the Perspectives of Art, Cultural Heritage, and Archaeology;
  • meetings about ongoing projects with a range of individuals during the day which I left free for scheming and plotting, including Hannah Sackett whose Prehistories blog is fabulous and with whom I worked on the story of Weland the Smith. We have a new project in preparation: Beowulf Burns.
  • scheming with the indefatigable Lorna Richardson about CBA and digital public archaeology;
  • talking to the awesome people at OUP with whom I’m publishing my next couple of books and planning further ones;
  • attending the TAG National Committee meeting in which we formalised our plans, proposed and agreed at last year’s meeting, to host TAG at Cardiff University in 2007 and then the 40th anniversary TAG will be (for the first time!) at the University of Chester in 2018: TAG Deva!
  • looking at the artwork and poster displays;

In total, I attended 3 sessions and delivered 3 papers during the conference. However, unlike previous years, TAG didn’t end when the formal attendance of the conference. On my return, I spent much of the day listening to the video-streaming of a 4th session that overlapped with ones I spoke at. More on that in a subsequent post. Now about the sessions I attended physically and what I spoke about.

Out of Sight, out of Mind? Visualisation Strategies for Evoking Memories of the Dead

This session was a great idea with lots of key and thought-provoking specific questions about the roles of images and visualisation as mnemonic practices. Unfortunately, for various reasons, I don’t think any of the papers dealt with the session theme effectively in any focused way. Instead, it turned out to be a far-ranging and thought-provoking session on a range of current themes in mortuary archaeology, with the theme of visualisation addressed alongside themes of artefact biographies, presence and absence, cenotaph memorial practice, long term themes in visualisation the dead through effigies and epitaphs, cross-cultural themes in the display and disposal of the dead, and the public mortuary archaeology of engaging with sociological theories of mourning via the medium of death cafes.

My contribution focused on thinking about the mnemonic affect of images of people posed in conjunction with assemblages of weapons. This led me to focus on the striking, simple and widely replicated images of warriors upon the Viking Age crosses at Middleton, East Riding of Yorkshire. I suggested that rather than portaiture or mythological scenes, these were apotropaic guardian presences, active sensing figures looking out at those attending graves and visiting churchyards. The juxtaposition of warriors and serpents, watching over the dead and projecting the identities of the deceased and their kin within ecclesiastical space, can be linked to a network of allusions to secular and sacred power and identities for landed elites and their retainers. I recently gave a similar talk, extending these ideas, on the Isle of Man. At least for my part, I was attempting to address the session theme of how images operate to prompt and choreograph remembrance of the dead.

Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies

This sesssion, as the title suggested, was concerned with developing new approaches to the social impact of the deceased and their social agency exhibited through their post-mortem bodies, body-parts and bones. As well as Neolithic plastered skulls, ‘collective’ burial deposits in Maltese Neolithic hypogea, the power of bodies disposed of in bogs and other liminal contexts in Iron Age society, the post-mortem disarticulation of bodies in Middle Jomon Period Japan, and the significance of lost body-parts in the history of archaeology and museum displays of Egyptian mummified bodies, the session was fascinating and far-ranging. This session is a precursor to the forthcoming interdisciplinary conference with the same name, taking place at Southampton in March.

My talk was about the intersections between early medieval literature, visual culture, material culture and monuments in the promulgation of stories about body fragmentation and transformation: namely the story of Weland the Smith. I’ve previously blogged about how Weland transforms the bodies of others through rape and murder, but also transforms his own body through his artisanal capabilities, in a story that has varied visual and material manifestations from the late first millennium AD.

Dead Body Language

Finally, I was delighted to participate in Sian Mui’s session exploring the significance of body posture in past mortuary practices. Following an exceptional introduction, a range of papers explored aspects of ‘normative’ and ‘deviant’ burial postures in the archaeological record, and the way these postures set up different ways of displaying and consigning the dead to graves and memory. Papers explored reinterpretations of tightly crouched, loosely crouchesd and flexed inhumation burials from Iron Age East Yorkshire, osteobiographical approaches to ‘deviant’ burials from Roman Britain, and a discussion of early Anglo-Saxon inhumation graves and the biographies of artefacts placed on the postured cadavers. My favourite presentation was about a Romano-British prone burial with a stone lodged in its mouth from Stanwick, Northants., which it was argued was on account of the individual having lost his tongue prior to death.

My paper focused on the execution graves found in two cemeteries at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, and dated to the later 7th-12th centuries AD. Exhibiting a range of postures and positions, I discussed the mnemonic significance of their burial in the postures of their execution in understanding the emotive and mnemonic power of execution in later Anglo-Saxon England.