Last year, I helped my third-year single honours students organise a free, public day conference at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester on the theme of: Dead Relevant? Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society. 

IMG_20151120_201301The museum were superb and supportive. Students organised the programme for the day and chaired the sessions. They researched and presented on a range of original topics of their own choosing, guided by myself and two PRG students who served as Visiting Lecturers and ran support sessions to help students: Ruth Nugent and Brian Costello. The audience included university staff and students, but also professional and academic archaeologists from elsewhere and members of the public.

Most students gave 10-minute presentations supported by Powerpoint, but one produced original artwork and another a blog. Students engaged fully with Q&A. The conference was rounded off by an expert special guest lecture by Dr Ing-Marie Back Danielsson (Visiting Research Fellow in our Dept and affiliated with the universities of Southampton and Uppsala).

In addition to the experience gained by students in researching and writing their second assignments for HI6001, a range of additional benefits transpired due to this teaching innovation:

  1. Organising an event as a team (although some did more work than others);
  2. Presenting their research to an audience of peers, postgraduates, lecturers, heritage practitioners and members of the public;
  3. Critically reflecting on their own research and responding to the ideas of others in writing up their assignment;
  4. Module evaluation by students revealed that this mode of assessment was regarded as hard-work and intellectually challenging, as well as causing anxiety to a few. However, students also noted they enjoyed the process and the event and recognised that it gave them fresh experiences and opportunities in choosing their topic and structuring and developing their work;
  5. The conference was also a valuable teaching opportunity for the archaeology PGRs;
  6. The archaeology and heritage external examiner – Dr Jodie Lewis – specifically commended this teaching innovation in her annual report;
  7. A lasting output of the conference was the video, which most students agreed to participate in: You can view the event on Vimeo here

I feel this conference gave students enriched skills, knowledge and experiences in researching and presenting of benefit for future careers in academia, the heritage professions, and transferable into a range of other careers. The students also had the opportunity to participate in both a public conference and the chance to develop their work towards an academic publication….

dsc09783A Book in the Making

Despite having recently published an edited book on mortuary archaeology’s intersections with contemporary society – Archaeologists and the Dead – this conference addressed many new issues not fully explored in that collection or elsewhere. Students were subsequently invited to contribute to an academic edited book stemming from the event. In addition, it made sense to pursue the pedagogic experience of the conference through to print so that those who wished to be involved could enhance their careers and learn the ropes of the complex process of academic publication.

The book will explore the ‘public archaeology of death’ through digital and tangible media including the display of the dead in museums, artist’s reconstructions of funerals and graves, the portrayal of mortuary practice informed by archaeology in historical drama series, and the public excavation of an early medieval cemetery.

Of the 16 students, 8 expressed a wish to participate. Of these, 3 have submitted chapters for peer-review – 2 on their own, one co-authored with me.

I have recruited postgradute University of Chester student Ben Wills-Eve to co-edit with me. Furthermore, Jenny Osborne, one of the key organisers of the conference when a final-year Chester student and now a postgraduate student at the University of York, is a further co-editor. Further still, we have commissioned a range of additional contributions:

  1. A Foreword by Dr Jodie Lewis
  2. An Afterword by Dr Karina Croucher
  3. 2 postgraduate research students from other universities are contributing;
  4. A range of additional chapters by academic archaeologists and heritage professionals;

Together, this will make an exciting, distinctive and varied new collection, provisionally entitled Dead Relevant – The Public Archaeology of Death. The book is now contracted with the academic publisher, Equinox, with a schedule for publication in 2018.

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