Regarding ‘archaeodeath’ – the archaeology of death, burial and commemoration – I still sometimes encounter strange responses and comments from supposedly enlightened academics and heritage professionals. Indeed, odd reactions to my interest in recent and contemporary death transpire more with academics than with students or the general public!
You see, despite the cliche, death isn’t actually a ‘taboo’ in our society (as discussed by, among others, Duncan Sayer for archaeological debates). It might be glamourised, stylised, and misrepresented, but it is widely present in reality, in artistic, and in fictional, media and environments. Indeed, as Melanie Giles and myself have argued (as have others), archaeologists serve multiple roles as ‘death-dealers’, negotiating engagements with our own mortality through the lens of the more-distant dead. This is why the public archaeology of death is such an important area of ongoing research.
Yet, industrial archaeology and (even more so) contemporary archaeology seem particularly bad at confronting mortality in heritage interpretation.
I’d suggest, if there is a ‘death denial’ in our society, it is amidst certain archaeological researchers and their strategies of public engagement, rather than among the public themselves. Moreover, this finds a particular place in the ‘living-history’ museum environment, including prehistoric, ancient, medieval and early modern heritage themed contexts, and more recent – industrial and contemporary – spaces and landscapes.
I admit that it is right that industrial and contemporary archaeology have a particular set of challenges in confronting death and the dead. Certainly, death in the recent past might be seen as more immediate, disturbing and sensitive, and also personal (where names are recorded and memorialised). Simultaneously, the volume of death in the recent past induces a particular horror in itself. Furthermore, there are more likely to be living descendants and stakeholder groups for those we investigate: whether we are aiming to disturb graves or record buildings, monuments, memorials and landscapes. So we need to be respectful and ethical in our research and its dissemination.
Yet perhaps the industrial and contemporary archaeology fall into a temporal version of the ‘uncanny valley’ where death is too horrid to encounter for public consumption?
Still, archaeologists have long established the legitimacy of archaeological perspectives and analyses of recent mortuary and commemorative practices, and writing up these results for audiences beyond the academy. This has only been extended as our battery of scientific techniques and public engagement has enhanced public understanding of the educational and scientific benefits of investigating the history and archaeology of death, burial, commemoration, health and disease in the recent, as well as the more distant, past.
There have been prominent and fabulous discoveries and studies of 19th-21st-century mortuary archaeology in recent years – both in terms of below-ground excavations of burial grounds, crypts and cemeteries, and above-ground surveys of funerary monuments and landscapes.
As well as forensic archaeology and battlefield archaeology, there are well established examplars of work on cemeteries, churchyards and burial grounds for recent decades. As well as more established researchers – Harold Mytum and Sarah Tarlow are the big names for above-ground memorial investigations – there are many budding new researchers, exemplified by the work of Swedish archaeologist Dr Sian Anthony and Canadian Robyn Lacy.
Also, for a review of my own researchers on ‘contemporary death’, see this blog in general, and this review here.
Despite all this work, heritage professionals still seem to slip into the death-denial trap in our displays and literature.
Quarry Bank Mill
This issue struck me again recently on a visit to the National Trust property of Quarry Bank Mill, together with this neighbouring model village of Styal. I went with English students led by Victorian literature expert Dr Alex Tankard. I was keen to see the site myself, but also see how English students responded to the material culture and built environment of 19th-century industry and life.
Quarry Bank Mill is a reconstructed and working 19th-century cotton mill near Manchester. There are also extensive gardens.
We visited just before its long-term closure of the mill to visitors for re-development until the summer of 2018 (the gardens and other outside spaces will remain open).
I was stunned by the superb and detailed displays about work at the cotton mill itself. There were demonstrations of 18th-century pre-factory cotton spinning and weaving, and demos of the mechanised and steam-power textile production industry of the 19th century.
There were also reconstructions of life in the village, relayed through reconstructions of houses and displays of material culture.
Up the hill, the Styal village includes a heritage display in the old village shop and tours of houses showing workers’ life. In the village, the Nonconformist chapel has no funerary monuments, only a memorial bench.
So did I miss all the graves and memorials? Was I particularly unobservant?
Is the model village and model factory a heritage landscape in death-denial?
Previously, I’ve addressed the death-denial of many heritage sites and bodies, with funerary monuments and memorials relatively suppressed, although there are striking exceptions as recently discussed for the memorial in Attingham Park. In short, this isn’t an issue peculiar to Styal or the National Trust, who care for some prominent heritage assets with a mortuary theme (those that come to my mind include the church at Croome and the Sutton Hoo landscape). Still, the ‘writing out’ of death is odd and eerie at Styal and many other NT sites.
Admittedly, there is one memorial at the mill: to the opening of the museum itself. However, this cannot be regarded in any sense as funerary. So, while the guide book and displays addressing working conditions, health and safety – including maimings and deaths caused whilst working at the mill – as well as health care, I was struck by the lack of any mention of mourning, dying, death, burial and commemoration either in the mill or in its landscape.
One almost feels that the National Trust have accidentally created a ‘utopia’ of life in the past – although ‘utopia’ isn’t quite fair given the incorporation of discussions of disease, hardship and grim child labour – but not death in the past. In short, one learns about work and life in Styal, but it falls into the death-denial trap.
In doing so, do such spaces give due credit to the former workers and occupiers of these environments? They might be represented in photographs and names listed in texts, but they are present only as ghosts, without graves, and without memorials to their passing…