I’ve just returned from the 2018 Society for Medieval Archaeology conference at the University of Durham (13th-15th July 2018): Grave Concerns: Death, Landscape and Locality in Medieval Society organised by Professor Sarah Semple, Dr Kate Mees and Dr Celia Orsini of the Department of Archaeology. With 3 keynote lectures, 16 lectures and 18 posters, it was a well-organised, rich and varied showcase of the latest ideas and research on medieval funerary archaeology with a strong early medieval bias.

The settings were more than appropriate. Despite the challenging acoustics, the chapter house of the cathedral was an amazing venue for the first keynote by Professor Bonnie Effros. This was combined on the first evening with the opportunity to view the Open Treasure exhibition including the artefacts and coffin of St Cuthbert. Subsequently, the use of the Professor Rosemary Cramp Lecture Theatre for keynotes 2 (by Professor Roberta Gilchrist) and 3 (by Dr Duncan Sayer) and the rest of the talks was apposite given her supreme contribution the development of medieval archaeology and because the great lady herself was actually able to honour us with her presence for part of the conference. For more info you can:

  • explore the programme of the conference here: Programme
  • review my Twitter Moment about the conference here: Twitter Moment

My involvement was relatively limited. It was the first conference for ages where I deliberately decided not to present. Still, I had the honour of chairing the first session which included papers by two exceptionally talented and able archaeologists: Gareth Perry (University of Sheffield) and Femke Lippock (Leiden University).

Femke Lippok giving a superb talk about the distribution of early medieval cremation practices

By not speaking I had an enhanced opportunity to focus on what others had to say. Still, I was flattered to see many of the speakers responding critically towards, and developing upon, my published works on early medieval mortuary practice and early medieval stone sculpture. Most welcome and least expected, my work on the public archaeology of death got a brief but prominent mention.

If I were to pass comment on the conference as a whole, I would say there were 2 distinctive events coalescing here. First, was a re-run of the ‘medieval burial archaeology’ theme of past conferences by the SMA. This comprised 3 keynotes on different aspects of the spatial organisation and material culture of medieval mortuary practice incorporating discussions of both the history of research and interpretation and new perspectives.  These were joined by a range of papers and posters exploring medieval burial archaeology from social and bioarchaeological perspectives. The presentations in question I’m referring to here are:

  • Effros
  • Lippok
  • Soulat
  • Maldonado
  • van Oosten and Schats
  • Lewis
  • McKenzie
  • Gilchrist
  • Hines
  • Naylor and Scull
  • Paterson
  • Dr Adrian Maldonado speaking about cist graves’ materiality


Most of the posters might be associated with this strand:

  • Brownlee
  • Chmielowski
  • Clarke
  • Haworth
  • Kay
  • Leggett et al.
  • Mattison
  • Milek et al.
  • Petts
  • Popescu and Loe
  • Rainsford
  • Pinheiro Ramos
  • Scull
  • Aversa Sheldon
  • Semple et al.
  • Troadec

Many of these papers dealt with mortuary spaces at multiple scales from individual graves, burial plots and intra-cemetery spatial patterns as well as mapping cemeteries to broader distributions in relation to other data. However, these presentations and posters weren’t primarily or exclusively about the interactions between mortuary practice and landscape in the Early Middle Ages: patterns or changes. Also, while these papers individually and collectively presenting new discoveries, methods and insights, I was struck by the relatively limited theoretical engagement and, in particular, the focus on two-dimensional Cartesian and mapped, rather than experienced and three-dimensional, space in relation to mortuary practices. Most papers and posters were seemingly stuck within very tightly confined pre-existing parameters. The key exceptions to this trend were notable: Maldonado, Gilchrist and to some extent Lippok and Sayer, who in different regards pushed us to think in new ways about burial data and burial space.

Second, was an explicit strand on ‘landscapes of the dead’. So, joining the aforementioned talks and posters were a series of papers that more directly attempted to go ‘beyond the cemetery’ and yet equally were about more than ‘mapping’ distributions of finds. In different fashions, they considered the relationships of burial sites and mortuary monuments with their settlement contexts, routeways, rivers and the sea, ancient monuments, topography and territory, as well as diachronic patterns in the spatiality of burial practice associated with the church. These were:

  • Perry
  • Tys
  • Sucur
  • Mitchell
  • Busset
  • Johnson
  • Solvia Jacobsen, Arge and Milek
  • Harrison’s part of the Paterson and Harrison paper

These talks were joined by a pair of posters that explicitly addressed aspects of burial site/cemetery location and landscape contexts:

  • Orsini
  • O’Brien

While distributed through the conference, this second strand of papers collectively defined a more robust framework for approaching early medieval mortuary geographies. However, a collective criticism here was the lack of any explicit discussion of a coherent methodology for interrogating burial and monumental dimensions of the early medieval landscape and thus connecting quotidian and ceremonial dimensions.

To conclude, I would note the near-absence of discussion of burial ethics and public engagement, which often takes place on a landscape scale. For example, I’ve discussed this in print regarding Sutton Hoo in the Introduction of my co-edited book: Archaeologists and the Dead. This was ironic given we were meeting in a city defined by the shrine of St Cuthbert and having visited the cathedral and the early medieval relics from his tomb. As a further example, the entire cityscape of Leicester has, since the ‘rediscovery’ of his grave, become a public mortuary landscape commemorating the life and death of Richard III….

In this sense, I want to highlight the importance of how the second keynote – by Professor Roberta Gilchrist – concluded. She addressed how present-day agendas affect how we conduct medieval burial archaeology. She flagged up our obsession with deviant burial and infant death: a point that has many ramifications for early medieval, as well as later medieval, archaeology and its spatial and landscape dimensions.

A great conference that encourages to continue to research medieval mortuary practices in spatial terms: a credit to all involved.