On Friday 29th June 2018, I attended a fascinating day conference titled Grave Matters at the University of Manchester. A friendly and vibrant range of prehistoric archaeologists were present – including many old friends and colleagues – exploring a range of perspectives on ‘grave-goods’ from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in Britain.
This conference is part of an AHRC-funded project that provides a rich-range of perspectives on the interpretation of material cultures and substances placed with the dead in prehistory as well as their interpretation in contemporary museums and wider society. They are focusing their attentions on 6 discrete coastal regions of the island of Britain to do so.
There were many interconnecting themes presented that showed overlap with debates regarding the interpretation of early medieval, later medieval, post-medieval and contemporary material cultures in funerary contexts that I’m also interested in.
I learned a lot, being presented with many rich and diverse explorations of archaeological evidence for single periods and trends over time and space. Still, I left somewhat uncertain regarding the interpretative thrust of the current project in relation to the wide range of current uses of the term ‘grave-goods’. There are just so many ideas and concepts to think through when considering ‘grave-goods’!
You can see my Twitter Moment collating some of the thoughts I had during the day here: Grave Matters Twitter Moment.
Below, I outline some of the more pressing issues/questions I have regarding what archaeologists are trying to say about ‘grave-goods’ in ongoing research.
Definitions and Parameters
‘Grave goods’ is a widely used term by archaeologists and it is broadly understood by wider society. This is because, as Mel Giles right identified in her Introduction, grave-goods are not simply a concern for the distant past, they relate to current practice. Across the globe, people want to place personal items on graves but also in graves. This causes all manner of challenges in the cremation of the dead for undertakers and crematoria workers, and in terms of airborne pollutants caused by the burning of toxic materials with the dead, it affects our environment.
Catriona Gibson outlined how the term ‘grave goods’ emerged in the 1880s in Scottish archaeology, although I do wonder whether it has earlier origins outside these island and archaeological scholarship. A broader search of literary and other genres of use might be profitable, including its use in anthropological literature.
I remain not fully unconvinced, despite this ‘heritage’ of use, how the term ‘grave-good’ (hyphenated according to OED) is used by archaeologists today. It’s a good general term. However, it carries interpretative baggage and might be misleading on multiple levels. I wonder if the focus on ‘goods’ is often read as ‘commodities’, hence influencing the interpretation of prehistoric mortuary contexts to regard them as either ‘possessions’ and the ‘wealth’ of the deceased, and thus tied to the dead person in terms of ownership and/or social status. This is a problem I’ll return to below.
There are taphonomic challenges. Everyone at the conference was well aware that, of the many artefacts included with the dead, many will not have survived the burial, survival and excavation process, including many organic finds. We know we are working with a fraction of those originally deployed, especially in cases where organic preservation reveals them. Thus, are we ignoring broader trends by considering only graves that look ‘furnished’ at time of excavation?
This issue of definition is obviously linked to the question of parameters. Someone asked at the conference: ‘what is a ‘grave?’ in regards the project’s definition. Equally though, we didn’t ask what is, and what is not, a grave-good. Do we refer to all non-human inclusions in mortuary contexts ‘grave-goods’? Is there stuff in graves that we wouldn’t call ‘grave-goods’? So what of other grave contents? Can human bodies be grave-goods in some contexts? What of animals and plant remains? Are coffins and containers ‘grave-goods’ or ‘grave-structures’? Certainly there are specific issues and associations with wrapping, containing and transporting cadavers, as well as the movement and treatment of ‘cremains’/ashes, as Cooper and Gibson outlined in their talk. For this discussion, we need to avoid defaulting to furnished inhumation graves as our point of references. This is because, for cremation, artefacts in graves might have been key to the transformation and transportation of the dead, including ceramic urns as well as other vessels used to contain the ‘ashes’. We might therefore need to think of other grave-structures as ‘grave-goods’ as Cooper and Gibson argue, including boxes and caskets, biers and boats, coffins and various other in-grave architectures and canopies.
Do ‘grave-goods’ have to be human-made? What of unfashioned naturally occurring materials that might have been afforded significance in the mortuary process?
I was also left wondering about the many composite artefacts deployed in prehistoric graves. What is the ‘grave-good’? Is a necklace a single grave-good or many? What of assemblages of closely connected items in bags? How do we explore these relationally rather than as single, discrete items? What I’m getting at is that ‘grave-goods’ might unwittingly direct our attention towards whole objects and perhaps other definitions would assist us.
We already have one useful distinction that is widely used. Should we follow Jacqueline McKinley and distinguish between pyre-goods (items placed on cremation pyres and thus burned, distorted, fragmented/partial) and grave-goods (as in whole unburned objects)? If so, should we create other terms for other kinds of artefacts and substances placed with the dead which have undergone other transformative processes other than fire from a pyre? Should we also call unburned but broken and fragmented items ‘grave-goods’, even if the term implies whole items? What of items seemingly made for the funeral, as opposed to ‘curated artefacts/heirlooms’?
So ‘grave-goods’ might remain a useful catch-all term, but do we need more precise technical terms to convey and elaborate our interpretations of materials and substances deployed in past graves? I’d resist created neologisms for their own sake, but I think they might sometimes help.
Identity, Emotion, Memory and the Mortuary Process
There were so many useful concepts and ideas floating through all the Manchester papers. Still, I’d expected to hear more of certain themes, particularly emotion and memory, and specifically about their relationship to the mortuary process.
What was strikingly rare in the discussions was any anthropological theory, and particularly a lack of Robert Hertz’s work on death as a transition for mourners, the identity of the deceased and their multiple spiritual and physical components. It finally came through with the final paper by Laurent Olivier, but only briefly. How can we understand complex uses of artefacts in graves and other mortuary contexts without a refined understanding of multi-staged mortuary processes? As noted above, Cooper and Gibson drew out the theme of wrapping and concealment, and this is key, but we also need to think of the flow and selection of items for deposition, whole or in part, as well as their circulation elsewhere. We need to think about the selective nature of associations and disassociations made between material culture and the dead: the connections and disjunctions set up in the deployment of materials and substances in relation to both cadavers and bones.
Jo Brück has been one of the strongest advocates for considering grave-goods in the Early Bronze Age as not relating to a singular identity of a dead person, but to their network of relationship through the circulation of artefacts and body-parts. This extends to cases where graves were re-opened and re-worked – items added, others taken away.
Likewise, to take artefacts involved in cremation practices as a further example, my work has pursued how many items would be added and taken away from the dead during the cremation process.
Only a few papers at the Manchester conference tackled such possibilities in their interpretations. Fewer still attempted to consider how grave-goods not only worked within funerals, but between funerals: operating to create mnemonic citations between graves as they accrue in a mortuary landscape. In this regard, I’m going to think further regarding David Fontijn’s description of the ‘object-scape’ of death in regards to Iron Age cremation practices.
What of the relationship between bodies and artefacts in death? This question relates to elements of costume (dress accessories) but also ‘prosthetic’ items related to the body, connected to limbs, skin, hair and other body-parts in life and death.
A further fascinating issue was raised by Anwen Cooper regarding what we often call ‘cenotaph’ burials and whether they might be better termed ‘grave-good’ deposits to emphasise the significance of what is there, rather than what is not. In other words, she might be identifying instances where, despite the absence of the body, artefacts might still require deposition to selectively remember and forget the dead. The absence of the body might still be a useful dimension to consider, since many mortuary artefacts and monuments serve to cite absences, including corporeal ones. Yet her alternative allows us to focus on how grave-goods might serve in dialogues between the living and the dead without the body, or distributed between and beyond bodies living and dead.
This leads me to consider ‘social memory’. I was surprised overall by how this dimension of grave-goods was only indirectly addressed by all except Olivier and somewhat regarding personhood by Brück. This is a theme I’d expected to be both considered and critiqued more fully, especially as it has been widely discussed in Bronze Age contexts by Andrew M. Jones and has been pivotal to considering the relationship between artefacts deposited in graves and those circulating and deployed in other contexts in prehistoric societies, including their breakage and fragmentation.
Finally, despite Mel Giles’s opening anticipation to explore the intimate connections of people and things in mortuary cotnexts, only Katharina Rebay-Salisbury attempted to consider the emotive (esp. caring) role of grave-goods.
In summary, we need to think more carefully about the relationships between death as process, social memory in past communities, the ’emotive forces’ of funerals, in relation to the materials we call ‘grave-goods’.
Abuses of the Historic Past
Parallels and analogies form the early medieval world were manifold in the subjects under discussion. However, later prehistorians are sometimes guilty of overlooking debates in historic-period archaeologies (and vice versa). So I wonder whether the speakers and audience were oblivious to many of these problems. Certainly I noticed two overt and one covert interpretative parallel/cross-over from the Early Middle Ages that went awry.
First, it was claimed/suggested that a rich assemblage of graves might relate to status of the deceased for rich early medieval furnished graves, with Sutton Hoo’s exceptional Mound 1 grave deployed by way of analogy. Now prehistorians have long attempted to move away from the role-theory approach to interpreting grave-goods, but it seemed alive and well among many delegates. The equation of wealthy furnished graves with a singular personal identity was challenged by many speakers, including Fokkens, Olivier and Brück, but it was evident in this analogy.
Another early medieval parallel was sought in explaining the decline of grave-good deposition and religious change. The Bronze Age cessation of grave-goods was discussed by analogy with the early medieval spread of Christianity in Europe. This is equally problematic on empirical and theoretical grounds: there’s little historical or archaeological evidence that Christianity was immediately and directly active in affecting mortuary practice in a simple fashion. Grave-goods persisted long after Christian conversion in many parts of early medieval western Europe, for example. Changes in the mortuary record are far more complex and involve a mixture of social, economic, political and religious factors affecting mortuary geography and burial organisation.
The third, and covert, parallel specific equation of martial identity from the deposition of weapons with the dead, and thus the inference that these artefacts celebrated the deceased’s migratory personal and group histories and myths. Here we see an uncritical cross-over between prehistoric and early medieval archaeologies that requires more discussion.
In summary, there is considerable potential for more informed and profitable discussions between prehistoric and historic-period archaeologists concerning the interpretation of grave-goods, and these were not evident at the Manchester event.
Public Archaeology of Death
One of my interests is the public archaeology of death: how mortuary practices of the past form part of today’s society’s engagement with the past and mortality. I’ve written about this extensively on this blog and I have many publications on this issue, including my co-edited book Archaeologists and the Dead.
The grave-goods project is clearly attentive to the debates surrounding the display of human remains but also mortuary remains (including grave-goods), and the difficulties of overcoming traditions of museum display. Neil Wilkin outlined aspirations to create new modes of public engagement at the British Museum with grave-goods displayed in different galleries and thus from different time-periods and parts of the globe. This sounds promising.
However, although it wasn’t the focus of the conference, I sensed a collective reluctance among archaeologists at the conference and more widely to accept responsibility for the de-contextualisation of grave-goods in museum displays. For example, I confess how challenging I found it to try and explain mortuary practice and mortuary variability in early medieval Europe recently, when visiting Room 41 of the BM. In this regard, Cooper’s discussion of cenotaphs might be deployed to critique contemporary distributed and de-contextualised relationships between bodies and things in heritage contexts. I think there are many new and innovative ways we can tell stories about the dead through grave-goods, even in the absence of human remains – and this is crucial given the problematic nature of displaying human remains without careful consideration to contextualising them.
Conversely, archaeologists are increasingly adept at ‘making ancestors’. By this I mean that we creatively construct the appearances and life-course of individuals from prehistoric and early historic times using their human remains and mortuary contexts. This can create a strong, personal connection to historic personages (like Richard III) and to unknown prehistoric people whom we afford new nicknames. In these narratives, grave-goods are key. Yet the creation of these ‘immortals’ can create all manner of problems and challenges, as discussed by Nina Nordstrom and others in Archaeologists and the Dead. I’ve discussed in this blog, in relation to the Stonehenge Visitor Centre, the positive and challenging dimensions of creating ‘Taking Archaeo-heads‘. I’ve addressed critically, however, how they should be deployed alongside senses of community identity, rather than simply individuality. See my blogs, for example, on Norton Priory, and also about the way that we select ‘famous’ and ‘wealthy’ graves for our attention to the detriment of telling the stories of infants, children, the elderly and less privileged people (for early Anglo-Saxon contexts, I’ve published on this in a 2009 chapter in an edited collection with Duncan Sayer). At the 2016 Dead Relevant conference, Ing-Marie Back Danielsson presented a critique of the creation of one such early medieval persona from a burial context, named Estrid. No one at the Grave Matters conference addressed such issues directly, but Sherdian discussed projects of public engagement with prehistoric graves, notably the fascinating Scottish Beaker grave called ‘Ava’. I think we need further conversations and critical attention to what we are doing with these personalised individual narratives from prehistory/early history and how, over the last few decades, they positively promote, but also perhaps sometimes deflect attention, from broader narratives regarding the human past.
Then there are the media intersections, including newspaper headlines reporting on new discoveries and interpretations. These are further ways in which archaeologists are ‘creating ancestors’ – prehistoric and early historical personalities by which contemporary society reflects on life and death.
The appropriations of prehistoric grave-finds into our society’s value systems of materials and projections of social identities also require further critique, not only in terms of inferring personal identities and functions for items but also transhistorical inferences regarding the properties of materials. I remain suspicious regarding the definition of some items as ‘amulets’, for example, without carefully explaining what this might mean to the public.
So I remain uncomfortable with the media and museum ‘naming’ of the dead: a topic Mel Giles and I have recently addressed in our book Archaeologists and the Dead. For example, while it can prove a way of storytelling, can we still call Beaker graves the ‘Amesbury Archer’ and the ‘Boscombe Bowman’ and expect the public to understand our more nuanced interpretations of these burials and their grave-goods? For the example of Ava, I haven’t yet explored it in any detail, but it is certainly a rich multi-strand project whose naming is steps-up from the media-attributed ‘Amesbury Archer’ and the ‘Boscombe Bowman’. Taking control of the naming – as with ‘Ava’ – is far better and infers no single ‘role’ or identity for the dead. Still, the more precisely we attempt to create individual stories, the more challenges we end up facing. The power of facial reconstructions and ancestor-creation cannot be denied, but equally, so have to accept the power of these to challenge as well as confirm pre-existing ideas is very clearly revealed in the recent case of the new facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man.
Contemporary Death Ways
A number of talks made allusion to modern deathways by way of analogy with the past. Here I feel we have much farther to go in carefully and critically unpicking these parallels, especially in the context of the pressure on us as academics to appear ‘relevant’ to contemporary society in our work on the distant past. If we want to pursue such parallels and themes linking past and present, we need to avoid normative and guessed-at analogies with modern mortuary cliches, but familiarise ourselves and contribute towards interdisciplinary debates with historians, sociologists and others regarding contemporary death, burial and commemoration. In this regard, I simply don’t accept Brück’s assertion that there is a modern Western division between artefacts and people in death that contrasts with the Bronze Age experience. The affective and emotive, mnemonic and social dimensions of grave-goods can be investigated in both past and present. To overcome mischaracterisations and needless dichotomies, we need to regard contemporary death as a subject of archaeological investigation integral to mortuary archaeology, not as a simplistic source of contrasts with practices and beliefs in past societies.