With the development of digital media alongside real-world outputs, the archaeological dead are a commonplace feature in UK academic, commercial and museum contexts. In all these arenas, they are readily deployed in public engagement. Whether we are dealing with ancient Egypt, Roman Britain or post-medieval battlefields, the archaeological dead are high-profile actors in public archaeology: ‘performing’ as discoveries, displays, subjects of analysis and evidential data shedding light on the human past. Within and beyond professional archaeological sites, mortuary and memorial contexts and human remains are increasingly replete online, found on University and commercial websites and research project websites to popular wikis and personal social media sites. Death and the dead fascinate the public, ‘sell’ our courses and services, and engage the public in exploring the human past.
So, whether fieldwork shots and videos or photographs of museum displays, from the many photographs, plans and sections of both academic archaeological publications to the front covers of archaeology magazines, British archaeologists have a comfortable and established tradition of depicting the dead.
As explored in the 2016 collection Archaeologists and the Dead, there are parts of the world where real-world and visual public engagement with the archaeological dead is heavily curtailed on ethical grounds and respect for indigenous beliefs and traditions. In the UK, depicting the dead is certainly part of a colonial legacy that we shouldn’t deny or eschew. Still, it remains the case that in many areas of the globe, including parts of Europe and the secular multi-cultural environment of the UK today, the archaeological dead remain on show.
Perhaps reflecting my UK context, I remain a staunch believer that human remains should remain displayed and represented to the public. I believe this not only because of the inherent importance of these remains for educating and researching the human story, but also because it avoids the ridiculous double standards involved in concealing technical excavation work and museum collections from the public gaze whilst simultaneously pouring images of skulls and mummies onto the internet.
Note: many will disagree with my stance here, but it is one I feel strongly about, just as I feel that human remains should be curated where there is the likelihood it will facilitate their use in new and important mortuary, bioarchaeological and genome research. In terms of representing human remains and other mortuary and memorial materials, however, context and justification are crucial. If they are adequately justified on scientific, educational and/or death-positive grounds, and this justification is made clear, then images of the dead might be considered ethically deployed. If they support our arguments, convey important information to other researchers and the public that texts alone cannot, and thus serve to education and inform, mortuary remains shouldn’t be purged from public view. Even the much-maligned practice of taking selfies in memorial and mortuary environments, and posed ‘work shots’ of researchers in labs and during excavation, can be justified in some contexts if they are a strategy of communicating to the public the nature of bioarchaeological and other scientific work, and/or are a strategy of place-making with ancient monuments, heritage sites and arenas of investigation (i.e. fieldwork).
So far, I’ve suggested I’m a advocate, where it can be justified on research or public engagement grounds, and where permissions and stakeholders can be consulted (where they exist) and their support can be gained, of continuing to display and represent archaeological remains. However, having said all that, gratuitous deployments of human remains – real or replica – simply to shock, serve as click-bait, or augment personal identities, especially when dealing with fleshed and recent human remains, might well provoke criticisms and be widely considered ethically dubious to the extreme or just simply in bad taste. I’ve alluded to this stance a number of times in academic publications and on this blog. Indeed, it came to the fore in the media with the debate regarding a fleshed foetal mummy from Chile: ‘Ata’. Even news stories reporting criticism of the ethics of the work (in an article that decided not to feature photographs of human remains) ran with an image of the infant mummy (see Halcrow et al 2018). In other words, while images can support and convey argumentations, they also risk perpetuating the same ethical problems.
Worse still is where human remains are not only taken out of archaeological context, but they are also turned into a joke. The public engagement with the remains from Pompeii is laudable and has a global reach, because it is both fascinating and uncanny as well as relating to a precise historical event. Moreover, humour surrounding mortuary remains should not be too strictly policed: death is funny as well as tragic, and mortuary archaeologists needn’t be disrespectful for joking about death and the dead as a coping mechanism and a strategy of public engagement. Yet few could justify in terms of ethical practice the creation and sharing of viral memes joking about an image of a skeleton of someone from Pompeii who died in horrible circumstances, even if the death in question occurred almost two millennia ago. Archaeologists need to be as robustly critical of the ethically problematic display, sale, abuse and joking about archaeological remains if they wish to be regarded as ethical custodians and narrators of the stories of the dead (Finn 2018).
So where to draw the line? There needs to be further detailed research and debate into how we utilise public digital environments to engage various publics about the past through the archaeological dead, as well as to raise awareness and foster discussions regarding mortality in the present and future. Furthermore, in this context images of the archaeological dead should be part of these discussions involving archaeologists and a range of stakeholders.
Hence, I’m adverse to the uncritical purging of human remains from our visual communication. This is both unwarranted and impossible to achieve in any case. While I’m aware that many of us are strongly critical of some of our colleague’s and the wider public’s uncritical creation and distribution of mortuary archaeology online, the availability of images of the dead are ubiquitous online and cannot be, even if we wanted them to be, readily censored.
Instead, adequate guidelines would be welcome, and certainly academics should be held to a higher standard than the media, for whom skulls sell and mummies are readily deployed to attract readers and sell stories. Regardless of whether formal guidelines for the creation and sharing of digital images of the dead are created and implemented, it is already each of our personal responsibilities as archaeological researchers to retain a professional attentiveness to where and how we display and use images of the dead. This is increasingly important for digital environments and publications where context can readily be compromised and images redeployed without context.
For me, on this blog, I regularly represent mortuary material cultures, monuments, architectures and landscapes. Sometimes, I have depicted human remains as, for example, in the context of discussing the display of the dead in museums, as with this post on the Liverpool World Museum. Indeed, I’m even happy to show scenes of recent cemeteries and memorials. However, I try to avoid wherever possible to photograph personal details of recent graves where living relatives might be about to identify the precise location and occupant/subject. I also rarely represent actual human remains in lab settings, unless there is a specific point in doing so.
So here is me breaking my own rule and representing a human skull, but in order to highlight the iconic status of the skull for denoting death and mortality, as well as to serve as a corporeal shorthand for the widespread memorial and mortuary dimension of the blog in heritage and archaeological contexts and research. Here, the skull is represented to illustrate the debate itself.
And to make it clear, I do have permission to use this image and I took it with the express purpose of using it in this context. It is my own photograph of human remains from Buttington churchyard, Powys. They were temporarily on loan for use by a final-year student’s dissertation (Neil Bayliss). I gained permission of the Powysland Museum from whence they came to take additional photographs for use in the context of my blog. To deploy this image might be seen as click-bait, but I do so in a self-critical way, to draw attention to an ongoing issue of debate in mortuary archaeology. At least for this post, and used as a gateway avatar for my new Archaeodeath Facebook Page, I feel the skull is afforded a respectful and appropriate context of use to illustrate the debate. Some may disagree… But the wider point remains: we need to test carefully against robust criteria each time we consider displaying and envisioning the archaeological dead in public engagement.
Finn, E. 2018. Pompeii should teach us to celebrate people’s lives, not mock their death. The Conservation. Retrieved from the WWW 29 July 2018 [https://theconversation.com/pompeii-should-teach-us-to-celebrate-peoples-lives-not-mock-their-death-97632]
Halcrow, S.E., Killgrove, K., Robbins Schug, G., Knapp, M., Huffer, D., Arriaza, B., Jungers, W. and Gunter, J. 2018. On engagement with anthropology: A critical evaluation of skeletal and developmental abnormalities in the Atacama preterm baby and issues of forensic and bioarchaeological research ethics. Response to Bhattacharya et al. “Whole-genome sequencing of Atacama skeleton shows novel mutations linked with dysplasia” in Genome Research, 2018, 28: 423–431. Doi: 10.1101/gr.223693.117. International Journal of Palaeopathology https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpp.2018.06.007