The affordances of ancient and medieval funerary human-sized and human-shapes spaces – wooden, lead and stone coffins and stone sarcophagi, as well as rock-cut tombs and graves, are a source of fascination not only to me, but to many local people and tourists across Europe and the Mediterranean. They allude to the dead of past generations whose names have been lost. Specifically they cite absent bodies once installed in these spaces and subject to funerary rituasl and mortuary commemoration aimed at containing and transforming bodies from flesh to bone. They appear in many different contexts, some inside museums, but many in churches and churchyards. They can be indoors and displaced or outdoors among ruins or in the landscape. Rarely are they shielded from visitors touching or interacting them, in contrast to sculpted funerary monuments and human remains themselves.
See my previous posts about them:
- sarcophacat in Istanbul;
- sarcophag-r-us among the ruins at Norton Priory;
- stone coffins inside Norton Priory Museum;
- the rock-cut graves at Heysham;
- spolia at Hailes Abbey;
- Egyptian sarcophagi at the RMO, Leiden
- The Whitford sarcophagus;
- Haughmond Abbey;
- Chester abbey’s sarcophagus in the cloister;
- Playing dead at Dorchester Abbey
On top of all these posts, I actually presented a paper at the Cardiff TAG regarding the mnemonics of displaying empty stone coffins in post-medieval and contemporary ruins and ecclesiastical settings, including heritage sites and museums, as well as framing skeletons within them (as at Norton Priory until its recent re-display, and shown on the cover of my 2016 edited collection Archaeologists and the Dead).
However, while I’ve occasionally previously depicted others getting into sarcophagi (not in museums, but in outdoor environments) of their own volition and certainly not discouraged by me, I’ve refrained myself and haven’t admitted that my kids do regularly and voluntarily do the same at one of our local heritage sites: Valle Crucis Abbey. It looks dirty and uncomfortable, but there’s something quite relaxing and peaceful – and fun – about resting for a few seconds on a winter’s day in a stone coffin hundreds of years old. I’d suggest it is also an interesting and distinctive way of engaging with death past and present on family outings.
Now before there are cries of outrage and indignation by the Twitter puritans out there claiming stepping into, or sitting/lying in, stone coffins is ‘disrespectful’, let’s remember a few things. First, I would never encourage anyone to touch, sit on, stand on, or climb on sculpted funerary monuments inside churches and heritage spaces: they are delicate and easily worn, flaked or broken. Likewise, for sarcophagi within living places of worship or heritage sites, they are protected and should be respected for the context of their display. Do not touch them please: let alone step/sit/lie in them!
However, in cases where sarcophagi are displayed outdoors at ground level and without any signs indicating to the contrary, I don’t see the harm of these being a focus of visitor’s careful physical interaction by touching them or resposing briefly inside them. These are traces of ancient and medieval death ritual have been long displaced from their original contexts and occupants, and now remain exposed to the elements over many generations in publicly accessible location. Often they are neglected without any signs or explanation, and certainly not conservation. Indeed I rarely see them given any attention or interpretation in guide books – their anonymity often sidelines them in heritage interpretation. This example at Valle Crucis Abbey – one perhaps the tomb of an abbot or high-status patron of the Cistercian monastery in the 14th or 15th century, lacks a cover or ornamentation that could be damaged. Obviously it has been moved from its original situation, although it remains in the church ruins. It now contains only dirt, moss and some grass. Furthermore, it is already broken. I’d also make the point that these spaces were intended to facilitate rapid corporeal decay and perhaps foster multiple successive uses, so interacting with them is true to their purpose in one sense. Also, I didn’t assert any pressure upon the structure in lying in it, so erosion was next to none, and nor do my kids.
So let’s weigh this against the benefits: if they are perceive as ‘displaced’ and are sidelined by visitors and academics, why not consider new ways to encourage their use by visitors. Indeed, if archaeologists like me argue that traces of medieval mortuary material culture and monuments afford a relatively ‘safe’ medium for prompting conversations and reflections about our own mortality, and indeed, we can let kids ‘play dead’ within them (which they do anyway without any prompting, I hasten to add), why not get into an outdoors stone coffin near you? Just maybe one day you will be a sarcopha-guy just like me?