Every so often I give a public talk, and usually I focus on a specific topics. Yesterday evening (26 April 2019), however, I delivered a talk at Trefonen Village Hall on a far broader broad topic The Archaeology of Death: Exploring Mortality Past and Present. In the talk, I attempted to use multiple dimensions of my own research to consider the ways in which mortuary archaeology explores mortality’s material traces in the past, present and even into future. I divided the talk into 7 sections.
I kicked off with my early Anglo-Saxon (5th-early 7th centuries AD) archaeological research into the significance of cremation’s material cultures and variability in south-east Britain. In doing so, I highlighted the importance of considering fragmented combs and toilet implements as potentially very significant in the commemoration of the dead following cremation. Together with the pot into which most ‘cremains’ were collected and contained, these items afforded a conceptual ‘body-building’ for the dead as a member of the community of the dead. I then discussed the implications of taking a cremation-focused perspective on inhumation graves, using the Sutton Hoo cemetery as my example.
My second case study took the discussion forward in time to the Viking Age. I looked at my co-directed fieldwork investigating the boat grave at Skamby, Östergötland, Sweden. I discussed how much could be said about our excavation of a high-status boat-grave despite the poor bone preservation and possible grave-robbing association with this grave. I also considered the stone-setting’s function, as well as the cemetery and landscape context. In doing so, I addressed how the identity of a local elite group might have articulated its difference to neighbours through their choice of boat inhumation.
Having presented two case studies in early medieval mortuary archaeology, third, I used the early medieval Pillar of Eliseg excavations to discuss the multi-period dimension of mortuary archaeology and archaeologies of remembrance from the Early Bronze Age to the present day, but focusing on the evidence that the mound is a multi-phased Bronze Age kerbed cairn. In particular, I addressed how early medieval people might have engaged with ancient mortuary remains like those revealed in our dig. If early medieval people had accidentally uncovered similar traces, they might well have recognised the mound as a funerary monument from the past, and perhaps shrouded it with myths and stories, prompting its selection for a prominent 9th-century cross with a Latin text that drew upon the power of the past to commemorate the present – the dynasty of Powys and its conflict with Mercian rivals.
My fourth example of mortuary archaeology took the discussion to a fragment of funerary monument that has long lost its original context. I presented my research with colleagues David Crane and Gillian Smith of Llangollen Museum, and help from archaeologist and photographer Aaron Watson, leading to the publication of a very late 13th/early 14th-century effigial grave-slab fragment dubbed ‘The Smiling Abbot’. The slab seems to be the grave-cover of an abbot of Valle Crucis: Howell. This case study served to illustrate how art and stone reveal a hitherto unknown dimension of Valle Crucis as an engine of memory, commemorating its abbots.
Having presented 4 case studies of how mortuary archaeologists can interpreted death in the human past, I moved onto the mortuary arcaheological study of death today. Hence my fifth case study addressed the thorny topic of why and how we display the archaeological dead in museums and heritage sites. I discussed the need for sensitive and informed practice when displaying human remains, but also other mortuary remains. Also, I observed examples where human remains were not even required to produce an evocative display of mortuary contexts, such as the Late Bronze Age cinerary urns and artefacts on display with silhouettes evoking different ages and genders, on display in the National Historical Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.
I then outlined how archaeologists can evaluate death in our own culture, citing examples where we can evaluate contemporary fictional ‘historical’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘horror’ as well as science fiction representations of death, such as Game of Thrones.
Finally, I identified the value of archaeology in applying its material, monumental, corporeal and landscape emphases to the study of death in our society. By way of illustration, I suggested how archaeologists are increasingly offering new perspectives on the present-day revitalisation of churchyards through cremation, and other ways in which death permeates the contemporary landscape.
Putting all these seven case studies together, I feel the audience got a rich and varied introduction to some of the many ways in which archaeologists study death in the past, present and future.