Two days ago, the unelected British Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, stood in Yorkshire in front of two lines of police cadets and addressed the press as if he was campaigning for a General Election. A journalist asked him whether he will promise the British people that he will not return to Brussels and ask for another delay to Brexit. He replied: ‘Yes, I can. I’d rather be dead in a ditch’.
In my view, this ludicrous ‘do or die’/’death or glory’ rhetoric is feckless and reckless. It demonstrates no realistic leadership, no plan and no vision at a time of crisis for the UK. Simultaneously though, I found it interesting that ‘dead in a ditch’ was deployed by Johnson as a metaphor for failure in one’s political career and failure to be respected and honoured for one’s political legacy. Perhaps for someone struggling to realise his lifetime’s ambition in politics, being dead in a ditch, akin to the fate of Libya’s Gaddafi, is a real nightmare that plagues his waking moments. Who knows?
Still, in response to this ridiculous line, people were bound to mock. Many want Johnson’s premiership to metaphorically end up ‘dead in a ditch’ and his extreme ‘no deal’ Brexit stance to disappear with him. This is not because anyone wishes Johnson physical harm, even if his own words imply he would rather ruin his own career and the nation rather than work in a statesman-like fashion to sort out the mess of Brexit and secure the best interests of UK. Johnson’s words are disturbing and we laugh in protest and fear at where his gung-ho approach is leading the UK.
From my perspective as an archaeologist of the British Early Middle Ages who is currently researching some of Britain’s biggest ditches – including Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke – I joked at Johnson’s expense and with some knowledge of ditch creation, use and reuse. I tweeted, pointing out that, if Number 10 wanted advice on the history of ditches, and in particular, the use of ditches for human burial, I could be readily approached for advice if they were thinking of pursuing this course of action! Indeed, with my sage advice, we can discuss many possible humble or illustrious ditches that could see a fitting end to Johnson’s premiership and save many people the financial and other effects of a no-deal Brexit. Making the connection between Johnson’s comments and the role of ditches as ‘divisions’ also alludes to the many internal and external tensions and stresses the Conservative Party’s policies are creating, especially with Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also with Wales, not just with the EU!
Perhaps, on reflection, we could actually create a series of cenotaphs to his failing rule associated with Britain’s more well-known prehistoric, ancient, medieval and modern ditches. If this is all it will take to sort out this impending disaster, let’s do it! From Hadrian’s Wall to Wansdyke, from the Bokerly Dyke to The Devil’s Dyke, from the Antonine Wall to Offa’s Dyke, why doesn’t the government just stop Brexit and instead create a series of grandiose and pointless monuments? It could be a commemorative series of ‘dead in a ditch’ memorials… What better way to bring people together and celebrate how old divisions are no longer maintained? They might serve to foster the healing of the nation that the Tories claim will come once ‘Brexit’ is ‘delivered’!
Incidentally, the archaeology of death and ditches is fascinating and complex, and naturally far more nuanced than Boris’s stark metaphor. Many famous collections of human remains – cremated, excarnated, inhumed (including articulated and disarticulated) are indeed found during the archaeological excavation of ditches dating from prehistory to recent times. These take many different forms, from ditches and gullies associated with settlements, land divisions, fortifications as well as ceremonial and funerary monuments. For instance, archaeologists of the Neolithic find human remains in the ditches of causewayed enclosures. Bodies are repeatedly found in the ditches of Bronze Age burial mounds, showing generations of use and reuse. Human remains are also associated with settlement enclosures and hillfort ditches from the Iron Age as at Fin Cop in Derbyshire, and this tradition is adapted into the Romano-British period in various guises. Death in ditches is also a feature of the Early Middle Ages. Early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in East Yorkshire were sometimes arranged around Late Bronze Age land divisions. Some middle/later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries associated with earlier linear earthworks, as for the Fleam Dyke in Cambridgeshire.
The association of the dead and ditches is thus a persistent practice over millennia of Britain’s past, and being ‘dead in a ditch’ needn’t always have been associated with infamy and failure. In some contexts, being ‘dead in a ditch’ meant to be excluded from society in death, physical and spiritually. It might even be a place for suicide, murder or public execution. In other times and places, the incorporation of dead bodies, body-parts, or skeletonised human remains into ditches might have served a host of positive and creative functions in the context of death rituals and the ontologies and cosmologies underpinning relationships between people and the land, including its division and habitation.
Which ditch(es) will be most associated with Johnson remains to be seen… My proposal is not to literally bury Boris, but perhaps to create a series of monuments in his mock-honour, or re-christen some of our existing ancient monuments with his name. We’ve had ‘Boris Bikes’, so why can’t we follow his own words and have a series of ‘Boris Dykes’, mocking our failing PM and celebrating how the UK overcame hate and division and stepped back from the brink in the nick of time!