In September, I announced a call for papers for the DigiDeath: Public Archaeologies of Digital Mortality conference to be held as a two-part event of live presentations and ‘after-live’ pre-recorded videos and Twitter presentations on Thursday 28 January 2021.
I’m now delighted to share provisional details regarding the exciting line-up of speakers for the event (note: a few additional papers might be forthcoming and I will keep this post updated in coming days).
The ‘live’ part comprises of 4 keynote live talks and student presentations delivered via Microsoft Teams. The ‘after-live’ part zomprises a host of presentations via video and Twitter thread.
Each part of the conference (‘live’ and ‘after-live’) will be wrapped up by critical reflections presented by our special guest discussants. For the ‘live’ talks, our discussant is Dr Karina Croucher (University of Bradford, UK). For our ‘after-live’ talks, our discussant is Dr Liv Nilsson Stutz (Linnaeus University, Sweden).
DigiDeath Live Talks
Children’s Heads & Chinese Whispers: (Mis-)communicating Mortuary Complexity at the Sculptor’s Cave
Dr Lindsey Büster (University of York)
The Sculptor’s Cave in NE Scotland represents one of the most significant later prehistoric sites in the UK, providing a glimpse of the complex and protracted mortuary practices which must have been widespread but which so often evade archaeological study. A recent programme of post-excavation analysis and publication has revealed the long-lived and changing funerary activity at the cave, details of which have been crucial to understanding the various ways in which different communities negotiated the difficult relationship between life and death. Such spectacular archaeology should have made for a positive and rewarding outreach strategy, but had the opposite effect. This paper will examine what happened when the Sculptor’s Cave hit the headlines and ask how we can begin to go ‘beyond the gruesome’ in the communication of mortuary archaeology to the public.
Digital Archaeology of Death and Burial: Exploring Death in 3D
Dr Hayley Mickleburgh (Linnaeus University)
Archaeothanatology is an approach used in mortuary archaeology to reconstruct what happened to the body from the moment of death to the moment of excavation. It relies on detailed observation and documentation of the position and spatial relation of the remains during excavation, and knowledge about burial taphonomy and natural processes of decomposition of the human body. Reconstructions revolve around the type and amount of three-dimensional movement of bones and body parts over time. I will discuss how 3D modelling, animation and simulation can be used as a research tool to augment archaeothanatological reconstructions and test hypotheses. Perhaps more importantly, the use of 3D digital techniques allows both researchers and a broader audience to engage with the three-dimensional realities of death, burial and decay that are not accessible through the static textual and 2D image-based reconstructions traditionally produced in archaeology. Similar to first person exploration of 3D site reconstructions in videogame environments, visualizing 3D processes related to death and burial offers the opportunity to enrich interpretation and understanding of death in the past.
Blogging about Death and Dying: Ethics, Limitations and Challenges of the Pathological Bodies Project Blog
Aoife Sutton (University of Bradford)
Since 2019 I have been blogging about topics related to death and dying on the Pathological Bodies Project blog (https://pathologicalbodiesproject.home.blog/). Using case studies from my blog posts, I will discuss the challenges and limitations in talking about sensitive topics online. With the rise of the ‘death positive’ movement online in recent years, it is important to discuss difficult, taboo subjects whilst also taking an ethical approach in presentation and discussion.
Should we be Socially Distancing from the Dead?
Professor Tim Thompson (Teesside University)
A key aspect of the study of the dead, is to look and examine the remains of the deceased in order to more fully understand their lives and the context of death. Yet, the manner in which we are visualising the dead, and the ease with which these visualisations can be shared by through the proliferation of social media use (socially, pedagogically, and so on) raises some challenging questions for us to consider. Which is what we will do in this keynote presentation.
DigiDeath Live – Provisional Student Topics (Titles and Abstracts To Be Confirmed)
Digital dimensions to decolonisation and repatriation
Mortuary museum displays and collections in digital perspective
Digital dark heritage and conflict archaeology
Public memorials online
Social media – blogging and microblogging
News media and mortuary archaeology
Filmic fictional representations of death
Mortuary archaeology in historic dramas
Video games and digital public mortuary archaeology
Tackling pseudoarchaeology digitally
DigiDeath Live Discussant
Dr Karina Croucher (University of Bradford)
DigiDeath After-Live Talks
Analogue Cremations in the Digital Age: The Curious Fashion for Barrow Columbaria
Kenneth Brophy and Andrew Watson (University of Glasgow)
In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, the way we bury our dead seems to be staying analogue. And it doesn’t get more analogue that having your cremated remains buried inside a megalithic barrow. This contribution will introduce the growing phenomenon of barrow columbaria in the UK and explore if this return to prehistoric style mortuary practice is the ultimate anti-digital act of defiance on the boundary between life and death.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: A Survey on the Dissemination of Three-Dimensional Models and Ethical Concerns in Portugal
Vanessa Campanacho (American Museum of Natural History; University of Coimbral) and Francisca Alves Cardoso (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa; Cranfield University).
The creation of three-dimensional (3) digital replicas of human bones is a prevalent practice in bioarchaeology, with a fraction of the 3D models widely shared online. To further understand ethical concerns on the creation, handling, and dissemination of 3D models of human bones, a survey gathered the opinion of residents in Portugal. In this presentation, we will present the survey results.
Mourning in the Digital Age
In today’s technological world, the way we mourn the passing of loved ones is beginning to change. The influence of social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, has allowed people to express their sorrow in new ways. Whereas futuristic repositories in the Far East now offer alternative gateways to connect with the dead. The aim of the following paper is to examine how the landscape of the digital age has influenced the human need to grieve and to assess its impact on those legacies left behind.
Distancing Death Online: Place, Space and Perpetuity in Digital Death
Tom Farrow (University of Chester)
Since the advent of the internet in the 1990s, its use as a space of dealing with bereavement and commemoration has spread from niche specific websites to everyday social media, repositioning death within daily life. While its virtual presence has resocialised our relationships with mortality in numerous advantageous ways, many problems, questions and concerns remain open and grow increasingly pressing as time goes on. Are digital memorials as permanent as they appear, how do our profiles live on after we die, and will any of it remain accessible to mortuary archaeologists of the future?
Cemetery Websites: Presenting Archaeological Insights from St James’ Cemetery, Liverpool Online
Anna J Fairley (Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool)
The internet provides an ideal forum to involve and engage diverse groups of people in the vast resources of historic cemeteries. A survey of existing websites dedicated to nineteenth-century cemeteries revealed that the information available is patchy and inconsistent. Most provide an overall history of the site with some information on notable burials, but insight beyond this is limited. Additionally, websites set up by volunteer groups or individuals are extremely vulnerable to being taken offline due to lack of funds. There is an unutilised opportunity to compile and disseminate a wide variety of information, in particular the potential uses of the cemeteries’ above-ground archaeology. The revival and development of a website for St James’ Cemetery, established in Liverpool in 1829, provides an ideal forum to demonstrate how a cemetery’s material culture can be surveyed, analysed, and ultimately presented to the public. A survey of extant memorials in St James’ Cemetery provided data that gives insight into nineteenth-century society, including attitudes towards age and gender. This was then interpreted and displayed online to demonstrate that it is possible to introduce archaeological insight to cemetery websites, with the implication that this can be applied to similar digital resources in the future.
Mortuary Archaeology and TikTok
Kat Fliegel (University of Manchester)
As of October of this year, the tiktok smartphone app has reached a whopping two billion downloads. What started as a social media platform focused on dancing, lip-syncing, and cosplay, tiktok now has more than 800 million active online users worldwide and is currently available for download in forty languages across 141 countries. As both its versatility and popularity have increased over the years, so too has its use for public education and awareness on a variety of topics – from epidemiology to law to automotive repair – but with strikingly little contribution so far from archaeologists. In this paper I will discuss some of the advantages of using tiktok as a platform for teaching about archaeology, and mortuary archaeology in particular, as well as the unique challenges and constraints the app and its interface present to archaeologists seeking to use it as a way to educate and interact with the public.
Discussing Gravestone Conservation Digitally: Disseminating Data & Advice through Blogging & Social Media
Robyn Lacy (Memorial University of Newfoundland)
This presentation will discuss the benefits and pitfalls of utilizing digital means, such as
Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, to disseminate gravestone documentation and conservation information. As a heritage professional and historic archaeologist, my research discussions online often brings me into direct contact with the public, volunteers who provide the majority of the restoration of historic burial grounds. I will discuss how we can utilize these channels to ensure up-to-date conservation techniques are making it to these groups, and how we can all benefit from a digital communication for conservation.
Drawing a Line: Depictions of the Dead in Archaeology
Richard Osgood (Defence Infrastructure Organisation)
The debate in museums, publications and media on whether or not to show human remains continues unabated. Should a return to accurate drawings as a preferred means of communication be considered as a main method of display. This discussion will draw upon remains from the 20th Century back to those of the prehistoric past.
Funerary Archaeology as Primatology: Lessons from the Dinaledi Chamber and Comparative Mortuary Ethology
Patrick S. Randolph-Quinney (Department of Applied Sciences, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Northumbria University)
Death is a universal truth, and a facet of life which has fundamentally affected the material cultural record of modern humans. In their book Celebrations of Death Huntington and Metcalf suggest that the diversity of cultural reactions to death and mortality is a measure of the universal impact of death, but that any reaction to it is not random – it is always meaningful and expressive. All too often archaeologists assume that such reactions apply solely to our own species; the primatological and ethological literature suggests otherwise. This presentation explores the gulf between the mournful primate (expressive, ritualistic) and the origins of complex mortuary behaviours by way of the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star cave system (Cradle of Humankind, South Africa). This site has yielded the richest hominin assemblage recovered on the African continent to date, all attributed to the Middle Pleistocene species Homo naledi. The excavation strategy placed digital data and 3D visualisation at the heart of the recovery and exploration strategy. In-situ scanning of fossils was undertaken using structured light (SL) scanning, integrated into a multi-modal, multi-source capture of spatial and visual data. The use of high-resolution terrestrial time-of-flight LIDAR systems and UAV photogrammetry allowed for object to landscape visualisation and spatial registration, with the added ability to investigate and explore liminal spaces inaccessible to archaeologists. Based on multi-disciplinary lines of evidence we have concluded that bodies were deliberately introduced into the chamber by conspecifics through the practice of funerary caching. The presentation will discuss the evolution of primary forms of mortuary practice – structured abandonment, funerary caching, and formal burial – highlighting the evolutionary and cultural contexts in which such mortuary behaviours may have developed. The role of liminal space within the cave system will be explored using 3D visualisation, in conjunction with a VR application accessible to participants. Using digital metaphors, I will draw on comparative ethology and primatology to investigate the relationships between primate reactions to death through grief and mourning, and the origins of complex ritualised mortuary behaviours in cave systems.
Tweeting Death: Using Twitter in the Public History of Mortality
Louvain Rees (@hellohistoria)
For the past eight years, I have utilised social media as a platform to share my research and work. My aim has always been to make history accessible to all those who take an interest in it, wherever in the world they may be. This paper will discuss the use of Twitter (and other social media platforms) as a tool in making historical research and collections accessible to a wider audience. As well as discussing the positives, this paper will discuss the negative aspects of using social media platforms in this way.
Practising Digital Public Mortuary Archaeology as Community Archaeology/Citizen Science
John Tierney (Historic Graves Project)
The talk introduces the work of The Historic Graves Project (www.historicgraves.com). Surveying over 600 historic graveyards, mostly in Ireland, and publishing them online, the project has developed a community archaeology engagement toolset which emerged after World Archaeological Congress 6 (University College Dublin in 2008). The project was designed by field archaeologists but refined by community groups. The talk will demonstrate the three basic survey steps we follow, the techniques we use to record and publish mortuary monuments and how we have tailored our methods for community engagement. The first rule we follow is ‘always be positive’ and the second rule is strong partnerships are made by ensuring equal mutual benefits from heritage projects. A key element in achieving the equivalent of one graveyard survey a week for ten years without reliable funding is that the projects are community led. The archaeologists provide technical expertise while the community group are the local experts. Over the years we have found that if we are talking more than we listen then we are doing it wrong. The talk will be recorded in a local graveyard in West Waterford, Ireland.
Corona and Mortuary Archaeology – Lockdown Archaeodeath
Howard Williams (University of Chester)
This presentation will evaluate social media deployments of mortuary archaeology by academics and heritage professionals during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. I evaluate specific challenges and issues relating to COVID-19 in discussing mortality online, and I critique some of the principal strategies adopted. Building on this critique, I reflect more broadly on current trajectories and potential implications for future endeavours in digital public mortuary archaeology.
Mortuary Archaeology at the Grosvenor Museum – Virtual Tour and Conversation
Liz Montgomery (Cheshire West and Chester Museums)
The virtual tour and conversation with curator Liz Montgomery explores the collections and exhibitions (temporary and permanent) involving human remains, grave-derived material cultures, and commemorative monuments. How can museums best educate audiences about dying, death and the dead, and should museums work to challenge contemporary attitudes and expectations surrounding mortality and debunk mortuary myths?
DigiDeath After-Live Discussant
Dr Liv Nilsson Stutz (Linnaeus University)