Abstracts: Panel Session 1
Sarah M. Schwarz
Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton
Neanderthal Graves: the Origins of Structured Responses to Death
“The corpse is the prime symbol of death. Its silence and decay both enshrine the radical changes of mortality and challenge the living to respond.” (Davies 2002: 4)
Death is a truly universal event which has biological, cultural, and social ramifications for any community faced with the disposal of a human body. The biological changes which occur to a corpse (although subject to variation by environment) and the presence of structured cultural responses can each be considered universal. These changes elicit a series of actions from the living community in order to respond to the fracturing of relationships and social networks, as well as to the practical concerns of disposing of the corpse.
The exact nature of structured cultural responses by a living group vary greatly by geographical area, cultural attitudes, and socio-economic pressures. But regardless of the exact nature of the behaviour or rituals enacted, the responses of the living group will always be “meaningful and expressive” (Pettitt, 2011). The diversity observed in cultural responses to death elude to the ancient roots of the processes of mourning, grieving, and disposal of the death, and it is through diversity that we will begin to understand mortuary practices in the archaeological record (Pettitt, 2011; Metcalf & Huntington, 1991).
Mortuary practices are taken to be so truly universal to humanity that they are frequently used as an example defining behavioural modernity – a factor which makes us ‘human’, and therefore sets us apart from other species. But the origin of mortuary practices is likely to have a more ancient beginning in order to have become so widespread in Homo sapiens, and such an important factor in every single human culture. So where did mortuary practices begin: were Homo sapiens the first hominin species to widely use such complex disposal methods, or is there evidence of widespread use of mortuary practices in other hominin species?
'Cult of the Dead’ or ‘Death Positive’? Embodied Victorian mourning practices and their relation to contemporary death acceptance
Royal Holloway, University of London
This paper addresses Victorian mourning practices in relation to their focus on beautification and reverence, as opposed to the rather disparaging term ‘Cult of the Dead’ often used to describe these practices. I instead position the Victorian era, to borrow Geoffrey Gorer’s term, as a ‘Golden Age of Grief’. This paper looks at the evolution of Anglo-American mourning practices from the Victorian era, through the twentieth century, to today. I compare Victorian attitudes to the contemporary turn, in certain circles, towards a more accepting view of death, termed the ‘Death Positive’ movement, which has roots in, and has similarities to, the Victorian ‘Cult of the Dead’.
First, I foreground my argument by unpacking the development of Anglo-American society’s relationships with death. Beginning with Ernest Becker’s study of why humans have a denial of death, based on a fear of death, I look at the basis for why mourning practices are important to processing the human experience. Analysing the works of James Steven Curl, and Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey, I present a picture of the values and rituals associated with Victorian mourning practices.
I continue with twentieth-century mourning practice and death-relations analysis by Philip Mellor and Jane Littlewood. Through Geoffrey Gorer’s essay ‘The Pornography of Death’ and Caitlin Doughty’s memoir as a contemporary crematorium worker, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, I open up the discussion to what, I have termed, a more apropos description of the attitudes in the twentieth century: the ‘Phobic of the Dead’. I then introduce ‘The Order of the Good Death’ and the ‘Death Positive’ movement as a comparison to the ‘Cult of the Dead’; which offers contemporary perspectives on how to incorporate death and mourning into our current culture by their endeavours to bring this discourse out into the open.
These concepts of bringing an intimacy with the processes of death back into the processes of mourning, are the groundwork on which I built my PhD thesis: that Victorian mourning practices help with the grief process more than contemporary death practices of commercialisation, outsourcing, and sequestering of death away from loved ones into an institutional setting. Through analysis of historical Victorian mourning, I argue that these practices exemplify an ethos that is far healthier than our contemporary relationships with death and offer possible perspectives on the end of life process.
Skeletal Specimens of Early 16th Century Anatomical Dissections from the University of Wittenberg, Germany: Discovery, Analysis and Contextual Interpretation
Christian Meyer, Jens Brauer, Maria Albrecht, Kurt W. Alt
Archaeological excavations within the former Franciscan monastery church of Wittenberg, Germany have recently uncovered deviant burials including complete and partial human skeletons which show clear traces of anatomical dissection. The individuals had previously been decapitated, indicating execution prior to dissection, and show a multitude of saw- and cut-marks. These are mostly found in the skull, but the postcranial skeleton is affected as well. The heads were buried beneath more or less complete bodies which indicates a type of deposition clearly deviating from the careful inhumation burial usually practised at this site.
By combining extant historical documents, the general history of the monastery and the osteoarchaeological analyses it is possible to precisely date the finds and to attribute them to specific anatomical dissection events recorded for the first half of the 16th century. After the monastery was closed around 1522/25, the Renaissance University of Wittenberg, founded in 1502 and counting Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon among its more illustrious professors, made use of the buildings and it is likely that the dissections took place there as well. The reconstructed context of the finds includes the names of the dissecting anatomists, the precise dates of the dissections and further information regarding the life and death of the executed and anatomised individuals.
While the remains of dissections and autopsies from more recent times are quite frequently recovered from cemeteries, finds which can be securely attributed to the very beginning of human anatomical dissections in Central Europe are very rare. The skeletal remains recovered at Wittenberg therefore offer a unique glimpse into practices so far only known from written sources, including the deviant post-mortem treatment and deposition of the bodies after the dissections were completed.
You Are Remembered: Identity at Crossbones Graveyard
Lucy Coleman Talbot
University of Winchester / Co-Founder Death & the Maiden
Here lay your hearts, your flowers, Your Book of Hours. Your fingers, your thumbs, Your Miss You Mums. Here hang your hopes, your dreams, Your Might-Have-Beens, Your locks, your keys, Your Mysteries. (John Constable 2000)
Taken from John Constable’s play The Southwark Mysteries, this chant have become a powerful intonation for those familiar with the history of Crossbones Graveyard. An estimated 15,000 people, men, women and children, are buried beneath the now established remembrance garden; their hidden stories kept alive through vigils, art, poetry, literature, workshops and dedicated volunteers. John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones have been campaigning since 1996 to raise awareness and protect this important ancient site, guarding a rich social history that continues to develop today.
This illustrated talk will examine the identity of ‘The Outcast Dead’ constructed at Crossbones, exploring the social narratives developed through storytelling, ritual and performance. Historical interpretation and the modern significance of this unique burial site will be considered, with particular attention to themes of sexuality, poverty and religion. Crossbones Graveyard has become a place of great comfort and focus for many who feel placeless or marginalised by society. The stories locked between the bones beneath this organic garden allow many to connect with their own struggles and experiences. Remembering “The Outcast Dead” allows the grieving or troubled to connect with ancestors, others and ultimately aspects of themselves.