Bones without barriers: the social impact of digging the dead

Sayer, D orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2769-1281 and Sayer, F (2016) Bones without barriers: the social impact of digging the dead. In: Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology and Contemporary Society. Oxford University Press (OUP), Oxford, pp. 139-167.

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In this paper we confront a dangerous retrenchment that affects field archaeologist who dig the dead. Unchecked skeletal investigation, and cemetery archaeology, may be rendered impotent and unable to engage with the forefront of scientific practice. Archaeology has undergone, and continues to undergo, a process of professionalization and like other professions it operates away from the public gaze. At the same time Government policy – realised though research councils - requires measurable impact, openness and outreach. As a result public archaeology is progressively significant; however, as if to stifle this development the licence to remove human remains requires that all excavation projects must take place behind screens. So how are field projects to consolidate the necessity to engage with a community and the need or desire to use barriers? In 2010 archaeologists working at Oakington obtained permission to excavate the cemetery without screens. This paper outlines the results of a detailed investigation which looked at how the public engaged with the skeletons during excavation. As a result of this research it is our central argument that public perception is more than observation; it is the result of a complex mutable combination of ideas and emotions that evolve alongside a project. This knowledge is valuable and we believe it has the potential to inform professional practice for the benefit of archaeology as a whole.

The excavation of human remains is one of the most pressing and contentious issues facing global archaeologies today. However, while there are numerous discussions of the ethics and politics of displaying the dead in museums, and many academic studies addressing the repatriation and reburial of human remains, there has been little consideration of the practice of digging up human remains itself (but see Kirk & Start 1999; Williams and Williams 2007). In this paper we will investigate the impact of digging the dead within a community and will use a double-stranded methodology of collecting quantitative and qualitative social data within a public archaeology project to make that examination. The excavation we focus on is the 2010 and 2011 sessions at Oakington, an early Anglo-Saxon Cemetery in Cambridgeshire. In this paper we will explore the complexity of local people’s response to the excavation of ancient skeletal material and use this starting point to discuss the wider argument about screening excavation projects. We will argue that those barriers, rather than displaying ‘sensitivity’ to local people’s concerns, impedes the educational and scientific values of excavation to local communities and also fosters alienation and misunderstandings between archaeologists and the public. The professionalization of British archaeology has taken place within protestant modernity, and we will argue that it is this context which drives the desire to screen off human remains from within the industry not the need to protect the public or the dead from one another.

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