Dealing with the Dead

What is the relevance of a visit to a 6000 year old burial monument to a festival ‘for the living about dying’?  Personal reflections on the professional and emotional bond between human remains and archaeologists



Tinkinswood is a long barrow with chamber, giant cap stone and earthen mound and was built around the thirty-seventh to thirty-sixth centuries cal. bc so about 6000 year ago.  On excavation the chamber held the remains of about fifty men, women and children who were probably placed in the tomb over a period of two to five generations (50 to 125 years).  At the ‘Tours of the Tombs’ event in 2013,  visitors to the site sparked discussions about the long dead builders of the Tinkinswood.  They were interested both in the evidence of the ancient dead (and recent excavations) and how archaeologists work with human remains.

The crowds gather

The crowds gather

Archaeologists deal with the dead; generally everyone that we study is no longer living. Often they died thousands of years ago in a past that can be as foreign as another country or as familiar as the pleasure of sunshine on a rainy day.  The dead speak to us, through the structures they created, their possessions, their animals and their very bodies.  Archaeologists also live in the past, thinking about the dead, both as groups of people and as individuals, and trying to breath new life into them.

To further our study of death and dying, archaeologists observe the consummation of human bodies by fire and study the calcined remains.  We watch the processes of decay on ‘body farms’ and come face to face with mortality and the transformation from recently dead to dry bones. We slice up bones to observe the final attempts to repair skeletal damage around the time of death; we track the insidious destructive forces of bacteria and fungi as they digest human skeletons. We also look for the marks of corpse manipulation and division, for cannibalism, for composite bodies, for short brutal deaths and long afterlives, the careful curation of revered family members and leaders and the tragic child burial. We encounter those whose remains are scattered, curated, divided, united with strangers and or left high on a hill.

Reference Remains - Casts

Reference Remains – Casts

Our challenge is always to re-animate these deceased individuals, to think about their lives but not to mourn their deaths.  Skeletal remains represent living, breathing individuals with hopes and fears, who experienced love, anger and joy.  Studying the dead can be difficult – the tiny bones of babies, the pregnant mothers, the injured and those buried with objects that speak of their lives, their communities and their families.Figure 3


Image from Mezolith by Haggerty and Brockback reproduced

Archaeologists who chose to work with human remains have to locate themselves somewhere on the spectrum between total empathy for the dead and clinical disregard.  For many the challenge occurs when dealing with the long dead collides with present day lives; personal grief can remove objectivity and skeletal remains become a very real reminder of mortality.  Student numbers on forensic archaeology modules I teach are often whittled down, those who have recently experienced death often cannot deal with the constant reminders of human mortality.

Viking Mass Grave in Oxfordshire

Viking Mass Grave in Oxfordshire

At a recent discussion on teaching human remains Janet Fletcher documented volunteers (25+) responses to excavating human remains according to various characteristics. She noted that some were concerned about disturbing the dead, expressed distress at the circumstances of death or dismay at maternal loss (female volunteers).  Within post-excavation processes some volunteers continued to show distress when handling the remains, and others had more emotional responses (crying) during washing the bone (female students with children). However, none of the volunteers left the program.

Teenagers on the other hand exhibited some concerns when considering bones from the same age group as their siblings, but generally their responses were  ‘Cool!’ ‘Are they real?’ ‘Were they murdered?’.

Whilst the eventual reburial of the dead is a huge issue (with extensive discussion elsewhere), we will continue to disturb and excavate human remains as we construct and destruct.  Archaeologists, old and new, will continue to handle human remains and the emotional impact upon people should not be underestimated nor overstated.  Like other professions dealing with death and the dead, nurses, doctors, pathologists, funeral homes, crematoriums and professional cemetery clearance companies – archaeologists all have to personally work out how to deal with the feelings generated by this work.

Aubrey Hole - before excavation

Aubrey Hole – before excavation

Archaeologists (and others) can appear to be inured to the emotional ramifications of our research material, but this is necessary to be able to do our job and to treat the dead with the respect they deserve.  Archaeologists are also human, and for me there have been a number of times when the thin line between life and death becomes too apparent, the ‘stories’ that are too much.

One talk I attended by Richard Wright on Second World War mass graves made everyone in the room cry.  The skeleton of a mother’s appearing to try and to protect her child, their bones dry but their hair beautifully preserved, and visible bullet holes in the back of both their heads, was heart-breaking.  I also shed a tear during Eileen Murphy’s talk (Murphy 2011) on the archaeology of Cillini in Ireland. These unoffical burial grounds for unbaptised babies, tragically  highlighted the cruelty of the church towards these  so called Limbo Babies‘ and their families.



My visits to the body farm to observe ten corpses (many of whom were body donations) decomposing in the hot sun, experiencing the fierce heat given off by a cremating body and observing the bucket of medical protheses that had been collected for recycling  all stick in my mind.

Even historians are not exempt I remember a PhD student crying because a historical figure (a medieval farm worker), whose birth and life she had been studying from the written records, had appeared in the parish funeral accounts and she suddenly realised he was dead!

To conclude – the dead do get under your skin but some emotional distance is essential . I have lived, eaten and slept in very close proximity to the dead, both in the ground and after excavation, and I do not fear them. Rather they, and their lives, continue to fascinate me (……although I do generally prefer to study dead animals).

Jacqui Mulville 2013

References to Human Remains at Tinksinwood
Ward, 1916. The St Nicholas chambered tumulus, Glamorgan II. Archaeologia Cambrensis 16, 239-294.
Whittle, A. & M. Wysocki 1998. Parc le Breos Cwm transepted long cairn, Gower, West Glamorgan: date, contents, and context. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 64, 139-82.

Murphy, E. M. 2011. Children’s burial grounds in Ireland (Cilliní) and parental emotions towards infant death. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 15 (3), 409-28 [DOI 10.1007/s10761-011-0148-8]Other references

There is a blog page on tomb alignments