I’ve never really enjoyed digging up the dead. But sometimes, we have to. It often comes down to a stark choice: we dig them up with a modicum of dignity, or they’d be scattered by a backhoe and ground to dust. You can argue all you like about the ethics, but once construction crews are waiting, you just have to get on with it.
This is an archaeologist’s personal perspective. It’s a response to the questions I’ve seen about what sets the process and philosophy of archaeology apart from Channel 5’s treatment of human remains in Battlefield Recovery. Enough ink has been spilled in condemnation of that show (see, for instance, this article). So instead, here’s an alternative: a reflection on dealing with the dead.
It was cold, that winter. Behind the back of Pizza Express, we were shielded from the worst of the wind, but needling gusts brought eddying snow, crisp packets and leaves down into our hole, bounded by two tired commercial rear entrances and an access road. It stank of bins, and of the urine of the revellers from nearby nightclubs caught short; their nocturnal libations trickled down the trench sections and froze.
We were in a large commercial town, south of England. Slap bang in the medieval heart, outside a shrunken churchyard, leaving us with bodies, footings, more bodies, walls. I was on and off the site, dropping in when other projects allowed. A short commute, and the bonus of a first class pie shop round the corner.
C wasn’t so keen. He was a veteran digger. Not a lot of self-confidence, but good eyes and good instincts. We were stood up on the baulk, shoulders hunched, sucking on loose cigarettes rolled with cold hands.
“I don’t know, Rob. I don’t like the little ‘uns.”
C had a daughter, about two at the time. He doted on her, hated away jobs and loved nothing more than a day finds processing in his garden round the corner from the office, with the toddler forever threatening to overturn a tray of pottery.
We’d just been looking at a very young skeleton. C wasn’t the demonstrative type, but he sounded a bit choked. I was sympathetic, but in truth I didn’t really get it. It was sad, yes: ‘there but for the grace of God’ and all that, but it didn’t really penetrate my attitude of detachment. I was a tough digger, grafting my way through a painful and deepening recession, drunk on the idea of resilience.
I’ve thought a lot about that site, and C’s reaction, since. Five-and-a-bit years on, I think it might have finally clicked, thanks to a powerful piece by Sarah May. Why that site? Why did that upset C particularly? Sarah identifies the ‘private heritage’ of the act of burial that ties mourners, through acts of material engagement, to a place. A landscape. A special corner, and afterwards our perceptions of place are never quite the same. These days, I live near the village where my grandfather is buried. At the birth of my son, I walked to the graveside to share the news. It looks out over the river, towards the Malvern Hills.
I think what was upsetting to C was the shift in context, the fact that these remains, the interment of which would have had such resonance, had found themselves exposed, brought blinking into the light, in such dingy environs. It wasn’t fitting, the backdrop of wheelie bins and urine stains.
The site is now a bridal boutique, cleansed of urban neglect, in a quarter of town that’s on the up. There’s probably some sort of tenuous parable in that, but I’m sure C would tell me I’m talking rubbish.
I’m not a tough digger any more. Not really. I like to spend my winters indoors these days. Now and then, though, I get back out into the field. So I found myself back in a hole, on the south side of a celebrated church, in a corner of a midland tourist town. Neat rows, stone paths, donation boxes.
For those who haven’t dug in them, busy church graveyards can come as a shock. People imagine orderly avenues, folk laid to rest six feet deep, lichen-shrouded headstones propped in picturesque manner against the boundary wall when they get a bit wobbly. The reality is nastier and messier. Bodies stacked, six or seven deep. Crammed in, gravediggers’ spades slicing through old interments, tossing the bits back in the hole. Service pipes, rabbits, buttresses, all playing havoc with the occupants. It often surprises ecclesiastical folk too; every time I’ve worked in a churchyard I hear the same story: “There won’t be any here, it’s under the path…”, “You’re only digging down a metre so you won’t find any burials…”, “It was all cleared in the 19th century”… We smile, and try to explain, but it still seems to come as a surprise.
I hadn’t worked on one for a couple of years. The last was a strange experience – skeletons in a new soakaway under the south door of a sleepy parish church. As dusk fell, I was sat, alone, recording, just 40 hours before my own wedding, nursing deep and troubling thoughts on the circle of life.
So, back to my current abode, sealed by black sheeting from the tourists coming to marvel at the grave of a famous writer, which lies in the chancel about 20 yards from our site. Construction works necessitate the excavation of several hundred burials, medieval to 19th century in date. I had a group of 6, two adults and four children. Just a yard from the south wall of the church, and about the same below the modern ground surface. How many millions of feet have passed, inches above them, over the centuries?
The kindly old architect came round on his daily rounds. As he passes, I’m cleaning around the cheekbone of a skull, which must have tipped sideways when an adjacent coffin collapsed, and has flipped a young child’s pelvis on end like a macabre mask. The architect pauses, smiles, and asks “Do they keep you awake at night, those faces?”. I laugh politely: they don’t.
But what does get me is the loss, the grief, behind their stories. As I’m cleaning by the throat of SK(698), a small child maybe 5 or 6 years old, a few tiny specks of green corrosion betray the presence of a copper alloy shroud pin, and I’m taken back to the process of burial.
I’m reminded that burial is simply one act in a mourning process, in which much of the significant actions take place off-stage. But the act of burial is one that is bound up with a sense of place. My little corner once became the centre of someone’s world, a locus of sorrow and lament.
I don’t lie awake seeing skulls. But I do see the mourners. And I feel a duty of care, on their behalf.
It is one of the few times in our careers, I think, when archaeologists can be damned sure that we’re socially useful. Even I have to admit to flickers of doubt in the small hours. Would the world really be a lesser place without my tender analysis of the few scraps of pottery in an old ditch…? But in meticulously exposing, recording, and lifting human remains out of the path of the waiting JCB, our peculiar skillset comes into its own, ensuring that they are brought into the light with a modicum of dignity.
After analysis, they’ll be re-buried, with ceremony. But I’ve already made my peace with them. I don’t know how many of my colleagues do the same, but there’s a point at which I step back, final trowel clean complete, set up scales and photo board, frame a photo in the viewfinder, curse, wait for a cloud to soften the shadows, and pause. Just for a second.
But in that second I imagine the agony of parting, and the resonance that bound a grieving parent to that spot, and the power of that intangible private heritage. For someone, at sometime, that quiet corner became a special and terrible place.