The Day of Archaeology 2011 (except in Texas)

In exactly 14 days time, the first ever Day of Archaeology will be in full swing, with contributions of blogs, videos, audio diaries and images from archaeologists from across the globe, including most of the States. We would love you to join us – especially if you’re from Texas. Or Kansas. Or Alabama. (no contributors from these states yet – where are you?) In fact, we welcome archaeologists, whether professional, amateur or student, from anywhere and everywhere in the USA and beyond.

What is this day for? Well, have your friends and family ever wondered what your job, hobby or study actually involves? Do you wish you could could share more with the public about what you really do? Is your working life a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, or is it all just digging and filling in spreadsheets? Now is your chance to share your life as an archaeologist with the world! The Day of Archaeology 2011 aims to give a window into the daily lives of archaeologists. Written by the participants, it will chronicle what archaeologists all over the world do on one day, July 29th 2011, from those in the field through to specialists working in laboratories and behind computers. Day of Archaeology was born after a Twitter conversation between myself and a colleague, Matt Law, during the third annual Day in the life of the Digital Humanities in March 2011. We thought it would be interesting and fun to organise something similar for those working or volunteering in (or studying) archaeology around the world.

Visit our website on to find out how to sign up.

Value at a Distance: Coins in early Australia

Spanish dollar - reale - pieces of eight

It’s stating the obvious: coins are important for archaeologists and historians alike.  They last a long time, they tell us when and where they were minted, and often indicate something about the preoccupations of the state or other entity that produced them.  Crowns or kangaroos?  Images or inscriptions?  People carry coins, and hoard them, and deface them in interesting ways – by clipping or splitting or over stamping them.

They can also deceive, particularly because coins, with their intrinsic metal value, travel in people’s pockets well beyond their original origins.  So the discovery of a Chinese, or Portuguese, or Dutch coin somewhere along the Australian coastline does not necessarily demonstrate the existence of a mysterious Chinese explorer or Portuguese shipwreck or unknown Dutch settlement.

The first British settlers of New South Wales in 1788 were convicts and soldiers.  Neither had much use for money.  Some British coins came with them, but most early local trade was conducted by barter, or promissory notes for larger items.

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and other coins began to circulate as trade.  In October 1804, Governor King published a general order in the Sydney Gazette, listing the coins then in circulation, and their value in sterling:

Governor King - Proclamation

Governor King - Proclamation cont.

King’s list tells us a good deal about the patterns of trade between Sydney and the world in 1804.  The guinea, shilling and copper coins were English.  The Spanish dollars were silver reals.  These coins could have come from anywhere, for they were in general circulation throughout the Pacific, but ships from Sydney sailed to China via Manila, in the Spanish Philippines, while a few Spanish ships were captured by privateers off the South American coast during these years.

The Johanna and half Johanna were Portuguese.  These also probably reached Australia via China merchants based in the Portuguese enclave of Macao.  Australia also had early to the Portuguese settlement in Timor, the first European settlement that ships encountered sailing west through Torres Strait en route to Java.

The Dutch guilder and ducat come from Java, or perhaps from trade with more easterly Dutch settlements in what is now Indonesia.  During food shortages, the early colony bought rice and dhal in Lombok, and this trade continued.

British Museum, in Wikipedia Commons

The gold mohur and silver rupee probably come from Bengal, while the East India Company struck the pagoda in southern India.  All illustrate the close ties, economic, cultural, and sometimes familial, between the East India Company and the Sydney traders.

Governor King set exchange rates for government purchases.  In other contexts, they were only suggestive.  18th and 19th century traders were used to dealing with multiple coinages.  I’ve no evidence for early New South Wales, where a population of less than 10,000 didn’t allow for much specialisation, but in Calcutta or Canton, merchants used professional ‘shroffers’ to deal with their mixed bags of coins. According to Hobson Jobson’s dictionary,

The word is used by Europeans in China as well as in India, and is there applied to the experts who are employed by banks and mercantile firms to check the quality of the dollars that pass into the houses.

These experts assessed coins for the weight and quality of their metals.  Many small denomination Asian coins were designed with this in mind, with a central hole so that they could be tied together, and traded according to weight, regardless of their minted origins.

Ching dynasty coin, from Yale images, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Which brings us back to Australia, and New South Wales’s most celebrated early coins.  By 1812 the shortage of coins in the colony had become a serious problem.  That year, Governor Macquarie imported 40,000 Spanish dollars, and had them split into 2, an outer circle of silver with a nominal value of 5 shillings, and the central inner piece, to be worth 15 pence.  These quickly became known as the Holey Dollar and the Dump.

Holey dollar and dump

Macquarie’s actions are usually interpreted as a clever way to get two coins for the price of one.  True enough, but since Macquarie had served in the Indian army, he knew what Asian coins looked like.  A coin with a hole it in would make perfect sense to him.

Sydney Gazette in Trove Newspapers, National Library of Australia

Image of Spanish Dollar from Museum of Australian Currency Notes, Reserve Bank of Australia

Image of Gold Mohur from Wikimedia Commons

Image of Ching coin from Yale images, Peabody Museum of Natural History

Image of Holey Dollar in Recollections, National Museum of Australia

Edited 15 June, in response to comments on Spanish coins. Thanks.

Stop the Press? Paper, e-books or both?

Welcome new readers. This post could also be titled “How not to launch a blog”. We’ve been testing the site with content for a little while with some archaeological content. Tomorrow our first post on this month’s theme Distance goes live, so I had a tech post scheduled for today.

This post has been shuffled through a few drafts. Before I bought a Kindle is was along the lines of “Am I a techno-curmudgeon?” After I bought a Kindle it became more “Duh! I am a techno-curmudgeon!” By curmudgeon I don’t mean Luddite. I mean people who can use technology but for reasons other than failings of the technology choose not to. Here’s an example that I might have agreed with till a couple of years ago.

Airminded Blog on Kindle
Airminded Blog on Kindle

I attended a couple of workshops on publishing, one involving academic publishers. The printed monograph was held up as the peak of publication to which all graduate students should aspire. And the emphasis was on print, not e-publishing. There was one go-to argument that all the speakers shared. “The problem with an e-book,” they would say with a sardonic rise of an eyebrow, “is you can’t read it in the bath!” We all laughed and ignored the fact that you’d be mad to read a cheaply bound ~£100 academic book in the bath. Still, if you feel this is a problem, not only can you read an e-book in the bath, you can read one in the shower and while diving at a depth of up to five metres, thanks to this waterproofing device.

If reading in the bath really was the killer app for dead tree books, then I’ve single-handedly revolutionised the publishing industry. In fact the problem is more likely that “The problem with e-books raise eyebrow is they’re not printed books.” True, but this is not a strong argument for nor against them. There are advantages in favour of both formats.

The unassailable advantage of hard copy for me has been its readability. I can read short texts on a computer monitor, but a monograph has simply not been practical. Long periods of monitor use give me eye-strain. The prime measure of any text format has to be ‘Can you read it?’. The iPad is readable, but I still prefer paper. The Kindle in contrast is extremely readable. Amazon has a difficult job selling it to sceptics because the display is essential to its success and its display is primarily shown to non-owners through a computer monitor, which kills it flat. If we are comparing default settings, then I still think a book beats a Kindle but it’s close. It’s not just that the dots per inch are better with a book, there’s a tactile experience.

If I’m reading a book I know roughly how far I am through it by the feel of pages in my left hand. A Kindle is light, but it feels the same regardless of whether you’re at the start or the end. The same is true for the lack of tactile sensation for other e-readers. There’s also a matter of turning pages. Turning a physical page gives your eyes a micro-break from the script. You don’t get this so much with a Kindle, and if you’re scrolling text you positively have to concentrate on moving script to keep your place. This is all part of the reading experience. But reading is not always default. I can change the settings on an e-reader and some print books have their own problems.

For example the Western Greeks by Caratelli is a lovely book and if it ever falls of my bookshelf and onto my head, I’ll be hospitalised. There are a few books I have that are simply too big to read comfortably. Book size is not a weight problem for electronic books. An e-version would be light enough to be hand-held and read for long periods.

Print-size is another obvious issue, or it will be as your sight gets worse. A great deal is made of the fact you can read a book after a couple of centuries. This is true. At the same time if your eyesight goes then the physical presence of your bookshelves are little comfort. E-books are more easily converted into talking books.

I’m also wary of how meaningful the claim you can read books after centuries is. You can’t read a centuries old e-book yet, but there’s a very obvious reason for that. Some of the scepticism is well-founded. There are unreadable electronic formats that are lost. I need to get a USB cassette player to copy an Orb album I have because I don’t have the physical means to play it and it was deleted on the day of release so there are no MP3 versions to buy. I also have unreadable floppy discs and USB sticks will pass soon. However, what is changing is that information is moving from fixed formats. My thesis went through several from .doc, .pages, .whatever-open-office-is, a brief period on Google Docs and finally .docx and .pdf for submission. There are, and will continue to be problems with readable formats, but ASCII is proving durable. Format translation looks like a soluble problem – though some texts may be lost.

In contrast hard copy books are tied to their physical format. Shelves upon shelves of them sit in libraries mocking e-books with their permanence. Libraries don’t keep empty shelves of all the books that have been lost. It may be different for modern historians, but if you’re working in the medieval period or earlier there’s a good chance that you’ll find key texts are missing. Again there are obvious reasons for that, but if we seriously consider the possibility that all electronic repositories could be turned off at the same time as a mark against e-books, then equally we have to accept the possible evolution of a self-igniting bookworm and the damage it could cause to physical books, especially those with painfully small print runs. The limit physical numbers of many monographs makes them susceptible to loss through reckless deaccessions or accidental damage.

The thing that finally persuaded me my preference for paper wasn’t rational was note-taking. Historiann (ignore the bath reference) makes a good point that it’s easier to make notes in the margin of a printed book. I thought you couldn’t with an e-book. Ignore the fact that I don’t write in books, and that even if I wanted to I’d never have a pen handy, it’s nice to have the option. There are reader programs that store annotations with a file, but usually the notes are tied to a specific file, and it’s a pain to cut ‘n’ paste the text into a document. I didn’t spot that book-written notes are tied to the one copy of a text till six months ago. About the same time I realised that cut ‘n’ paste from a regular paper book is rubbish.

It turns out that Kindle notes can be shared between devices, but that’s something to explore another time.

It wasn’t simply that e-books have their drawbacks, it was also that the ‘e-‘ leads me to have much higher expectations for the usability of an e-book. Concentrating on the limitations of an e-book meant I wasn’t considering in what ways an e-book is better and in some ways e-books are better. These days indices are afterthoughts in some books. Searchability is a big bonus. At the same time you have a lot fewer headaches if you accidentally drop a book and tread on it than if you do the same with a Kindle. I’ve done the experiment. DRM means it’s so much easier to lend a physical book. I don’t condone cracking Amazon’s DRM, and more importantly I don’t know how to do it yet. Academics could be asking why books need DRM, but for now it’s something we have to live with. There’s also no second-hand market for e-books which will make it more difficult to buy cheap gems in the future.

The paper versus electronic argument interests me because it’s the most serious challenge to paper books yet. This isn’t a genre shift like claiming film, television or radio will kill books. It’s closer to the shift from parchment to paper. There are good reasons why paper books are still a good idea, but the arguments are all stacked in favour of the one format. The one factor I have missed out above is that electronic publishing is potentially so much cheaper. This could be a way to preserve texts in both formats. The high-priced library market can still be served with physical books, but e-books should make affordable editions for personal use feasible. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but I don’t think it’s in the consumers’ interest to be forced into one format or the other.

For this reason something I’d like to do is experiment with a Kindle version of the blog. If the authors are happy, and time allows it’s possible we will produce a Kindle Single based on ‘Distance’. The first post on the theme comes up tomorrow. This is not because pinning the blog to a fixed volume makes it ‘better’. The new format is different. It opens the opportunity to access new audiences and new opportunities. Hopefully we’ll be able to explore what you can do with archaeology and new media, rather than fit within a rigid definition.

For Distance we have opinion pieces, some referenced discussions and a photo-essay. These will be scheduled on Tuesdays, and some Thursday. That leaves plenty of room on Wednesdays and Fridays for people to blog about other things. If you’d like to take part, leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Links from Week 20

Katy Meyers has another excellent post at Bones Don’t Lie. To Exhume or Let Rest in Peace This relates to two burials. The first is the Leatherman, who I had never heard of and is a fascinating topic in his own right. The other is the exhumation of the Mona Lisa model. My first reaction to the Mona Lisa dig was “I’d hate to be the artist under pressure to produce a facial reconstruction”. When I found out that was the purpose of the dig I was then baffled as to why. Will the result show that Leonardo Da Vinci was actually an terrible artist and all his paintings are rubbish? My guess is examination of the skull will reveal that the enigmatic smile was more of a toothy grin.

NewMuseumKat at the Museum of Ontario Archaeology blogs about The Roman Britain & Ur Collections.

Michael E. Smith writes Why Anthropology is too Narrow an Intellectual Context for Archaeology. It’s not an argument you get much in the UK, so from my point of view it’s an interesting insight into how Americans view the past in the USA.

From Powered By Osteons comes news of the 9,000-year-old La Jolla Fisherman and -woman. UC San Diego is caught up in a rumpus over whether bones discovered while constructing the university’s President’s house should be studied or given to native Americans.

@archasa posts her slideshare presentation on Research Blogging which is relevant to archaeobloggers.

I spent ages reading this post on Plasauduon, Powys very badly as my Welsh is terrible. In a related discovery Heritage of Wales have also blogged in English on Plasauduon, Powys – Architecture 3D Visualisation Fly Through Animation.

Tropical Paradise, but who needs that?Mick Morrison has photos of his recent fieldtrip to Weipa in Far North Queensland. It takes more than blue skies and tropical seas and a fascinating archaeological project to make me jealous.

Via @nzarchaeology comes the bad news Historic Chatham Islands carvings defaced in the NZ Herald. It’s probably intended as a cultural assault according to the report.

Also from the NZ Herald comes this thought provoking column Brian Rudman: Te Papa holds ghoulish relics too. It’s a comment on the ethics of museums pursuing repatriation of some human remains while holding on to others.

Bad news for hungry archaeologists. The Newcastle Herald (Australia) has the headline 6500-year-old heritage junked and if that’s not bad enough, they’ve been stuck with a KFC outlet too.

The ever impressive CyArk is plugging their Tikal Multimedia Gallery and it’s well worth a visit.

This week’s stunning archaeological site threatened by a dam is are the Basha-Diamer carving in Pakistan. I didn’t know about these, but sadly it looks like I’ll have plenty of people to share my ignorance with.

Scots Gaelic speakers should catch Talamh Trocair: Arc-eòlas coimhearsnachd before Tuesday. It’s from BBC Alba and it’s on the iPlayer. I don’t know if this is available outside the UK. It could be BBC Alba want to protect the commercial rights so that both Scots Gaelic speakers outside the UK have to pay to watch. English speakers can follow the programme on Community Archaeology with subtitles.

Art Daily reports: Pre-Hispanic Cities Reproduced the Narration of the "Sacred Mountain" with Construction of Great Temples which explains what the story is about in the title.

You can found out more about the History of Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg. I don’t have a note saying where I got that from, so I’ll guess it’s via @brockter.

The Institute for Archaeologists now have an Archives special interest group.

Chasing Aphrodite is a blog to go with the book of the same name reports on the ceremony officially inaugurating the Getty’s controversial statue of Aphrodite in its new museum home in Aidone. The photo does no justice to how amazingly steep, narrow and full the streets are in Aidone, which is the most terrifying place I’ve driven through.

Rollright Stones: aaw, come on! The Heritage Journal is unimpressed by offerings at the Rollright Stones.

An Ancient Greek City Uncovered in Russia is a reminder of how far the ancient Greeks lived away from the country we call Greece.

One of the strangest world’s oldest claims comes from North Carolina with the news that Blackbeard Ship Discovery May be world’s oldest. I thought it was an odd claim as I’ve seen plenty of older ships, but this is the oldest shipwreck in the world that’s off NC’s coast. There may be older shipwrecks in the world, but they’re not off NC’s coast and therefore presumably don’t count.

#Archaeology and #SocialMedia at #ACRNCASPAR

qr codeYesterday the CASPAR, the Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology and the Archaeology and Communication Research Network held a workshop at UCL’s Institute for Archaeology. The workshop was hashtagged on Twitter as #ACRNCASPAR and it’s been blogged by Daniel Pett. Below is the Storified collection of tweets by @jessogden.

The embed is proving temperamental at the moment, so if it doesn’t appear below, reload the page.

Links from Week 19

Colleen Morgan reports on the TAG conference session Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary. It looks like it could have been one of the few conferences where the audience were more nervous than the speakers. She also participated in another innovative session on archaeological photography.

Donald Johanson and Richard Leakey were sharing a stage for the first time in 30 years. The legends wowed the crowd with the classics “We all come from Africa” and “Let’s look at Lucy”. If ogling a three million old ancestor doesn’t send a shiver down your spine then you’re clearly in need of a soul transplant. The Scientific American page uses Storify. Does anyone want to cover Twitter hashtags and Storify in a couple of blog posts?

At Powered by Osteons, Kristina Killgrove has news about Female Sacrificial Slaves. If you prefer your sacrificial slaves to be male, she can cater for that too. It includes some interesting comments on problems communicating between archaeologists in different regions.

Heritage Action look at the possibility that this year might be the last mass opening of Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice.

NUI Galway now has an Archaeological Theory blog. They open with a look at the Dover Boat. (h/t @diggingthedirt)

Antonine Baths at Carthage
Antonine Baths at Carthage. Photo by Graham Claytor.

The ISAW-NYU has been releasing photos from Carthage with a Creative Commons Licence. This one is the Antonine Baths with a Creative Commons BY licence, by Graham Claytor.

The AAA are looking for blog columnists. The work is monthly and based around the themes: Teaching Strategies, Field Notes, Multimedia Matters, Media Notes, Review Roundups. They’re open to other possibilities.

As a follow up to the story that Neanderthals may have died out earlier than thought, comes news that Neanderthals may have died out later than thought, thanks to a paper published this week in Science. (h/t @BoneGirlPhD) John Hawks has the key details from that paper blogged at his site.

Quite a few people linked to the story that Yale is releasing a mountain of digital images for free, and rightly so. It looks potentially very exciting, but I can’t tell as the site seems to be overwhelmed by lots of other visitors who think it also looks exciting too.

Sexy Archaeology has the latest edition of Four Stone Hearth.

Via @paregorios, Forty two sites are being considered for UNESCO’s World Heritage List in June. Some notable candidates are Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan), Yapese Stone Money Sites in Palau and Yap, which would be Micronesia’s first listing and the Coffee Cultural Landscape (Colombia).

Paris for Perverts by Tony Perottet looks at the brothels of La Belle Époque from the late 19th century to the Great War as heritage site. Historical titillation, or a chance to give a voice to a profession that is usually ignored by polite society? (h/t @astrojenny)

CNN has an interview with Sada Mire, who’s examining the rock art of Somaliland. (h/t @JenniferLockett)

Undergraduates who are probably from the University of York (UK – not York University CA), have been doing a grand job at Harewood House near Leeds. The dig has relevance beyond West Yorkshire, as the fortunes of the Lascelles who built the house were based on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

Alan Baumler reviews Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution at Frog in a Well China.

[A]ll in all I would say the book was not worth the money, despite all the promises of China discussions in the Table of Contents. Reading this book will not help you understand China better. I’m pretty sure it will not help you understand Europe better. If you are looking for something that can explain everything in general but nothing in specific, this may be the book for you.

Ouch! If you have a cruel streak you’ll be amused reading the whole thing.

Intelligent Life has a lengthy popular article on the overlooked artistic and archaeological treasures of Kimberley, Australia. Europeans convinced that there is little of interest in Australia should pay careful attention to the dates. The depth of culture is extraordinary. (h/t @astrojenny)

View Kimberley in a larger map


I’m putting together a collection of links for an experiment tomorrow. I’ll see what the reaction is before I do it again. If ma.gnolia were still active then it would be easy to post, but adding the links by hand is a bit more of a chore. A tool that is making it a bit easier though is looks at your Twitter feed and sees what links you’re posting or re-tweeting. It also looks for links in tweets that you mark as a favourite. It then follows the links to see what the page is and stores the links for you. If you’ve hash-tagged the tweet then that hashtag becomes a tag in in action in action

You can also add links from Facebook accounts, account and RSS feeds. This might be a slight concern for some people. In my case Twitter and are public and Facebook I largely keep private. Not only can you see your own links, but it’s possible to follow other people’s accounts and for other people to follow you. So if you’re adding links from private accounts into, you might want to make your account private too.

The reason I’m using is that it follows the places where I’m most likely to leave links at the moment. It’s also forgettable – and that’s a good thing. I could store links in or send links to a twitter account to keep track of them, but this often takes an effort. Whatever it is that I do end up doing there’s a good chance I’m tracking it with and I don’t consciously have to remember to update that account too to keep up to date with my links. I don’t know how easy it will be to search as the number of links grow, but for now it’s doing the job of tracking what I’m looking at well and it makes it much easier to scoot back and pull the links out for posts like tomorrow’s.

Were Archaic Homo Sapiens alone in Europe?

Neanderthal dating at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Neanderthal dating at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo by Neil R.

New dating shows that some Neanderthal remains are a lot older than had been previously thought. It’s led to a newsflap with the suggestion that Neanderthal sites had already been deserted before modern humans moved in to Europe. If you want to go to the source the full paper is in PNAS. However, if you’re planning a commemoration of the event, you won’t want to fix on a date quite yet.

Geoff Smith has gathered some dissenting opinions. Elsewhere John Hawks explains why there’s still room for doubt about the findings. One reason for the debate is that dating is a major part of archaeology, because we look to see if artefacts are before or after each other in date, or if they come from around the same time. The new dates change what we thought we knew about Neanderthal settlement in the Caucasus. At the same time archaeological isn’t just about gathering as much stuff as you can and arranging it in date order. It’s also about how remains relate to each other. Certain tool types are common with Neanderthal activity, so for some places if you find a lot of Middle Palaeolithic tools, but no Neanderthal bone. Pulling together different strands of independent evidence, at the moment it seems more likely that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did co-exist, not least the genetic evidence for interbreeding. It’s hard to see how interbreeding could happen if one of the partners wasn’t there at the time.

Photo: Homo Neanderthalensis: 50,000 Years Ago by Neil R. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

Can archaeology make a small contribution to Big History?

Via @williamjturkel comes news of the International Big History Association which is planning to hold its first conference in 2012 in Grand Valley, Michigan. Big History is a new term to me, though clearly it’s been around a while (PDF). The IBHA site defines it as “the attempt to understand, in a unified, interdisciplinary way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity”. This puzzles me. Humans occupy a fleeting small portion of the Cosmos’s past, so how do you pull this all together. David Christian made a presentation at TED.

Sadly my first reaction is that Big History takes a complex and majestic story and abridges it to the point of triviality. My first reaction to Smail’s Deep History wasn’t complimentary either. It’s not that there’s nothing to talk about but rather that combining the story of human action in the past with the biological foundation of human physiology is not new to archaeologists, particularly to Palaeolithic archaeologists. What won me over to Smail’s way of thinking is partly the reminder that Historians are not Archaeologists, and that this is novel to historians, and also Smail’s book On Deep History and the Brain. While cognitive science and neuroscience have an input in Palaeolithic archaeology, this influence seems to diminish as we get closer to an archaeology of the modern-day. There are some exceptions. Lambros Malafouris is exploring the possibility of a Neuroarchaeology of the Bronze Age. I’ve had a go at combining Extelligence and TXM to the classical period, but not with any success that I’d want to publish yet. I’d be delighted to see other examples in the comments, but I think the development of cognition is seen as an evolutionary problem in the palaeolithic more often than it’s seen as a continual learning problem in humans of all periods. It’s possible that Big History could provide a framework to pull similar work into more recent periods.
Continue reading Can archaeology make a small contribution to Big History?

DIY, Green Burials, and Mortuary Archaeology

Photo by Colleen Morgan

After digging up a few people, most archaeologists come up with a burial plan. One of my graduate student instructors back at my beloved alma mater, the University of Texas, was able to eventually date unmarked 19th century graves to within a year by the style of safety pin that was used to dress the body. He was an expert on all kinds of grave fittings, and knew how much each piece (coffin handles, hinges, etc) had cost–they were all listed in the Sears catalog and minor changes in design were easy to detect. He was going to pick a year and kit himself out perfectly in 19th century burial clothes, correct down to the safety pins, then clutch a shiny new penny in one of his hands.

I’ve heard of archaeologists wanting to get excarnated, donate their bones to their department, and of course, the ever-popular viking boat burial. Antiquated Vagaries has a couple of good posts on the graves of archaeologists, which usually allude to the subject that the archaeologist was investigating.

Cornelius Holtorf wrote about this phenomenon in his chapter in Archaeologies of Remembrance: Death and Memory in Past Societies wherein he writes about a Neolithic passage tomb in Sweden and the memorial for Wilhelm Ekman a few meters away, who died while excavating the tomb. (While this was in 1915, sadly these things happen even today when proper precautions aren’t taken.)

My specific chosen commemoration style has changed from time to time, but my general interest in “green” burials was piqued back in 2005, in the New Yorker article The Shroud of Marin by Tad Friend. In this he details the growing phenomenon of people wanting to be buried without concrete vaults, coffins, embalming, or even a tombstone. If there was a coffin or a tombstone, enterprising DIYers wanted to make it themselves. I was interested in this expression of the environmental movement made material in burials, and it continues to come up from time to time on sites like Boingboing and the Make Magazine Blog.

These updates emphasize the distance that has grown between the (primarily white, Western) bereaved and their dead. Death is now fully legislated, and permits are required for most steps of the burial process, from moving the dead body to digging the hole and placing the body in the ground.

So it was with avid interest that I read the newest archaeology-themed issue of Mortality, an academic journal “promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying.”

As widely-read as I attempt to be, I hadn’t heard of Mortality–I’ll have to rummage through their back-issues some point soon. In the introductory article, Howard Williams lays out the engagement that mortuary archaeologists have with contemporary death and what they can contribute to our understanding of modern death and death practices. One of the first points that Williams makes is that “the private, individualized and medicalized nature of death in Western modernity is extensively used by archaeologists as the antithesis of funerals in past, pre-industrial societies” (92). Beyond using modern practice as analogy, Williams also states that “Archaeologists are key stakeholders in current ethical, political and legal debates concerning death and the dead in contemporary society” (93), linking this status to issues of repatriation and reburial. I wonder if there is more to this linkage, this stakeholder status, than Williams allows.

Archaeologists are fairly unusual in the (white, Western) world in that we have a greater intimacy with death and decay. While we certainly deal in lifeways and birth, they are always seen through the yellowed lens of time. Even our contemporary archaeologies are informed by a disciplinary history of studying remains. We count it a boon in many ways–we’ve gained an understanding of materiality that is unparalleled in other disciplines. As contemporary as your archaeology may be, there is a good chance that as an archaeologist, you have dealt more fully with death and human remains than most people.

Our role in handling human remains has been greatly vilified, especially in North America where (white, Western) we are most certainly not handling the bones of our ancestors. We have come under such criticism that a lot of my colleagues will not excavate burials, nor handle them in any way. The intimacy is denied–we will sort through their trash but will not shake their hand. Fair enough. You do not have to brush the dirt off of someone’s pelvic curve to understand their house or their meals. But do we turn our backs on this knowledge entirely?

I wonder if there is a way to use this unusual relationship to death in order to serve (white? Western?) people. In a very specific example, can we help the people that wish to be buried in an environmentally friendly way while not running afoul of very good local laws that protect water tables and prevent disease? Can we use our knowledge of site depositional processes and decomposition, our understanding of burial practices around the world to help people come to terms with the inevitable? Or do we become just another person standing between the bereaved and their beloved? Is there an activist mortuary archaeology?