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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S18. Out of Sight, out of Mind? Visualisation Strategies for Evoking Memories of the Dead

Session organizers:

Estella Weiss-Krejci (Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology (OREA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Sebastian Becker (Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology (OREA), Austrian Academy of Sciences,

Session abstract:

Visualisation is an effective way to represent and commemorate the dead. This is especially true among non-literary societies because – unlike long narratives – vision has great power in telling a story in one image. But what message is conveyed? Is there a direct connection that binds vision to commemoration? Does non-visualisation of the dead promote forgetting? This session explores (1) how and by what means the dead are visually presenced by the living; (2) the interplay between mobile mortuary artifacts and stationary grave monuments; (3) the dynamic processes in which mortuary artifacts and monuments are produced, used, and staged; and (4) the significance of the material properties of such mnemonic devices. How are durable materials experienced in contrast to less durable ones; are specific properties (e.g. the durability of stone) specifically sought after and what is the role of more perishable materials (e.g. wood)?

In approaching the visualisation of the dead from these different yet interrelated perspectives, the session will attempt to identify some broader trends. For instance, are certain strategies of visualising the dead characteristic of certain periods in the archaeological record? What are the differences and similarities between the modes of visualisation employed by prehistoric and historical societies? By pursuing such questions, the session aims to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of mortuary visualisation through the combined knowledge of prehistoric and historical archaeology. Such archaeologically informed insights could potentially play a significant role in the formulation and implementation of heritage policies, by focusing on the social implications of commemorative practices. What can be learned from past visualisations of the dead and why might they matter in the 21st century?

This session invites papers dealing with all periods of the archaeological record as well as a diverse range of socio-cultural settings. We hope that this diversity will bring out some interesting underlying patterns in the visualisation of dead bodies, thus providing a uniquely diachronic perspective. Certainly, this issue is not only of interest to archaeologists, but also serves as a medium to better understand the presence of the dead in the world of the living.

Discussant: Catriona Gibson (University of Reading)

Contributor Abstracts: 

A Different Kind of Person? Graves and Grave Goods as Surrogates of the Dead in Prehistoric Europe

Sebastian Becker (Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology, Austrian Academy of Sciences)

Dead bodies assume a fundamental significance during funerary rituals, but that capacity often hinges on the strategic use of material culture. That is most obvious in the provision of grave goods which may elaborate or reflect certain components of an individual’s social identity. The same observation may apply to different types of funerary architecture, including their position in a wider landscape.

This paper explores a particular phenomenon in the materialisation of death: the extent to which objects and graves may replace the social identity of the dead. For instance, how can we explain the systematic absence of human remains in certain graves? Is, in such cases, the materiality of the grave (e.g. its visual and physical structure) more significant than the presence of a human body? And how to interpret the fact that certain grave goods may be systematically removed, rearranged or destroyed after a burial has taken place?

Drawing on case studies from prehistoric Central Europe, this paper illustrates the different ways in which material culture may thus act as a distinctive kind of social agent in mortuary contexts. Rather than merely reflecting or elaborating the social personae of the dead, it may, in fact, assume its own degree of personhood. 

Watchful Warriors: Visualising the Dead in Early Medieval Britain

Howard Williams (History and Archaeology, University of Chester)

Archaeological approaches to early medieval stone sculpture can enrich our appreciation of their materialities, biographies and spatialities, but also offer fresh perspectives on the mnemonic agency of figural art. Focusing on the mortuary visualisation of martial figures on tenth-/eleventh-century stone sculpture from northern Britain, this paper presents a new interpretation of their role as ‘corporeal assemblages’ of persons and things. By constituting an entanglement of the living and the dead in visual and material interactions, the dead were being visualised as sensing agents: watchful warriors.

Visualisation is More than a Body

Christopher Daniell (UK)

This paper will explore the different forms of visual remembrance in the late Medieval and Modern periods in England. Whilst the physical presence of a body was helpful, there were many other strategies which could be pursued, such as an effigy, image on a tomb, heraldry and even stained glass. None of these need be an accurate representation, rather they might evoke the ideal that wished to be portrayed.

One form of visual remembrance that does not involve a body at all are memorials entirely using words, a feature particularly of the Victorian era memorials. Consideration will be given to the nature of the memorials and the differences between the information that can be understood from artistic images and the word memorials.

What Remains: Strategies of Commemorating and Forgetting the Dead

Estella Weiss-Krejci (Oriental and European Archaeology, Austrian Academy of Sciences)

There exists large variation in visual representations of the dead across cultures. The paper investigates, from a cross-cultural perspective, the multiple modes of these visualisations and addresses the question if there exists a connection between vision and commemoration and non-vision and forgetting. It explores the relationship between durable and perishable mortuary monuments and artefacts and their role in funerary versus post-funerary events. In the latter case, human remains and associated artefacts are sometimes turned into devices that assume entirely new meaning and function (e.g. relics to cure the living, etc.). The paper also includes some preliminary results of a recently started HERA research project: ‘Deploying the Dead: Artefacts and human bodies in socio-cultural transformations’ (DEEPDEAD). This project, which examines historic and prehistoric encounters with human remains and related artefacts in England and Central Europe, sheds light on the cultural and social power of the long-dead and reveals what is constant and what is locally and historically specific in our ways of interacting with them. 

‘Grave Goods’ and ‘Continuing Bonds’: The Impact of Archaeology on Modern Perceptions of Death, Dying and Bereavement

Lindsey Büster (Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford), Karina Croucher (Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford) and Melanie Giles (Archaeology, University of Manchester)

Death is a unifying phenomenon across space and time; yet the manner in which death has been dealt with, from both a social and biological perspective, has varied greatly throughout history, and continues to be practised in diverse ways across the globe today. Death practices have much to tell us about our lives, and the ways in which we choose to live them. Two new AHRC-funded projects, the Grave Goods Project (a collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Reading, and the British Museum) and the Continuing Bonds Project (a collaboration between archaeologists and health practitioners at the University of Bradford and LOROS Hospice, Leicester) are using the diversity of past mortuary practices to challenge modern perceptions of death, dying and bereavement. A long durée study of later prehistoric burial rites across Britain (c. 4000 BC–AD 43) as part of the Grave Goods Project, will inform new and refurbished museum displays of burials in the British Museum’s prehistory gallery, accompanied by a series of visualisations and poems targeted at school-groups. Meanwhile, workshops tackling themes such as memorialisation and legacy, as part of the Continuing Bonds Project, use archaeology as a way of opening up and challenging the taboo subjects of death, dying and bereavement among health practitioners working in end-of-life care. This paper will outline some aims, aspirations and preliminary results from both projects and the value of the past in informing the present.


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