The archaeology of death and burial is inherently public archaeology. This is not only because it is the archaeology of past people investigated through their remains, but because graves and memorials hold prominent places in the public imagination and in museum displays. Funerary archaeology also directly connects stories of past lives and past deaths with experiences and anxieties surrounding mortality and commemoration today. Engaging with the archaeology of death and burial is in part about exploring one's own mortality, and beliefs and perceptions about death and the dead. Confronting past mortality via archaeology therefore engages modern people with mortuary remains and contexts in terms of the human past, the human present, and our imagined, aspired and feared corporeal and spiritual futures (Williams and Williams 2007; Sayer 2010a; 2010b).
Despite rapid changes in, and self-critical evaluations of, the legal and socio-political context of mortuary archaeology in recent years in the UK and globally (e.g. Giesen 2013; Jenkins 2011; Parker Pearson et al. 2013; Sayer 2010a; 2010b; Williams 2009; chapters in Williams and Giles forthcoming), much of the debate remains rooted in physical space and tangible materials. This applies as much to fieldwork sites, museums, laboratories and classrooms as it does to corporeal remains themselves, and includes how and when it is appropriate to display and study human remains, as well as debates over reburial and repatriation. Whether we are discussing the consultation process surrounding the request for reburial of human remains held in the Keiller Museum, Avebury (Thackray and Payne 2010), or the discovery of remains identified as Richard III in Leicester (Buckley et al. 2013), the physicality of mortuary remains, their location and context of discovery remain key to their power and significance in the contemporary world.
To date, digital dimensions to these debates are notable in their absence. The digital age has transformed how we communicate and access archaeology, including the creation of new and varied public engagements with the archaeological dead. A large fraction of the worldwide population could, if they wished, access and explore mortuary archaeology outside the dig, the museum and the monument. Increasingly, reports and images of the archaeological dead populate television, films, video games and a range of applications on computers and mobile devices, offering new and varied virtual worlds of mortuary archaeology for public consumption. Yet somewhat perversely, this shift has escaped detailed investigation by archaeologists themselves, despite the fact that digital technologies are fundamentally transforming how we conduct and communicate our research into death, burial and commemoration.
To date, there have been no dedicated studies of the range and character of archaeology's engagement with digital media – including both its factual and fictional dimensions – from the perspective of human mortality and the archaeology of death and burial. Archaeologists have not attempted to discuss and agree best practice in affording appropriate respect and professional conduct to mortuary archaeology online, let alone to query and criticise bad practice in how we write about and envision the digital dead (although see Meyers and Williams 2014; Meyers and Killgrove 2014; Meyers Emery and Killgrove 2015). Furthermore, there has been no critical engagement regarding how we best actively promote public and community archaeologies using mortuary remains in virtual environments. This has led to a range of odd double-standards; we passionately debate how we display human remains in museums with sensitivity and respect for past communities and contemporary stakeholders, and yet millions of images and incalculable quantities of writing about human bodies and mortuary contexts from both the distant and recent past are freely available online. Moreover, only a fraction of these retain any discernible context explaining the provenance, date and the historical and cultural significance of the remains and contexts depicted and discussed.
In a forthcoming paper, archaeologist Duncan Sayer and sociologist Tony Walter recognise and explore the vast potential of online media in revealing public attitudes to mortuary archaeology. Complementing their study, this article takes an alternative approach by briefly surveying the scope and variability of the online presence of the archaeological dead, before identifying ways of expanding and enhancing mortuary archaeology's public and community engagements through the development of a new specific subfield: 'digital public mortuary archaeology' (DPMA).
We outline the potential of DPMA to create new digital communities engaging with mortuary contexts and practices through archaeology. We identify some critical issues in this first statement on a topic that will hopefully become a long-running conversation and debate between archaeologists and the public. At the time of writing, we argue that the potential of DPMA has remained largely untapped and equally its many challenges and pitfalls are yet to be appraised.