6. Critical Concerns With DPMA

So far, we might be taken as advocating a range of DPMA activities as an online panacea for communicating and engaging the wider public in mortuary archaeology's theories, methods and data. However, this needs balancing by identifying a series of interconnected criticisms regarding the current spectrum and emphases of digital engagements with mortuary archaeology. In this regard, we echo broader concerns regarding the uncritical use of the social web by archaeologists, recently reviewed by Perry and Beale (2015), as well as further specific dimensions related directly to mortuary archaeology.

6.1 The hegemony of cadavers and skeletons

Our first concern relates to the popular regard for corporeal mortuary archaeology: bodies and skeletons (e.g. Giles 2009). Bioarchaeologists – particularly graduate students and early career scholars – have pioneered the development of digital engagement over other dimensions of mortuary archaeology (e.g. Meyers and Killgrove 2014). Furthermore, public engagement with mortuary archaeology inevitably focuses on the more visually engaging and human-like traces of the dead in the human past. Hence fleshed cadavers and articulated skeletons take precedence over the widespread discovery of fragmented and disarticulated human remains, such as prehistoric cremation burials or medieval charnel deposits. Likewise, contexts where human remains are absent, including memorials, seem to receive far less attention than the detailed, even obsessive, attention afforded to the human corpse (see papers in Williams and Giles forthcoming).

Cadaver- and bone-focused DPMA affords little space to other aspects relating to death, including graffiti, memorials, transient monuments, cenotaphs and portable material cultures and artefacts. Yet these are among the many material dimensions of human experiences and responses to dying, death and the dead as important as human remains. In short, the use of DPMA could be encouraged to broaden and critically tackle the diversity of human remains and mortuary contexts encountered by archaeologists. In doing so, we can embrace a wider range of heritage sites and landscapes, and engage the public with their mortuary components – from prehistoric settlements to historic churchyards – as well as break away from a focus on human remains as the principal conduit of engagement with the archaeological dead.

6.2 Obsessions with mortuary 'celebrities' and 'freaks'

Even for cadavers and articulated skeletons, not all the dead are treated equally in the popular dissemination and consumption of mortuary archaeology. The focus on what might be called 'celebrity' and 'freak' corpses risk dominating DPMA. This is epitomised in the hunt for dead historical personages that, for the UK, is exemplified by the search for King Richard III (see above). The success of this project has seen a raft of other royal projects and proposals, including the possible discovery of bones that once belonged to Alfred the Great, Henry I, King Stephen and Shakespeare. While past elites are an ubiquitous focus of archaeological narratives worldwide, it is important we counter attempts to write high-status histories and osteobiographies of individuals without paying attention to the wider communities in which they operated in life and death.

Further categories of human remains spark popular interest; for instance those perceived as transgressing social norms, as well as those disposed of as 'deviants', such as the widely reported Eastern European vampire burials.

Assemblages of tombs, memorials and graves need to be envisioned and written about in innovative ways rather than focusing on isolated and exceptional graves. DPMA needs to ensure that past societies, their variability and changes through time, are not drowned in a sea of past celebrities and anecdotal oddities.

The converse situation is equally challenging, reducing all discoveries to examples of normative cultural practices relating to 'death in the Middle Ages' or death 'among the Romans'. In summary, DPMA needs to work harder to communicate its narratives about living and dying in the human past. It needs to strike a balance between the individual and the collective, between the exceptional and the commonplace. It might be justified to afford attention to striking and exceptional individual burials and sometimes to discuss entire populations and communities. Yet the risks of taking each direction to extremes are clear. The former risks creating dead celebrity immortals outside of their contexts. The latter threatens to promote a misleading impression of cultural and social normativity over time and space in past mortuary practice in which individuality and variability is suppressed.

6.3 Valorising science and discovery

A further area of criticism is that digital engagements with mortuary archaeology currently tend to be discovery-orientated and science-focused. Despite the potential for debating ethical and socio-political aspects of mortuary archaeology, with the exception of some blogs discussed above, digital media is theory-light and empirical. This is not to denigrate innovative digital resources created for the scientific investigation of human remains and mortuary contexts. Digitised Diseases and apps such as Dactyl, which create digital 3D objects/replicas of human remains, offer a striking and original use of digital media by osteologists. However, these are often not specifically designed to communicate 'mortuary archaeology' but rather provide a resource for those who study it, even though they can be accessed by anyone. One might also add that the focus here is upon bones, not the contexts in which they are discovered, so the popular audience is at least one step removed from mortuary interpretation. It remains the case that DPMA currently valorises discovery and scientific applications rather than wider multidisciplinary debates and contexts in which mortuary archaeology operates.

6.4 Museum and professional disengagement

A fundamental problem remaining with DPMA is professional and museological reticence. Ironically, the websites of museums seem far more reluctant to display the dead online. Given these institutions are the traditional public repositories for the human remains and associated material assemblages that comprise the archaeological dead, this is a somewhat bizarre situation. Presumably this situation is in part the result of a retrenchment and re-evaluation of the role of the museum as a voice of authority and as custodians of the archaeological dead (Jenkins 2011); many museums with online collections limit themselves to including mortuary objects, but not human remains. It might also relate to the fear of de-contextualising human remains (see below). This applies to major British museum collections, such as those of Manchester Museum. Interestingly, while the online collection of Manchester Museum does not include human remains, there was an entire project by the associated University of Manchester (in partnership with the Natural History Museum) to do just that with the Revisiting the Archaeological Survey of Nubia Project.

There is evidence that this is beginning to change, whether it is a review of museums' positions based on policies and guidelines or simply that the timeframes for such endeavours are now reaching a point where these accessioned objects are visible to the public online. The British Museum, for example, has recently begun including human remains in addition to other mortuary objects in their online databases. However, as above, these projects too are primarily aimed at individuals conducting research on the collections rather than offering interpretations and engaging the non-specialist.

This problem is not restricted to museums but applies to other archaeological and heritage institutions. There seems to be a lack of DPMA by archaeologists, when compared with how much non-digital mortuary archaeology is fed into the public arena. The blogs, social media and other digital resources are used by many to highlight public mortuary archaeology opportunities such as workshops or events, but more rarely are these same platforms used to engage digital audiences. Examples here include the on-going Bones of Contention Project by MBArchaeology.

There are likely to be many reasons that institutions and individuals do not participate in DPMA engagement. In addition to issues related to time and money and the associated prioritisation of tasks, other issues common to all digital public archaeology may include (but are not limited to) perceived difficulty or lack of training in digital media skills, as well as a lack of visible or proven benefits (Richardson 2014).

Among mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists, there is also little formal discussion on the practice. As far as we are aware, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and other leading UK and US organisations have no position statements on the digital dead, despite these organisations having ethical guidelines for the excavation, handling, and storage of human remains. Similarly, guidelines and protocols for the display of human remains in museums have yet to be updated for digital displays. Where formal discussion is lacking, there are examples of individuals adapting these guidelines for use in digital media (see Dactyl app, above).

In addition to the lack of guidance from professional organisations, archaeologists working under Ministry of Justice licenses frequently encounter a strange double standard with regard to the archaeological dead. Although licenses recommend that human remains under excavation are screened from public view, thus limiting digital and non-digital public mortuary archaeology, the proliferation of digital media, photographs and videos of the same individuals often end up in the public eye.

In all of the instances above, there is often mention of 'respect and dignity for the dead', but what this actually entails – either physically or digitally – is a matter of opinion. Legal and ethical concerns, as well as a fear of appearing 'morbidly curious', surely restrict governmental and institutional initiatives in DPMA. Likewise, there are real concerns over the potential misinterpretation and misuse of research and interpretations. Together it is likely they create a powerful force of inertia against using the social web for mortuary archaeology, especially for generations of researchers less confident in the use of the Internet for archaeological purposes. Exploring the motives for this is clearly a priority for future research. Therefore, DPMA seems to remain an academic and individual public activity, but one in which major archaeological and heritage organisations have little active involvement at present.

6.5 The curse of context

DPMA brings with it a new concern over the ethics of mortuary archaeology; we are no longer confining our debates to specific locales, but exposing the dead through the medium of the digital world for all to see, including people from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds, different ages and gender orientations. A simple Internet search will face you with thousands of images of contextless human remains, memorials and tombs from across the world and from throughout time. There are numerous narratives, not all factually accurate, filling the web relating to these images. Moreover, the very possibility of searches for images and key words fosters a dislocation of the dead from their contexts of discussion, an empowering but also potentially threatening dimension for archaeologists to communicate the dead in context. Freedom from context, linear narratives and restricting hierarchies of data can be attractive, and this unstructured and context-free distribution embraces calls for greater ceding of archaeological authority and the promise of multi-vocality in archaeological research (Richardson 2013; 2014).

However, this situation can undermine attempts to afford historical and cultural context, respect and sensitivity to past people and contemporary stakeholders. Moreover, the dislocation of mortuary remains from context threatens the ability of DPMA to choreograph powerful, potentially disturbing and emotive engagements with human mortality in a sensitive manner. The promise of more public participation and ownership of authority (see Richardson 2013, 5) may not be a necessary and constructive dimension in dealing with sensitive issues of human mortality.

6.6 Public participation

A major problem with digital archaeology generally, which certainly applies to DPMA at present, is that it remains the work of students, scholars and some professionals hoping to engage 'the public', but with little specific and clear direction and participation by the public themselves (see also Richardson 2013, 6–8). There are models that might be readily developed here. For example, there are websites that are set up by enthusiasts of particular dimensions of mortuary archaeology dedicated to support and disseminate interest in particular kinds of mortuary remains that might be enhanced. For example, the Megalithic Portal (see Richardson 2014) and the Modern Antiquarian allow users to augment pages for archaeological sites with comments and images. While less open, the websites of societies can incorporate a range of detailed information about mortuary monuments. For example, the 'county guide' of the Church Monuments Society includes a wide range of churches and their memorials, described and interpreted by experts in their study and available open access.

To take another example, Victorian cemeteries provide a focus of complex mortuary heritage, and they are simultaneously listed as Parks and Gardens in England. Yet many of them have detailed websites including histories of the cemeteries and the memorials, as with London's Kensal Green and Highgate. Some have online records of memorials and burial registers, creating a versatile resource for those studying death, burial and commemoration, including family and local historians as well as historians and archaeologists. For example, Chester's Victorian Overleigh cemetery has an online database provided by Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, as well as details of notable graves available on a virtual tour by local author and guide Steve Howe. The 2014 York 'Heritage Jam' provides innovative examples of how digital technology might be utilised to explore these complex communities of the dead, giving attention to the living people behind the memorials, as well as new experiences of the commemorative environment itself. Therefore, DPMA initiatives have yet to become fully engaged with the range and character of mortuary archaeology projects and interpretations.