We hope to encourage archaeologists to directly contribute their thoughts on the issues around exhuming, studying and curating the ancient dead. The topic is a complex and emotive one; one where, for a rounded view, HAD believes we should hear all perspectives.
Human remains, a personal view from an archaeologist
Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service
Excavation and post-excavation funding has been provided by the Ministry of Defence, Defence Infrastructure Organisation.
Most of my working life has revolved around the excavation ad recording of human burials. By chance I was in charge of an archaeological evaluation in which we unexpectedly discovered an Early Anglo-Saxon burial ground and over the course of several years we excavated nearly 400 burials. These burials were threatened with destruction from development and it was this threat that necessitated their excavation which was funded, through the planning process by the developers who also made provision for many years of a post-excavation project that is now coming to a conclusion.
Digging burials is a very personal experience, and for me it is not an objective process but a deeply intense experience during which you feel an attachment to the people and a desire to find out more about them. I have worked with many archaeologists over the years and we all respond differently, but on encountering these people buried with their personal possessions we were led to imagine their funerals, their personal appearance, the family left behind and their lives. Digging is a meticulous process, we uncovered, photographed, drew and lifted every object individually, (including over two and a half thousand beads) and every piece of human bone; recording the position of the body in relation to the objects, soil changes and stains indicating where wooden objects had rotted. It is this attention to detail that has enabled us to reconstruct parts of their lives in the post-excavation process.
We have discovered how tall they were, their age at death, some diseases and dietary deficiencies and the presence of traumas, both healed in life and at death. This can tell us about their quality of life, despite the prevalence of weapons in the male burials, evidence of trauma was in fact very low, even for the everyday accidents you’d expect in every society. We have looked at hereditary conditions and can suggest family groupings within the cemeteries; we can consider the impact of wealth and status on the burial rituals and we can speculate about the importance of the places of the dead to the living. Was it a place to come back to for quiet reflection, advice from the ancestors….or wild parties at festival time? From the objects we have been able to examine metal and glass working techniques, identify the remains of 1500 year old textiles made from wool and linen, we can tell what wood they used for their spears, shields, knife handles, boxes and bowls and we can see that some objects have been repaired. Are these heirlooms, or important items for an afterlife, indicative of a society that cannot afford, or has no wish, to casually dispose of items once they are damaged?
Since we started excavating these individuals we have seen huge advances in the scientific techniques available to us which has allowed us to delve deeper into their lives. We have been able to tell something about their diet from studies of stable isotope in the bones and we also know that the famous ‘warrior’ buried with his horse was born in East Anglia around about 475 AD. In my first talks in the late 1990’s I used to speculate about DNA potential in 30-50 years time, we are now able to extract the DNA of these people, and it survives. Seeing images of their DNA feels like discovering them all over again.
Throughout these studies we have never lost the connection with the people, whether it is learning about their physical characteristics, lifestyle, crafts or skills. But what the last 15 years have taught me is that our capacity to learn from these studies is ever expanding, we have been able to carry out analyses for this publication that we didn’t think would be possible even when we put the project design together so who knows what might be possible to find out from them in just a few more years time? It is certainly the case that the more you look, the more you find, we shall finish this project having identified numerous future potential research projects which will tell us more about our ancestors; the people who made us English, and who knows, perhaps if we can learn about and respect our forebears and the lives they led, it might help us better understand our place in this country’s human journey. And I am certain that I want to be buried not cremated, so that one day, perhaps, someone will try to find out about me.