A day of archaeology and a ‘holiday’ by the graveside…

Hello! My name is Katherine and I am a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester. This is my first year contributing a post for the Day of Archaeology as, unlike last year in which I was stuck in the library shackled to a desk*, I actually have some fun stuff to write about!

My research project examines the practice of mortuary archaeology in the UK (confusingly, this is not the study of mortuaries, as I am often asked, but the archaeological investigation of past beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial instead!) and whether it has a wider role to play in contemporary society – one which goes beyond furthering our knowledge of the past. In particular, however, I am interested in the impact of ‘digging up the dead’ on archaeology practitioners. As such, I am exploring the effect of professional training on attitudes towards human remains, whether achieving a level of professionalism and expertise means subjugating emotional connections to the past and what bearing professionally-held conceptions of human remains have upon the construction of archaeological knowledge and the narratives that are produced for public consumption.

A ‘humerus’ picture in the unit’s warehouse…

To this end, much of the second year of my PhD has been spent interviewing lots of folk about their opinions on these matters and I am now spending the summer conducting ethnographic fieldwork with various organisations, including commercial archaeology units, field schools and museums. This involves observing and participating in daily life at each of my host sites, where I am exploring the assumptions and practices that underpin the process of mortuary archaeology and looking anew at the overlooked, the taken-for-granted and that which is considered routine.

On this most hallowed Day of Archaeology, I am currently ensconced in a very picturesque city in the north of England, where I have spent the past two weeks mithering the staff of a commercial archaeology unit (the deliberate vagueness here is an attempt to preserve anonymity!). The unit has very kindly allowed me to use their excavation of a medieval burial ground (which lurks underneath a car park, naturally) as a case study for my thesis and staff have agreed to be watched, photographed, sketched, interviewed and asked a whole bunch of silly questions.

However, what with being in such a beautiful city, the glorious weather and the break from reading and writing, I confess that I do feel a little like I’m on holiday and I am probably having entirely too much of a good time (I am definitely eating waaaaaay too much cake – archaeology is powered by sugar!). That said, I do go home at the end of each day covered in dirt and aching from head to toe, as I am digging alongside collecting my own data. For someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time in front of a computer screen, it has been a joy to re-discover my muscles and the great big ball of fire in the sky!

Today, amongst other things, I will be finishing up the paperwork for the burial I excavated yesterday. As it’s a Friday, however, we will down tools for the day a little earlier and there is talk of heading to the pub (this is where the best research takes place, honestly!) for a well-earned drink…or two – it is so hot today that I am actually hallucinating a nice cold pint! I will then throw myself on a train back to Manchester (I’m participating in tomorrow’s Festival of Archaeology at the Manchester Museum) and spend the journey typing up my field notes from the day and answering emails.

I have a couple more weeks left here and then I am off to my next site, but I will be sad to leave. The archaeologists here have made me feel incredibly welcome and allowed me access into their ‘secret’ world. It has been a real privilege to work alongside them and an even greater honour to excavate the remains of the dead which, shockingly, is actually my first time. As a result, this has provided me with a whole wealth of additional material based on my own personal reflections and feelings. The challenge is how I am going to analyse and write all of this up…but that will, perhaps, be the topic of next year’s post!

*I’m not really complaining, I do actually love my PhD!