The Medieval ‘Living Dead’

As a mortuary archaeologist, I explore graves and tombs, memorials and monuments, buildings and landscapes. I look not only at spaces dedicated to the dead and their memory – cemeteries and mausolea, but also how the dead, in many societies and cultures, are integrated into domestic and public, sacred and secular buildings.

In 21st-century multi-faith, multi-cultural Britain, the principal churches of the established church – cathedrals – retain a widespread significance for worship, pilgrimage, tourism and the commemoration of the dead and I am exploring how the dead are given material form, interpreted and reinterpreted within these environments, configuring, national, regional, local, community, family and personal memories.
Through cathedrals, one of my research interests is to consider how the dead ‘live on’, not as mummies or preserved remains, but through material culture and monuments that sometimes endure for centuries. These monuments can rightly be discussed as having ‘biographies’ of use and reuse, acquiring different responses over time.

The tomb effigy of 'Lord Rhys', St Davids Cathedral
The tomb effigy of ‘Lord Rhys’, St Davids Cathedral

In this regard, it seems appropriate to report on my latest public talk at the University of Worcester on Wednesday night. I focused on some of my preliminary findings from the Leverhulme Trust project Speaking with the Dead.

Using St David’s Cathedral as a case study, I explored the ‘Living Medieval Dead’ within cathedral spaces. This is part of the ERC funded Past in its Place project, exploring literary and archaeological engagements with medieval and modern tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals.

I am posing the question: how do the medieval dead ‘live on’ in the late-modern cathedral? Who are the medieval living-dead?

By ‘living dead’, I don’t mean zombies, ghosts or other supernatural forces, but the physical presence of the dead in both named and unnamed, individual and collective, effigial, artistic and non-representational forms, that populate cathedrals and their environs.

In almost all cases, these medieval memorials and monuments, relics and bones, are swamped by a vastly greater number of post-medieval memorials, and yet they retain a power within cathedrals in articulating the histories and people associated with the building and often the deep-time mythical and historical origins of these institutions. Therefore, I’m interested in how the medieval dead ‘live on’ during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries in the sense of enduring presences in social memory through their materiality and incorporation into the official histories and guides of the cathedral space.

I outlined how this approach might apply to St David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire. For the purposes of the talk, the way I introduced this topic was to outline our obsession with creating dead celebrities – named individuals whose identity is inscribed and represented onto cathedral space and honoured accordingly. I talked about how archaeology often finds itself complicit in strategies to ‘fix’ and ‘name’, envision and embody such identities within cathedrals through excavations elsewhere, or excavations within cathedrals. The classic recent example of this is Richard III, but the Worcester pilgrim, in discussion afterwards, was a logical local example.

The tomb of Edmund Tudor and shrine of St David, St Davids Cathedral
The tomb of Edmund Tudor and shrine of St David, St Davids Cathedral

Through the case study of St Davids, this theme can be applied to a range of material traces that are, or purport to be, medieval in origin. I explored examples of such naming and re-naming over the centuries, including shrines and tombs that most certainly do commemorate specific legendary and historical personages from St Davids and St Caradoc to Edmund Tudor, a deacon and a few bishops.

Then there are those monuments that have acquired commemorate historical personages, from the tombs purported to commemorate the Lord Rhys to the effigy of Gerald of Wales. These are equally ‘living’ presences in the cathedral, even if the association is likely fictive and contrived to satisfy a desire for the tombs within the cathedral to ‘speak’ as named individuals.

The tomb of 'Gerald of Wales', St Davids Cathedral
The tomb of ‘Gerald of Wales’, St Davids Cathedral

Yet I also made the point that shrines and tombs linked to named medieval people are not the only way in which the medieval dead ‘live on’ in memory for those working in and visiting this holy place. I also talked about the power of the unnamed medieval dead in the medieval cathedral – most effigy tombs of medieval date have no surviving inscriptions, having been dislocated from their original locations in former centuries. Most are now simply ‘tombs of unknown priest’. Others ‘live on’ through the inclusion of grave-goods disturbed during excavations of medieval (bishops’) graves in the cathedral treasury.

A further way in which the medieval dead ‘live on’ and populate cathedral space are through the names that have no correlation in the historical record. For St Davids, examples include the collection of early medieval stone sculpture now on display within the cathedral gatehouse and also incorporated into an altar in the church.

Early Medieval stone sculpture, on display in the gatehouse at St Davids Cathedral
Early Medieval stone sculpture, on display in the gatehouse at St Davids Cathedral

A final dimension discussed was the citation of the medieval dead in post-medieval memorials and tomb art; how medieval forms are re-contextualised and re-formulated within new memorials. At St David’s, this applies to an early medieval effigy tomb, an early 20th-century bishop’s tomb, and the disturbing tomb of Lady Maidstone…

In summary, my talk presented a new way of considering the collective and individual nature of the medieval dead in the late-modern cathedral, and how, partly through design and management, partly through happenstance and cumulative processes, the medieval dead populate and constitute a network of stories and memories within cathedrals.

Howard Williams Bsc MA PhD FSA
Professor of Archaeology, Dept. of History & Archaeology, University of Chester
Honorary Editor, The Archaeological Journal

“Do you actually dig and stuff?” Archaeology aside from the artifacts.

I was at a party last night—one with a very long line for the bathroom. While I was waiting, the girl in front of me struck up a conversation about my work as a graduate student in archaeology.

“Oh wow! So do you go to lots of places?” she asked.

“Yes! I’ve dug in Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, and Virginia.” I replied.

“Really? You actually dig and stuff?” she responded incredulously.

“Yep! I’ve actually dug in all those places. Although, my work is more focused on the people who are affected by archaeological projects. I do a lot of interviewing people in the communities around archaeological sites, asking them what they care about, how much they want to be involved in the excavation, how we can work to be respectful of their needs and desires. So my work is more about the people than the artifacts.”

“Wow,” she answered, and paused. “But, so… do you actually find stuff when you dig?”

This conversation was almost a direct playback of hundreds of conversations I’ve had. If you’re here, surely you agree that archaeology is really cool. Tons of people are eager to learn more about it. I can’t count the number of times a bank teller or fellow dog-owner or high-school acquaintance has told me that their childhood dream was to be an archaeologist.

Although their admission can sometimes be based on a romanticization of archaeology, I actually don’t find this to be the case most of the time. Indeed, many people have read articles in news sources like the Chicago Tribune and the National Science Foundation, or work by archaeologists including Cornelius Holtorf and Anne Pyburn, who have written about the differences between popular presentations of archaeology and the realities of excavation. These discussions are really important to have; as they point out, the swashbuckling, finders-keepers image of archaeology that we are used to from movies like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft leads to real misunderstandings of just how scientific and meticulous archaeological excavation is, and justifies the removal of artifacts from their original contexts or from the possession of the people to whom they rightfully belong.

But even these conversations do little to help non-archaeologists understand just how diverse the discipline of archaeology is. Yes, we measure the specific find-spots of artifacts instead of snatching them and running off. And yes, we record absolutely everything we can from soil color and texture to what tools we used to remove the earth. And yes, we collect, document, and conserve the artifacts that we find.

And then there are some of us, like me, who ask questions that are very indirectly related to the artifacts. For example, more and more archaeologists identify themselves as practitioners of public archaeology, a really broadly-encompassing term that refers to archaeology seeking to involve non-specialists in archaeological research. It can take the form of educating members of the public about archaeological work, or involving descendant community members in planning and executing and excavation, or training local people in analysis and conservation strategies. This blog, in fact, is an example of public archaeology!

Ironically, most non-archaeologists do not know that this sub-discipline is emerging within the larger field of archaeology. When I explain my work, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Is that really archaeology?” And I can’t very well be offended—public archaeology sits in this uncomfortable place where it is still new enough that non-practitioners don’t know about it, even though its entire goal is engaging non-practitioners!

So, in the interest of broadening ideas of what constitutes ‘archaeology,’ I will tell a little bit about my research which, yes, is really archaeology, but might look a little different from what one would expect.

For the past four years, I have been working with the local communities at Petra in Jordan and at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, asking them about their perspectives on the archaeological work that has been completed at these sites. My interest is especially in talking to the men and women who have been employed to work on these projects, to understand what only they know about the sites from both living and working there.

Allison map

You see, since archaeology began—particularly in the Middle East—excavations have relied on massive gangs of locally-hired laborers to move the soil and expose the remains (see below). In some cases, like the Quftis in Egypt, these workers were trained in specialized excavation techniques and in turn trained their sons, so on through the generations. One group of workmen in Iraq were hired consistently on projects for nearly 100 years!


Workers from Leonard Woolley's expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum's blog:
Workers from Leonard Woolley’s expedition at Ur. Photograph from the Penn Museum’s blog:

Petra and Çatalhöyük were both excavated starting in the mid-20th century. These are sites where groups of locally-hired workers acquired unique expertise from working on project after project, season after season, as well as growing up amid these archaeological remains. They learned from their family, they learn from archaeologists, and most importantly they learned from firsthand experience. They became experts in archaeology, without any formal training.

These locally-hired diggers, however, never participated in the documentation, analysis, and publication of the archaeology. This means that their privileged and expert observations and perceptions of the remains have gone formally unrecorded, only handed down through oral history. This is what I aim to recover in my work. By interviewing the people whose families have worked for decades on archaeological projects at these two sites, I’m uncovering some stories and information that has never been recorded before, which can help us to learn even more about the archaeology of both of these exciting places.


The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.
The author interviewing Huseyin Veli Yasli in Küçükköy about his experiences as a site worker at Çatalhöyük. Photograph by Tunc Ilada.

So yes, I do dig for artifacts, but what I really love digging for is stories from some archaeologists who have never been recognized as the experts they are. And yes, I travel to lots of places, but when I get there I go into peoples’ homes, if they are kind enough to invite me in, and I record their memories. And yes (as I hope you agree!) what I do really is archaeology.

Allison Mickel is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University.