"Mortuary archaeologists shed light on the very best and worst of humanity": 5 minutes with Howard Williams
We caught up with Howard Williams ahead of our Chester History Weekend 2019, where he will be speaking about the popular culture and politics of archaeological investigations of the dead
What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
Combining scientific techniques and rich human stories, the archaeology of death can be fascinating, touching, unsettling and horrifying. Mortuary archaeologists shed light on the very best and worst of humanity’s beliefs and behaviours – from prehistory to recent times.
My talk will explore the ethical challenges facing archaeologists who deal with the dead, and our responsibilities and practices. I will focus on a recent high-profile story in one key area of my research: the Viking Age in Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia (cAD 750−1100). Looking at the scholarship and media receptions regarding ‘Viking warrior-women’, my talk is about what Viking archaeologists can learn from the dead, plus the responsibilities we have regarding how we dig, analyse, publish and disseminate our research in the digital age.
Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
In one sense, all ‘mortuary archaeology’ is public archaeology: our evidence is widely used in heritage sites, museums, schools and popular literature. It is also regularly appropriated and misrepresented in the media and fictional representations of the past. Archaeologists, consequently, are increasingly scrutinising the uses and significance of their mortuary evidence in contemporary society; this is a fascinating subject, taking us from the use of DNA in identity politics to how TV shows portray past funerals.
Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…
The talk will surprise people because it challenges some of the preconceived notions about women and death in the Viking Age. Perhaps it will shock people in showing that scholars can be misled as much as the general public.
Where is your favourite historical place to visit?
Focusing on places related to this particular talk, I would recommend visiting both the site of Balladoole on the Isle of Man: the site of an excavated Viking boat grave uncovered in 1945 by German archaeologist and refugee Gerhard Bersu, and the finds on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas.
Which history book made the most impact on you?
As an archaeologist, I see being a historian as a narrow, specialist way of studying the human past: it’s a diverse sub-set of archaeological research. Most new research that impacts on my research won’t appear in monographs, but in edited books and journal articles. Still, for Viking-period research, three books have been influential on me and integrate historical and archaeological research in different fashions: Marianne Hem Eriksen’s Architecture, Society and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia (CUP, 2019); Alexandra Sanmark’s Viking Law and Order (Edinburgh University Press, 2017); Stephen H. Harrison and Raghnall Ó Floinn’s Viking Graves and Grave-Goods in Ireland (National Museum of Ireland, 2014).
Which area of history would you like to see made into a film or television series?
While my talk is on Viking-period archaeology and history, I think it is the 5th−8th centuries AD in Britain and Ireland that suffer most from woeful television documentaries and fictional portrayals on both film and television. There is so much potential for richer and more informed stories about the Early Middle Ages to be told about these fascinating centuries, their complexity and diversity, that remain untold on television.
Howard Williams is a professor of archaeology at the University of Chester and researches mortuary archaeology and the archaeology of remembrance.
He will be speaking about the popular culture and politics of archaeological investigations of the dead at our Chester History Weekend