Excavation & Emotion

I have been asking archaeologists how they go about their work as professionals and people as part of my PhD research in which I am exploring what impact emotion has on the practice of UK mortuary archaeology. I have interviewed and worked alongside field, forensic, academic, student and museum archaeologists, as well as osteologists and bioarchaeologists. It has been a real honour for me to hear their stories about working with the remains of the dead and I am grateful to each and every one of them for sharing them with me – from hilarious incidents to ghostly encounters, moments of intense sadness to the thrill of discovery.


– Katherine Crouch –


Katherine is currently studying for a PhD in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester, where she is researching the practice of UK mortuary archaeology – the archaeological investigation of past practices relating to death and burial – and its emotive impact upon its practitioners. With an interest in rituals, responses and superstitions towards death, dying and the dead across time and the globe, you can follow Katherine on Twitter where she shares articles about archaeological discoveries and contemporary news items relating to issues of mortality.

Excavation & Emotion: archaeological encounters with the dead

Final resting places are often not final at all. On an island where open space is becoming increasingly precious, the needs of the living population have come to take precedence over any possible rights of the dead to rest in eternal peace. As such, thousands of human remains – from dry bones to fleshed corpses – are excavated each year in England by archaeologists ahead of commercial development. Using the example of the infamous Spitalfields excavation of the ‘recently’ dead, this post explores the challenges that can arise in encounters with archaeological human remains and the impact of disturbing the dead upon practitioners of mortuary archaeology.

Christ Church

Christ Church with All Saints, Spitalfields, London.

Photograph by Peter Pelisek via Flickr Creative Commons


“The mummified tissue was autopsied and cremated along with an amount of other mummified tissue, while the bones were recovered and put with the rest of the skeletons for research purposes. This partition of an individual distressed some of the excavators, who were reassured by the local clergy that God would fit individual 2287 back together when necessary, and that there was more of 2287 surviving than, say, an atom blast victim, and they were not barred from the afterlife” (Baxter 2003: 128).

It is October 1984 and archaeologists have just begun work on a ground-breaking project at Christ Church with All Saints in Spitalfields, East London. Over the next two years, they will carefully remove the remains of 1000 individuals from its crypt – 400 of which will be successfully identified through coffin breastplates and inscriptions – who were laid to rest between 1729 and 1859 (Reeve and Adams 1993: 1).  As such, the excavation will come to garner quite the reputation, not only for its contribution to archaeological knowledge – both furthering our understanding of 18th and 19th century funerary practices and establishing a unique named and provenanced sample of human remains for further research – but also for the psychological impact it has upon its workforce (ibid). If you’re wondering what became of the Spitalfields human remains, they are now curated by the Natural History Museum in London.

Crypt excavations tend to confront archaeologists with particularly unusual challenges, caused by both the environmental conditions found within such dark and dank spaces, as well as the potential risk of disease. At Spitalfields, the primary cause of concern is the possibility that spores of viable smallpox virus might survive in lead coffin-encased human tissue and project directors have therefore spent a year in consultation with various public health bodies to establish suitable protocols (ibid: 17). As it happens, small pox lesions are discovered on remains in the vaults, but are not found to be infectious (ibid: 18).

In the concern over the deadly pathogens that may or may not be present in the crypt, however, together with the unique nature of the project at this time, far more “insidious health risks” are unfortunately overlooked (ibid:17). As a result of working in the gloomy, cramped and poorly-ventilated crypt, together with the exposure to human remains in varying states of preservation, morale amongst the team members dwindles as the excavation continues apace (ibid). The amount of time lost to excavators experiencing “lingering colds, flu, depression, lethargy and minor infections” steadily increases and of the twelve long-term members of staff, it is telling that six will terminate their contracts early, whilst five others will only work for a few weeks before leaving the project (ibid: 17-18). Of interest to readers of this blog is that the team predominantly consisted of women, selected for their ability to work as a tight-knit and supportive unit (Reeve and Adams 1993: 18), which opens up all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship between women and death, but I digress…

Skeletons of Spitalfields

Whilst the quality of this video is not great, it does provide a good overview of the Spitalfields excavation, including the impact of working with the ‘recently’ dead on its team members.


While many archaeologists will state that they are comfortable with working with human remains that are medieval or earlier in date (even if this is not always entirely true…), they are not necessarily well-acquainted – unless they are forensic specialists – with the challenges of working with the more recently dead (Cox 1997). Such remains are not only temporally ‘closer’ to us, but may also look very much more identifiably human. As such, whilst the archaeological excavation and investigation of human remains is an experience which is generally regarded by its practitioners as a privilege, nevertheless, there is undoubtedly something both fascinating and disquieting about the bodies of the dead as they are encountered through archaeology – particularly those that retain hair, flesh or nails.

Such remains may be perceived as abject or uncanny, seemingly cheating death  and appearing ‘alive’ through their lack of decomposition, thereby disturbing the boundaries between what we consider ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (Wallace 2004: 55). As Cox states, to disturb the dead “is a taboo deeply engrained in any culture where burial is the norm” (CBA 1994 cited in Boyle 1999: 197). Exhumation is a fundamentally transgressive practice and the more closely the dead resemble the living, the more serious the breech (Moshenska 2006: 93). As a result, members of the project team report that they find excavating the remains in the crypt – some of which appear almost complete and others putrescent – to be a distressing experience (Cox 1996: 9).

In addition, the treatment of some of the Spitalfields dead prompts feelings of anxiety and guilt amongst the team and the quote at the beginning of this piece recalls the fate of one of these individuals, No. 2287. It refers to the practice of cremating all soft tissue remains that were considered either a risk to public health or “too unpleasant” for anything more than superficial recording (Reeve and Adams 1993: 93). Excavators are troubled by subjecting individuals to a funerary practice that was not in usage at this point in English history and would, arguably, have been considered as abhorrent due to its contravention of a religious belief that “anticipated, in some sense, a bodily resurrection” and placed great importance on bodily integrity and non-disturbance after death (Tarlow 2001: 250).

The Spitalfields excavation demonstrates the complications that can arise when archaeologists encounter human remains that are not ‘clean’ de-personalised skeletons but include elements we consider essential to the creation of our own bodies and identities, such as flesh, names or close similarities with our own life experiences and biographies. Such reminders of the self can lead to engagement with the remains more deeply as a person, rather than as a ‘thing’ and to engage not only with the dead of the individual in the ground, but also with our own inevitable mortality (Leighton 2010: 90).

Furthermore, the distress expressed by members of the project team at the fate of individual 2287 reveals what Swain (2002: 95) argues is the result of living in a largely secular country with a “cultural pick-and-mix of borrowed ideas and half-forgotten taboos.” Clearly, the act of separating the mummified and skeletal remains of the deceased did not concern the clergy, due to a theological move away from the Christian belief in skeletal integrity as a prerequisite for resurrection. Even so, amongst the general population there remains a lingering reluctance “to disturb the mortal remains of those whose religion we nominally share” and human remains have come to attain a special status within British archaeology because they engender behaviours and beliefs that the corpse should be treated with ‘respect’, even if we find the concept difficult to define (Boyle 1999: 195).

The Spitalfields excavation illustrates just how unsettling the excavation of human remains can be, if not managed carefully. It is, however – and I cannot stress this enough – an extremely rare example. Human remains are excavated on a daily basis in the UK and largely without drama or incident, but nevertheless, the nature of archaeological investigation means that practitioners may be brought into contact with powerful emotions as they uncover evidence of “war, murder, human sacrifice, infanticide, starvation, oppression and tragedy” (Holloway and Klevnäs 2007: 1).

Such projects are now handled very differently and the lessons learned at Spitalfields, together with our knowledge of what is now recognised as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, have informed the subsequent framework for crypt archaeology. The events that transpired in the crypt piqued my interest, however, in how archaeologists react to excavating the remains of the dead and this forms the basis of my PhD research. This information does not typically find its way into official archaeological narratives and this makes the Spitalfields project even more important, for it is an unusually honest admission that working with human remains can be challenging on an emotional level.

As archaeology has become an increasingly scientific and professionalised discipline, so open discussions about emotional responses to evocative ‘material’ such as human remains have become a less accepted part of its discourse. This does not mean that archaeologists have ceased to have emotional responses towards their work – these have long been discussed informally – but that the overt discussion of emotion, particularly those topics which touch on issues of discomfort with dealing with the dead, but indeed any ‘outpouring’ of feeling at all, has come to be regarded as inappropriate and more as a “weakness”, a sign of “over-emotional thinking […] crude sensationalism” or navel-gazing (Holloway and Klevnäs 2007: 3). Indeed, in the course of my research I have uncovered practitioners who, far from being ill at ease with what they do, worry about being seen to enjoy their work too much!

I have been asking archaeologists how they go about their work as professionals and people as part of my PhD research in which I am exploring what impact emotion has on the practice of UK mortuary archaeology. I have interviewed and worked alongside field, forensic, academic, student and museum archaeologists, as well as osteologists and bioarchaeologists. It has been a real honour for me to hear their stories about working with the remains of the dead and I am grateful to each and every one of them for sharing them with me – from hilarious incidents to ghostly encounters, moments of intense sadness to the thrill of discovery. All are fascinating, yet of course, you won’t find these tales in any official narrative, even if, as I would argue, it paints an incomplete picture of the nature of archaeological enquiry.

Like others who work closely with the human body – dead or alive – there exists an unspoken expectation that archaeologists will subsume their personal opinions and emotions underneath a professional veneer, especially in print, where they must adopt a cool, calm, rational and third-person ‘scientific’ persona. Yet, the very nature of archaeological investigation and the material it unearths means that such dispassionate objectivity is easily threatened and it has been fascinating to study the discrepancies between how people say they feel and what they actually do – for example, many of my respondents have claimed to be ‘desensitised’ to working with human remains (an interesting turn of phrase…) but have, in practice, been visibly moved or expressed feelings of discomfort whilst working with the remains of individuals whose deaths have resonated with them on a personal level.

My research indicates that the responses of those who work with archaeological human remains are in a constant state of flux and are heavily shaped by their own life experiences, but also by the characteristics of the remains they work with. They reflect concerns with both constructing and maintaining a professional persona and – as the very existence of archaeology and our treatment of archaeological bodies is tied to the way we perceive and handle the ‘problem’ of mortality – wider anxieties to be found in contemporary British culture about death, dying and the dead (Robb 2013: 442). I hope to be able to come back and update you further when I have finally finished ‘digging’ through all my data…


Baxter, M. (2008) Corporeal Realities of Flesh and Blood as well as Bone, Archaeological Review from Cambridge 16(2), 128-135.

Boyle, A. (1999) ‘A grave disturbance: archaeological perceptions of the recently dead’, in J. Downes and T. Pollard (eds.) The Loved Body’s Corruption: Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Human Mortality, Scottish Archaeological Forum: Cruithne Press, 187-199.

CBA (Council for British Archaeology) (1994), British Archaeological News, Sep-Nov, 16-18.

Cox, M. (1996) Life and Death in Spitalfields, 1700-1850, York: Council for British Archaeology.

Cox, M. (1997) Crypt Archaeology After Spitalfields: dealing with our recent dead, Antiquity 71(271), 8-10, available online at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Crypt+archaeology+after+Spitalfields%3a+dealing+with+our+recent+dead.-a019353206

Holloway, J. and Klevnäs, A. (2007) ‘Introduction’, in J. Holloway and A. Klevnäs (eds.) The Disturbing Past: Does your research give you nightmares?, Archaeological Review from Cambridge 22(2), 1-12.

Leighton, M. (2010) Personifying Objects/Objectifying People: Handling Questions of Mortality and Materiality through the Archaeological Body, Ethnos 75(1), 78-101.

Moshenska, G. (2006) The archaeological uncanny, Public Archaeology 5, 91-99.

Reeve, J. and Adams, M. (1993) The Spitalfields Project – Volume 1: The Archaeology, Across the Styx (CBA Research Report 85), York: Council for British Archaeology.

Robb, J. (2013) Creating Death: An Archaeology of Dying, in L.N. Stutz and S. Tarlow (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 441-458.

Swain, H. (2002) The ethics of displaying human remains from British archaeological sites, Public Archaeology 2, 95-100.

Swain, H. (2007a) An Introduction to Museum Archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tarlow, S. (2001) Decoding ethics, Public Archaeology 1, 245-259.

Wallace, J. (2004) Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination, London: Duckworth.