Since 1990 a series of major conferences and publications have investigated aspects of death and burial in medieval societies in Europe and beyond. Some have delivered state-of-the-art research on early medieval and medieval funerary rites; others have profiled new advances in scientific research. The proceedings of the last SMA conference that dealt with burial were of course published in 2002 in the Society monograph series by Sam Lucy and Andrew Reynolds in the seminal volume Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales, which captured some of the major changes in thinking at the time on identity, community and belief. Since then spatial consideration has developed as a significant research strand in medieval archaeology, relevant to understanding settlement patterns, land use and travel and the experiential nature of monuments, places and landscapes. From exploring the distribution patterns of grave types and the use of antecedent landscape features for burial and charting the rise of commemorative markers in stone, to identifying patterns of diseases and health in medieval populations and their mobility; the location of the grave has become a rich stepping off point, stimulating and facilitating new research directions.
We were fortunate in having three exceptional and thought-provoking keynote papers. We started with a review of the treatment and exploration of Merovingian mortuary archaeology in past and present from Bonnie Effros on Friday evening in Durham Cathedral. Despite the imposing venue of the Cathedral Chapter House, our speaker kept the audience fully engaged in a critical reflection on the relevance of considering mortuary archaeology in context and a reception followed in the late evening light in the medieval cloister. On Saturday evening the audience heard an inspiring exploration of experiential and individual approaches to understanding human interactions with death in the medieval era from Roberta Gilchrist followed by another sunshine-filled reception at the poster evening in the Calman Centre with views over the historic Durham peninsular. Finally we closed on Sunday with a rich exploration of the architecture and grammar of mortuary archaeology in early Anglo-Saxon England from Duncan Sayer, leaving the audience with considerable food for thought on their journey home. In between our speakers provided new insights into cremation in Britain and the near Continent; explored the rich evidence for monument reuse in Scotland, Dalmatia and Francia; and charted the experiential nature of sculpture, burial and travel as elements of Norse tradition and in the context of Irish and western Christianity. Papers highlighted some recent seminal cemetery excavations such as Vicq in France and Lakenheath in Suffolk, while other speakers drew on the material evidence of the grave contents to explore aspects of ritual practice such as the use of gold coins, or the bioarchaeological contribution of skeletal assemblages. Important themes to emerge included the intersection of domestic and funerary spheres, the idea of resilient traditions during times of change, the importance of experiential approaches to graves, cemeteries and funerary landscapes and the need to individualise and anthropologise death and understand medieval experience.
Sarah Semple, Celia Orsini and Kate Mees, Durham University, UK