The Invisible Dead: A conference to engage (with) the Dead?

It has been two months since the very successful Invisible Dead Project conference;  “Engaging with the dead: exploring changing human beliefs about death, mortality and the human body” and a few more conference papers later we thought we should update everyone on what we have been up to.

The conference in Durham (June 6th-8th) was a huge success, with over 100 delegates attending the event from as far afield as the United States and from across Europe (including Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, Sweden and Germany). The conference started with an extremely engaging public keynote lecture by Professor Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen. Attendees were treated to an exciting analysis of the mortuary events at the Royal Hypogeum and Tomb 7 at Qatna, Syria, with Professor Pfälzner revealing the lengthy time over which these burial places were in use and discussing aspects of remembrance, ancestors and the long-term manipulation of the dead.

In depth discussions at the conference reception

In depth discussions at the conference reception (Friday 6th June, Oriental Museum, Durham)

Following on this keynote we moved onto the Oriental Museum (Durham) for the opening conference reception, offering a chance to chat about some of the interpretations and ideas discussed during the lecture and admire the collections in the Museum.

Looking at the museum collections

Admiring the museum collections on display during the opening reception

The main conference kicked off bright and early on Saturday morning and for the next two days delegates enjoyed a set of extremely interesting and engaging papers.  Topics ranged from the use of large burial datasets and data management structures, to curation and circulation of human remains  and theories of bereavement and mourning.

The conference offered the Invisible Dead team to present their first version of the complete project database.

The conference offered the Invisible Dead team the chance to present the project database.

On Saturday evening we were lucky enough to have Professor Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) delivering the second keynote public lecture. His paper, which covered regions from Asia to Europe and the Palaeolithic to the 19th century AD, was extremely thought-provoking and among other things, challenged attendees to think about the use of post-mortem practices in the past, which may have aimed to delay or prevent the final deposition of the dead and how we might interpret these through the archaeological record.

Proceedings were brought to a close on Sunday afternoon by wonderful paper on 19th-21st century burial practices (Douglas Davies, Durham University), discussing the rise of cremation and the emergence of more recent practices, such as woodland burial and resomation. This paper rounded off an extremely successful event and certainly got us thinking about the huge range of options now available for helping the living to engage with and remember (or forget) the dead. How is such diversity changing practices on a local, national and international scale? What levels of personal choice are involved and to what extent may this have influenced what we find in the archaeological record?


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