Crypt Archaeology after Spitalfields: Dealing with Our Recent Dead

By Cox, Margaret | Antiquity, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Crypt Archaeology after Spitalfields: Dealing with Our Recent Dead


Cox, Margaret, Antiquity


A decade ago, the crammed burial-vaults under Christ Church, Spitalfields, a fine English Baroque church in east-central London designed by Hawksmoor, were archaeologically excavated. This pioneering work in the post-medieval archaeology of our own culture's burial practice has not been followed up. Why?

Since the archaeological excavation of the crypt beneath Christ Church, Spitalfields, London in 1984-6 (Reeve & Adams 1993), inhumations from within more than 20 post-medieval London crypts have been exhumed by commercial undertakers (Young pers. comm.). Across the country England, many post-medieval cemeteries have been partially or totally cleared without recognition of their archaeological potential. Some have received a hurried watching brief (e.g. St Nicholas' Church, Bathampton: Cox & Stock 1996), very few have received appropriate levels of archaeological mitigation, an exception being the Quaker cemetery at Kingston-upon-Thames, excavated in the autumn of 1996 (Archaeology South-East in preparation).

Crypts and cemeteries are being cleared because both ecclesiastic and secular burial authorities place current needs of living populations ahead of any possible right of the dead to eternal undisturbed peace. The ever-increasing mass of the deceased is taking up valuable space (particularly urban), on an island where open space, increasingly precious, is being conserved. Exhumation is facilitated by the Christian move away from belief in the resurrection of intact physical remains as a prerequisite to eternal life.

The legal position in respect of exhumation is clear (Garratt-Frost et al. 1992). What remains far from clear is the position of archaeologists in respect of the more recently deceased. While archaeologists become increasingly aware of multiple interests in the past, its commodification and ownership (Bray 1996), in the UK we still seem unable to address post-medieval funerary deposits (Huggins 1994; Morris 1994). Pleas for a code of ethics for human remains (Cox 1994; Parker Pearson 1995) have only been listened to in Scotland (Historic Scotland 1996).

Whilst many archaeologists are comfortable with the excavation, and scientific analysis, of burials that are medieval or earlier in date, the professional community at large does not engage in dialogue about later burials. Why is this? The value of post-medieval mortuary contexts and deposits cannot be doubted after the Spital-fields Project (Reeve & Adams 1993; Molleson & Cox 1993; Cox 1996), yet the disdain towards post-medieval funerary archaeology that met that project in the 1980s is still evident. Clark (1993) considers that British attitudes towards the dead are ambivalent, contradictory and volatile. Parker Pearson (1995: 17) noted that 'we do and don't want to know about death'; we see death as a 'medical failure', one that we are 'unable to confront'.

What is the difference that brings later burials too close to home? Death and disposal are essentially the same whether Neolithic or 19th century. What is it we cannot deal with? Is it about temporal 'closeness', the possibility of excavating someone's great-grandparents? This appears to bother neither the majority of ecclesiastic nor secular authorities, technically the guardians of the burial place, when they promote or tolerate the exhumation of post-medieval remains. So why should we archaeologists object? Is the issue about physical closeness, about soft tissue, about the processes of putrefaction and autolysis? There can be little doubt that the psychological impact of working with recent burials is not to be under-estimated; precautions are needed to mitigate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Certain elements - opening of lead coffins and dealing with soft tissue - are specially unpleasant.

We will not resolve this dilemma if we cannot articulate our fears and discomfort. Yet resolve them we must, in an era where researchers argue for 'actively instrumental archaeology', or for an archaeology that is self-consciously socially progressive (Tilley 1989 as cited in Roberts & McCarthy 1995: 20). …

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