Requiem For a Lost Age
British Archaeology, The Voice of Archaeology in Britain and Beyond, Issue 84, September/October (2005)
Archaeologists share a deep-rooted fascination with rituals surrounding death and burial. We are drawn to ancient mortuary evidence for its potential to reveal elements of private life, the exotic and macabre. Death, more than any other aspect of life, reveals the ancient world as “other”, a foil for our sanitised, western practices.
Burial rites of the more recent past have attracted less interest: they are, supposedly, more directly linked with our own familiar traditions, and therefore likely to yield few surprises. Until just a few decades ago, archaeologists had to justify excavating medieval Christian cemeteries. The exhumation of Christian remains was sometimes regarded as unseemly, and their unfurnished graves scant reward for the recording of complex, stratified sequences. Even recent commentators have suggested that diversity in burial practices had disappeared completely by the 12th century, and that by the later middle ages, burials had no grave goods or individual expression.
In the past 20 years, many Christian cemeteries have been excavated prior to new developments: the largest is the hospital of St Mary Spital, London, with nearly 11,000 graves recovered by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS). These major projects have generated substantial, well-recorded samples that provide an opportunity to revisit later medieval death and burial.