Beneath a park in Oakington, a small village outside of Cambridge, lie the remains of over 100 Saxons. The Oakington Dig is an exceptional project, directed by Duncan Sayer and Faye Simpson. This is an amazing site with some fantastic burials. Two weeks ago I talked about the burial of the mother and fetus, and previously they had an amazing burial of a cow and a woman. But here I want to focus on the living community of students and residents. While every cemetery site is fascinating and has its own practices, the Oakington Dig is unique in that it engages with the public in a number of ways. Public archaeology is becoming more common, in fact my current job is extremely involved with its community both in person and online. However, the public doesn’t usually get the opportunity to be directly engage in a cemetery excavation. Often when human remains are involved, there are barricades and the remains are hidden until ready for more formal publication and discussion. But not at Oakington, here the local community and visitors are allowed to walk right up and ask questions, see the remains being unearthed, and learn immediately what this potentially means. That is why I wanted to spend some time talking with the archaeologists involved at this dig, to learn more about their experience working on an amazing cemetery with a fantastic public focus.
One of the questions I get asked most frequently as a mortuary archaeologist, is why work with human remains- so this was my first questions to the students involved. One of the students saw this as an opportunity to give personhood back to the deceased. It was a chance to renew the memory of the dead and honor them as people. Another felt that they was helping to add the average people back into history, arguing that this brings depth to the past and helps us understand how normal people lived and died.
As we talked about the human remains, all of the student brought up that while the work was exciting and definitely awesome, it is extremely important to be respectful since these were all once individuals carefully buried in specific ways. One student in particular noted that it is just as important to respect the dead in the present as those who died in the past. While modern forensics cases have an external pressure to be ethical and determine the individual’s identity- they argued that we too have that pressure, though it is more internal. An interesting conversation that came up from a number of students was how their perception of the human remains changed after working directly with them. They noted that at first it can be difficult, especially dealing with children. The dry bones at first don’t even appear human, but as you learn more about their burial and skeleton, they become more personable. As one student phrased it, the most interesting part about human remains is how they lived.
Second, I asked them about the experience of working with the public and community, especially in regards to the fact this is a cemetery site and human remains are frequently found. Since the students came to the site hoping to excavate human remains, they themselves have no aversion to interacting with them. However, they stated that the juxtaposition of the living community members asking questions about the skeletons of a dead community caused them to think more about the importance of burial and increased their respect for the deceased. The students saw themselves as stewards and representatives of the remains, and believe that it is an important task that they have to share their knowledge with the visitors. As one student argued, the past belongs to everyone- it is part of our job as archaeologists to share our knowledge.
Most importantly, the students and community felt that by sharing the excavation of the cemetery, it decreased concern. Putting up fences around a site and withholding information creates concern since people don’t get to see what is happening or how the remains are being treated. When they are getting to be involved and see the progress itlessens the academic nature of the dig and creates engagement between community and archaeologist. The excavation also allows school kids and visitors to try excavating within the cemetery next to the students. The archaeology students said they always felt inspired and gained energy from working with the kids, and were all amazed at their interest in the skeletal remainseve hen I chatted with a community volunteer, she spoke highly of the work being done on the site, noting that it is a rare opportunity for not only an archaeology dig to be open to the public, but for the community to actually get their hands dirty and get involved in learning more about their own backyard.
The Oakington dig is an amazing site that has been highly successful in creating an integrated community both within the dig itself between the archaeologists, and between the archaeologists and broader community. Please send your support, and visit their Facebook page or twitter feed to learn more! Also, you can check out this article written about their finds and site: Life and Death in the East Anglian Fens