DEEPDEAD – Deploying the Dead

Artefacts and human bodies in socio-cultural transformations


Long-dead bodies are pervasive and increasingly active participants in contemporary European society. Dead bodies, like those of English King Richard III in Leicester and Miguel de Cervantes in Madrid are erupting into view in contemporary Europe with increasing frequency. Through both literal and metaphorical interactions with the remains of the dead, societies and individuals testify to their identity in the present and their aspirations for the future. Why and how do the dead and the artefacts associated with them become flashpoints of controversy, interest, and identity for the living? Harnessing the disciplines of literary studies and archaeology, the DEEPDEAD project will examine prehistoric and historic encounters with human remains in England and Central Europe in order to shed light on their cultural and social power. Through a series of case studies juxtaposing distinct eras, cultures, and types of evidence, the project will reveal what is constant and what is locally and historically specific in our ways of interacting with the long dead. Our research will explore the relationship between long-dead bodies and myths of national or community origin, and the ways in which they have been and are used to reinforce or challenge historical narratives. Identifying the meanings and mechanisms of past interactions with the dead in order to inform our understanding of present-day discoveries and dilemmas is the central goal of the DEEPDEAD project.

The Austrian DEEPDEAD team will lead an investigation of prehistoric and historic dead bodies and graves, which experienced disturbance, adaptation or reuse. The analysis will reveal a better understanding of the dynamics of and variability in engagements with the dead, from prehistoric times until today. The team will generate an Austrian site gazetteer, which includes information on deposits with worked body parts, fragmentary human remains, reuse of burial places and anciently disturbed graves. A further research strand will address the question of whether all dead bodies have agency or only specific ones. The analysis will be based on a few key archaeological Austrian sites from different periods, which provide long research histories spanning from the nineteenth century to the present day. The careful study and data mining of archaeological reports such as Mitteilungen der K.K. Central-Commission zur Erforschung und Erhaltung der Baudenkmale and Fundberichte aus Österreich, newspaper articles and schoolbooks regarding these burial sites may reveal the changes in the attitudes towards archaeological dead bodies by both scientists and the public over the course of more than one and a half centuries. The juxtaposition of these reactions during the times of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire with those of the interwar, WW II and post WW II years should provide some idea how specific political circumstances shaped the attitudes towards these long dead.

Results of the DEEPDEAD project will be disseminated by means of exhibitions, public conferences, social media, and academic publications. These dissemination plans aim at prompting informed reflection on the sources of our fascination with the long dead. The results of the project will be useful to heritage professionals and relevant policy-makers in responding to actual discoveries and anticipating the kinds of reactions they are likely to elicit. Equally importantly, they will prove useful in developing appropriate and sensitive responses to campaigns to discover or exhume human remains.