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The Great British Dig as Public Mortuary Archaeology

The Great British Dig as Public Mortuary Archaeology

Can we consider The Great British Dig as public mortuary archaeology?

As part of my broader explorations of the public archaeology of death, I’ve critically evaluated television documentary representations of the human past and its mortuary practices and also TV documentaries exploring the archaeologists and archaeological investigations of the human past. Here I turn to the Channel 4 series The Great British Dig: History in Your Garden (2021-) (hereafter GBD) in which the presenter – comedian Hugh Dennis – together with a team of archaeologists led by a trio of project directors conduct excavations amidst modern residences in cities, towns and villages in search of Britain’s story. The formula is adapted to shift away from domestic back gardens on occasion in series 1-3 and for series 4 the formula abandons the back garden focus altogether.

The accompanying richly colour-illustrated popular book (Duckworth 2022) covers the first three series (14 digs, and not in the same order as the air-dates) and integrates reviews of each episode with a brief introduction and ‘how to’ fact boxes about practical archaeology. Cobb et al. (2024: 356) refer to the book as ‘itself an important piece of public archaeology, providing easy-to-follow guidance about how members of the public can dig their own gardens and how to identify common finds such as ceramics’. Here I focus on the series itself and all four series aired to date but recognise that the book is a valuable resource that extends and supports the public engagement of the television show, synopsising each dig and introducing practical archaeological investigation more broadly.

This ‘back garden’ archaeology – together with some venues outside of gardens – is small-scale and strategic. The show adopts a calm, kind, humorous and community-engaged approach and respectfully adapts the Time Team precedent in which archaeological professionals and academics shed light on local stories through survey and excavation. The main pitch is that back gardens are usually ‘off limits’ and the archaeologists get to ‘dig deep’ for ‘undiscovered treasures’ that are ‘just beneath our feet’ to find ‘some of the most interesting sites in Britain’ is engaging and applicable in a range of different parts of the country and contexts, although the show has to date avoided Wales and primarily focused on England. Meanwhile, in focusing on gardens big and small, the show explores distinct territory from the long-running Digging for Britain which instead follows a range of academic, commercial and some community archaeology projects in the wider landscape. There is no clear duration for each project, but ‘a week of digging’ is repeatedly referenced.

Local people are key to the show: a consistent dimension of each programme in series 1-3 is knocking on doors (doorbells are not a feature of the television world which seemingly demands a hearty knock) in the hope of gaining permissions to dig, and residents are shown helping volunteering in the digs and talking to the archaeologists throughout as the story is revealed. As well as the digs, there is a finds tent – Dig HQ – for cleaning, cataloguing and analysing finds and presenting the results to the public with the help of 3D photogrammetry by a digital specialist. Upon discovery in the trenches and at Dig HQ, the archaeologists convey clear simple stories about past activities in the location and annotations on screen add further information regarding the date and provenance of the artefacts. Other local sites are visited to provide parallels and context. The views and feelings of local people are reflected upon from start to finish.

In terms of the portrayal of archaeologists themselves, three lead archaeologists direct the project in most episodes – Richard Taylor Chloe Duckworth and Natasha Billson (series 1-3), with John Henry Phillips replacing Taylor for the latest series 4. These ‘investigative/top’ archaeologists are joined by a team of others – some guests for single episodes, some repeated members of the team such as small finds expert Dr David Griffiths, digital specialist Marcus Abbott and environmental archaeologists Don O’Meara and Dr Hannah Russ). The team draws on archaeologists with commercial, museum and academic backgrounds, thus showcasing on a range of specialists working in British archaeology today. A range of techniques are explored from geophysical survey to excavation, finds analysis and digital reconstruction methods. The conversation between the three principal archaeologists and Hugh provides cohesion to the show.

My overall feeling is the show is a joy to watch and a responsible and engaging show-casing of British archaeology and the archaeological method. In this post, I review the first 4 seasons aired from February 2021 to July 2023: 20 episodes in total, focusing on instances where the archaeological dead are dug and/or discussed, and broader commemorative themes linking the past to the present are addressed. In other words, what are the ‘Archaeodeath’ dimensions? How does GBD work as a form of ‘public mortuary archaeology’ (for context: Williams et al. 2019). Does the show facilitate engagement with mortality and memory – past and present – using archaeology as a medium? I will proceed by reporting the way the programme showcases mortuary archaeology and then evaluate key strengths and weaknesses with the format and narratives presented.

Opening observations: the dead as ‘treasure’

Before delving into an episode-by-episode review, I want to share some general observations. The excitement and prized status of the dead is made clear. The opening of many episodes shows , the series 1 episode 2 Anglo-Scandinavian graves from Masham appear dig appear in association with the phrase ‘incredible past buried just beneath our feet’ and Dennis makes reference to the promises made by the archaeologists to local residents in seeking ‘undiscovered treasures’. This makes it clear that human remains and mortuary contexts are indeed part of the story of Britain’s past revealed by archaeologists, and in many ways are iconic, ultimate, finds in themselves. While not stated explicitly, it seems implied that graves and their contents – human remains and grave goods – are also considered ‘treasure’ in this broad and reclaimed fashion: traces of people from the ‘incredible past’.

Thus, the framing of graves and human remains as ‘treasure(s)’ must be understood in relation to how this word is used in the show. Here we find a clearly a conscious use of the term to refer to any and all objects of archaeological interest is widespread throughout the show. This responds powerfully to the popular use and misuse of this term as addressed (for example) in my 2022 co-edited book Public Archaeologies of Treasure (Williams et al. 2022). In that regard, Great British Dig co-opts ‘treasure’ from its legal definition and its popular monetary/commodified associations to imply value is derived from the contextual information artefacts reveal through archaeological interpretation. For example, in series 1, episode 1, Hugh explains how Tash has ‘struck gold’ by finding simply a sherd of Roman pottery at the site of the Benwell Roman fort and Frances at Dig HQ confirms it is Black Burnished Ware. At the end of the same episode, residents are invited to come to a ‘party’ at Dig HQ to view the ‘treasures’ uncovered in their gardens. In series 4, they actually do find ‘gold’ for the first time in the form of a gilded fitting, and ‘treasure’ is discussed in jest.

Benwell, Newcastle – Series 1, Episode 1

There are no funerary remains or mortuary contexts uncovered in this first episode, but it is worth exploring because it sets up the structure and approach of the series, and how local people’s personal stories are on occasional linked to the archaeological remains (Dig 1: Duckworth 2022: 16-27).

Richard, Chloe and Tash are the principal archaeologists exploring Benwell Roman Fort in the suburbs of Newcastle within a modern housing estate. The only segment on display – the southern gateway and the vallum – was dug in the 1930s. The project aimed to explore the area between the fort and the vicus and the hope is to explore the soldiers’ lives and relationship to wider society and landscape. A key point of the programme was to overtly challenges the popular misconception that Hadrian’s Wall divides ‘England from Scotland’. The small-scale excavations involved don’t impede a broad discussion and wider implications, and as with all subsequent episodes we see a constant pivot between specifics and broader narratives about the human past of the island. The work revealed that the barrack buildings and the outer wall, and that outside to the south civilian settlement had crept closer to the fort over time, populating the vallum and the fort’s boundary.

The personal connection between a resident and the Roman fort is discussed and environmental archaeologist Don reflects on the parallel that the local man had served in the Hussars, given that Hadrian’s Wall in that stretch had been built by a cavalry regiment.

There is a more specific Archaeodeath dimension despite the absence of funerary remains. A resident claims to have seen the ghost of a Roman legionary walk past her house whilst she was inebriated after a night out. While perhaps not intended as serious, it at least shows the deep awareness of their Roman past beneath residents’ houses and streets. Notably, her spiritual anecdote is treated kindly and with respect by the archaeologists.

Series 1 Episode 2: Masham, North Yorkshire

This is a key Archaeodeath episode of GBG. Focusing on the village of Masham in North Yorkshire, the surviving famous Anglo-Saxon columnar shaft is represented if not explained in any depth (Dig 2: Duckworth 2022). Still, it is used by way of introduction to the early medieval past of the settlement. The introduction reveals that burials from the Anglo-Scandinavian period had been previously uncovered, ‘many of whom were the direct descendants of the Vikings’, part of a ‘lost early medieval cemetery’. The framing is that the period of investigation is, as Duckworth says ‘Viking and/or Anglo-Saxon’ as ‘native’ vs ‘incomer’ (Duckworth 2022: 34-45). While simplified and using loaded ethnic labels commonplace in British archaeology, this is an example of the responsible and reasonable use of these terms to bracket the early medieval period in regional and cultural terms whilst combating widespread simplifications and misuses of the period in political discourse and popular representations.

In this regard, the presentation of the early medieval past is noteworthy. Tash explains that we have a time of influx of Scandinavians. Hugh, via voiceover and with the help of a map, outlines the early medieval period as AD400-1000, and marked a ‘new era for what is now England’. Many Danish Vikings settlement in the North and East of the country, Hugh explains. The map is confused and implies the Danish Vikings raided Lindisfarne in AD793 and that Masham is near Lindisfarne. Moreover, the map anachronistically shows ‘Ireland’ and ‘Scotland’, Wales isn’t marked, but the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms are labelled, with Masham situated in Northumbria. Still, the simple narrative is clear as Hugh explains that over time they mixed with the local Anglo-Saxons ‘paving the way for the Anglo-Scandinavian period’.

While hardly accurate, this historical scene set in crude and not fully effective terms does make clear that the early medieval story of Britain was one of migration but also acculturation and accommodation. This sets the scene for the teams precise aim: to learn whether the 58 skeletons previously uncovered in the area of the village pub constitute part of a bigger cemetery and how far it extended. The search for the cemetery is framed as a key to this complex settlement process mingling incomers with natives.

The episode attempts to dispel popular misconceptions about the early medieval period in regards to both violence and insularity and nativism when Chloe explains we tend to think of the violence of the period but there were peaceful lives and more afraid of famine and disease rather than war, and farmers. The skeletons were a mixture – ‘immigration on immigration, it’s the history of this island. People mix and cultures mix and this is an early part of this story. She states that you ‘can’t look at a skeleton and say ‘this is a Viking’ but with scientific techniques we can tell what kinds of life they led’,

Basic aspects of funerary archaeology are introduced when Hugh asks what we can learn from skeletons. Richard answers that skeletons are a ‘gold mine of information’ (see above re: the framing of human remains as ‘treasure’) both derived from the skeletons themselves and broader conclusions about social history. Richard then notes that we mustn’t forget we are excavating people. Chloe adds: ‘respect is paramount with this one’. Unfortunately, what constitutes ‘respect’ is never clarified.

The focus on bioarchaeology is more rigorous and supported by informed voices. Human osteologist Dr Lizzy Craig-Atkins is a guest expert and she explains what we can tell from human bones – age and sex in particular. She hopes that intact skeletons are uncovered. Lizzy is joined by Professor Caroline Wilkinson in the Dig HQ to help identify and deal with the mortuary remains and create the facial reconstruction of one intact human skull.

The treasure allusion persists when Richard thinks he’s ‘struck gold’ by digging in the pub garden in finding a skeleton. This is reflected also in the excitement at finding the human dead: when they are seeking for graves and bones are found, Hugh expresses the desire to find graves stating that he ‘really hopes they are human’. Lizzy explores them but they aren’t the right size but too small. A mature ‘something’ not a mature human. Possibly a ‘Victorian pig’ which is treated as ‘disappointing’ news. Dr Hannah Russ determines the bones were for butchery and in the last two centuries, associated with a possible Victorian abattoir. When a burial is found by Tash and Lizzy explores, she exclaims ‘brilliant’. Human remains are also called ‘fabulous’ upon discovery. While human remains are discoveries of prized ‘value’ to the archaeologist, it is a local man who sees the skeletal elements as a window onto history: ‘wow, history on your doorstep’. Caroline says ‘oh do you have a skull?’ – showing her interest and enthusiasm. They will be able to determine sex and with teeth determine age of death, but that is all.

There is no fair accusation of sensationalism, however, for this enthusiasm for discovery is balanced with a clear explanation regarding the nature of digging up the dead. Furthermore, two trenches produce negative results – that the cemetery did not extend in that direction and this is still shown as a positive result. This has allowed them to refine the extent of the cemetery as much as the discovery of the graves were important. The excavation of burials is characterised and represented as ‘a slow and meticulous process’ and the graves are ‘carefully expose[d]’. Once revealed, it is explained that archaeologists then determine whether worth lifting for thorough analysis depending on the quality of survival and space: excavation allows us to tell about life and death. ‘Meticulous unveil’ and ‘lift’ are terms described by Richard. The care and attention to lifting the skull is made clear – placed delicately by the expert osteologist. Lizzy explains that lifting the skull was ‘quite difficult’. In Dig HQ, they explain further details including the spatial relationship and plans for excavation of at least one of the graves. From the two in situ burials, Lizzy can explain the finds. One of the skulls – the temporal bone and mastoid process looks male, the other more female. The coarse diet of cereal and porridge is clear with decay at a rapid rate of the teeth. The enthusiasm and excitement of the experts in dealing with human remains, but balanced with care and detailed meticulous.

The care and concern for the dead is also conveyed when Richard explains the excavation is the beginning of a relationship between him and this person and the care required. A key further dimension of ethical consideration in dealing with the dead is the scene where Chloe and Hugh go to meet the Reverend Canon David Cleeves in the churchyard where the previously excavated human remains were reinterred in 2009 having and afforded a gravestone commemorating their unnamed presence as part of the Christian community. This is a clear example revealing how archaeologyst is about not only uncovered the cemetery and the story these graves tell but also their reburial and commemoration.

As the dig unfolds, the team explain different dimensions of early medieval mortuary practice. The orientation of graves west-east is misleadingly explained via the archaeological myth that it was so that Christians can physically resurrect and rise to face the sun. In fact, this popular culture explanation has little direct verification for the early medieval period. The argument is made that the burials were interred ‘facing east’ (an odd and misleading description) and thus not from a battle or plague. For Richard’s trench, a ‘proper burial’ is revealed, and it is a male that is articulated with pelvis intact and the sciatic notch being narrow hints at a male sex. The ‘good chance’ it was shrouded and possibly in a coffin as well. It doesn’t mean it was high status but a ‘bit of effort’ was put into the burial.

The facial reconstruction by Caroline Wilkinson aims to conjure a ‘face to the skeleton’. It is explained that this technique is rarely used in digs of this nature and only reserved for ‘archaeological royalty’, reflecting on the Richard III facial reconstruction, and Mary Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce. Wilkinson explains how they work to build muscle structure and build the image. She explains how she keeps it black-and-white since we don’t know hair colour, but it is noteworthy that skin tone – such a fixation of modern racialised discourse – is also avoided by this decision. A local responds that he ‘looks so young and modern looking’ and ‘such a handsome chap’. His ‘rugged’ build reveal his ‘arduous life’ working the land.

A further key observation is the emphasis on the recording in situ being completed and showing the body (in part) being lifted. This is missing from many television representations of burial archaeology and here the care taken to avoid damaging the bones is apparent.

Humour is a key part of digging the dead for archaeologists and is not Richard jokes about walking ‘straight through the market with a head’ to the Dig HQ in the marketplace. At Dig HQ, Lizzy later explains that they can see the sex and age. Hugh jokes that his mastoid process is beg and he is a ‘very male male’. The teeth show an individual 45+ but beyond that it is difficult to be specific. Hugh explains he is in that category and happy about it.

So there are light jokes, professional enthusiasm and the consideration of mortuary contexts as ‘treasure’, but considerable emphasis on the careful meticulous excavation, evaluation, lifting only where possible, and careful cleaning and analysis of human remains. We are not, however, shown what happens next to the trenches and the burials, including the human remains.

Series 1, Episode 3: Lenton, Nottingham

This episode is the second prominent ‘Archaeodeath’ dimension of the first series. The archaeologists are exploring the former existence of the Norman religious foundation, Lenton Priory, one of the ‘wealthiest, biggest and most important medieval priories in the country’ now only revealed in the street-names of suburban Nottingham ‘hint at its existence’: Old Church Street, Priory, Street, Friar Street and Nazareth Street (Dig 3: Duckworth 2022: 50-63).

A great moment in the opening of this episode is Hugh is sitting in the nave of the medieval priory church in a pub car park. They find traces of the ruins – a column from the priory and use that as the basis for exploring the foundations of the church. Hugh regards the column as ‘like the TARDIS’ – allowing us to go back in time. Nice analogy Hugh!

The first mortuary dimension is a joke with a local couple giving their permission for the excavations in their garden but with the proviso that they leave the trench open so the lady can bury her husband! Everyone laughs.

With the excavations underway, Kate Smart – osteoarchaeologist – finds fragments of human remains dispersed through the trench. Some animal, some human – scapula, metatarsal, two radii, maxilla with tooth sockets. Local volunteers find human teeth in another trench whilst trowelling a medieval layer.

A key piece of banter shows the humour but also the ‘prize’ that human remains constitute: there is explicit competition between residents over who can find more human remains.

Together, these disturbed human remains are considered parts of the burials outside the east end, close to the high altar which would afford them ‘direct ascent to Heaven’ the show claim. This might be considered a justifiable simplification of preferences for medieval burial location in which a range of social, political and religious factors might feature. Still, a Lady Chapel was added to the priory church for burial purposes and the episode makes clear that the monastic cemetery was not just for the burial of high status individuals – the type, number of bones suggests it was a longer-lived cemetery and a cobbled surface outside the walls of the priory (Duckworth 2022: 62).

Later, Kate explores a burial and it is all disarticulated adult burial disturbed by roots. Given context, it is considered probably medieval.

Tash calls it a ‘lovely collection of human bones’ – not from the same person – all churned up.

A further deathly dimension is not from the material evidence but from the history of the fate of the Lenton monks – they were hanged, drawn and quartered for resisting their suppression.

Notably, the funerary elements of the site aren’t featured in the sum-up for local people and thus the role of the priory as a place of death and burial isn’t fully articulated. We don’t learn of the fate of the human remains.

Series 1 Episode 4: South Shields

The final excavation of series 1 has no overt mortuary archaeology since it is excavating a ‘secret military base’ on Trow Point, South Shields ahead of coastal erosion and the ‘mystery’ is that there are no records of what was there (Dig 4: Duckworth 2022: 64-75). The mortuary dimension proves illusory, namely that one of the features was speculated as a possible Bronze Age burial mound based on antiquarian records. Upon excavated, a thick layer of clay is revealed within the ‘burial mound’ and with bricks and demolition material at the base. The answer is that they have demolition under the mound confirming it is not a mound but dumped material linked to the 20th-century military installations and use of the site. Chloe explains this positively – negative evidence reveals what it is and what it is not (Duckworth 2022: 73).

As Tash makes clear, while not back gardens, they still connected to the military past and the strong connections to the town with the coastal story. Meanwhile, Duckworth’s commentary makes specific link to the Great War: ‘they may have died over a centruy ago, but, through archaeology, we were able to reach out and touch their stories’ (Duckworth 2022: 75).

Concluding the first series, this shows the versatility of the formula of a small-scale survey and excavation project tackling local heritage: namely the ‘connection to the history of where you’re from’ as one volunteer explains.

Series 2 Episode 1: Falkirk

Series 2 takes GBD to Scotland for the first and only time thus far (Dig 6: Duckworth 2022: 95-109). The description of the team is ‘investigative archaeologists’. It is worth noting that the Masham skeleton from series 1, episode 2 appears in the introduction associated with the words ‘in the hope of revealing hidden histories and to solve the mysteries buried just beneath our feet’. The aim is to investigate inside a Roman fort along the line of the Antonine Wall.

A piece of Archaeodeath humour features when a local jokes ‘you won’t find any of the bodies everywhere’ to answer the question about whether they can dig.

Series 2 Episode 2: Stretton, Staffordshire

Excavations in the settlement of Stretton reveal a a pit alignment, prehistoric dwellings and Roman settlements (Dig 14: Duckworth 2022: 234-247). I note the appearance of my colleague Dr Caroline Pudney.

Series 2 Episode 3: Devizes

The team uncover the footprint and secrets behind the walls of Devizes prison – built to control bodies and minds opened in 1817 (Dig 11: Duckworth 2022: 182-195).

Series 2 Episode 4: Beningbrough

The lost buildings and gardens of Beningbrough, Yorkshire are explored (Dig 8: Duckworth 2022: 134-147).

Series 2 Episode 5: West Derby

A motte-and-bailey castle is explored (Dig 7: Duckworth 2022: 116-127) ‘built right at the start of the Middle Ages’, so now the show has opted for the old-fashioned use of ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’ as referring only to post-Norman conquest archaeology! I note the appearance of my former doctoral researcher Dr Rachel Swallow.

We begin series 3 by noting the continued use of the series 1 Masham skeleton in the opening sequence combined with the phrase ‘hidden histories and to solve the mysteries buried just beneath our feet’.

Series 3 Episode 1: Odiham, Hampshire

This episode explores Odiham Place: a lost Tudor Hall (Dig 13: Duckworth 2022: 216-229).

Series 3 Episode 2: Oldham, Greater Manchester

Appearing as ‘Dig 5’ in Duckworth’s book (2022: 82-93), the episode sees the team investigating a Victorian mill – Glen Mill – transformed into a Second World War prisoner of war camp.

Series 3 Episode 3: King’s Lynn

Digging for the English Civil War defences on the outskirts of King’s Lynn (Dig 12: Duckworth 2022: 200-213), Chloe says to the local volunteers in whose garden they are digging: ‘I hope it’s going to be worth it, us digging in your garden’. The resident jokes: ‘as long as you don’t find a dead body, we’re all good!’ Chloe jokes back: ‘an old one it would be ok’.

Series 3 Episode 4: Oswestry, Shropshire

The only Archaeodeath dimension of series 3 comes with this episode’s exploration of the Morda workhouse (Dig 9: Duckworth 2022: 154-165). Notably, they cross the border into Wales to identify the parallels with Llanfyllin workhouse.

The mortuary dimensions derive from discussions of burial on site and the likelihood that the cheapest coffins would be used. ‘So don’t die in the workhouse, that’s the thing’, says Hugh. ‘Just don’t die a pauper’, replies Dr Michala Hume. Their demise is considered to show ‘little respect in death – mass grave of some sort’ and it is sadly noted that it was ‘typical of what it is like to die a pauper’.

The investigation proceeds to recognise that the inmates buried in the churchyard were later exhumed and reburied in Oswestry Cemetery (Duckworth 2022: 156). This explains why there was no evidence for burials associated with the workhouse found on the dig. In a sombre section, Hugh reads out the plaque at Oswestry Cemetery marking the graves: ‘Here in the arms of the Lord is the final resting place of the first buried at the Old Workhouse (St Anne’s Chuch) Morda between 1813-1856 may they rest in peace. Re-interred, December 19th 2001 and January 11th 2002’. Hugh and Michala reflect on the lack of respect afforded to the dead and afforded a ‘mass grave’ without a headstone. This is surely a confusion that goes uncorrected distinguishing between ‘mass graves’ and unmarked graves. It is also unsure how the exhumation and translation reflects that, or perpetuates that treatment in the Victorian era. In any case, this is the result of non-archaeological churchyard/cemetery clearance, but unfortunately this was a missed opportunity to contrast this mass-exhumation with the careful excavations and analyses of mortuary archaeologists.

Series 3 Episode 5: Coventry

The team explore Biggin Hall: a medieval monastic grange, revising the plan and sequence of construction (Dig 10: Duckworth 2022: 168-181).

It is noteworthy that series 4 still utilises the first series Masham human remains and a voiceover reporting on the discovery of ‘two bodies, one on top of the other’ in the introductory sequence. The descriptor for the team has shifted from ‘investigative archaeologists’ have been replaced by ‘top archaeologists’. As mentioned above, this series abandons residential areas to focus on other kinds of landscape associated with historical dwellings. A ‘call for volunteers’ in a local public place replaces the door-knocking in the formula of acquiring local support.

Series 4 Episode 1: Cornwall

The search for the Roman fort at Calstock, Cornwall, does not involve a funerary dimension directly. However, St Andrew’s church and its ‘graveyard’ lie within the fort as well as fields. The vicar is a lifelong Roman enthusiast and when asked by Hugh, he states ‘digging on a Roman fort: a great way to spend the day’. Hugh says: ‘You’ve got a graveyard, you don’t need to do this!’ So once more, funerary archaeology only enters via casual humour rather than the target of investigation.

Series 4 Episode 2: North Yorkshire

The team are looking for the 18th-century house – Studley Hall – which has been destroyed by fire – the elite residence now lost which accompanied the famous surviving gardens at Studley Royal. Not precisely an Archaeodeath dimension, but curiously one volunteer says they’ve never done archaeology before and yet while they are keen they ‘don’t want to find any bones’. We never learn why!

Series 4 Episode 3: Newcastle

The team investigates the house of naturalist and artist Thomas Bewick, uncovering traces of the architecture where he was inspired to explore his career. The dig is a journey into a ‘personal story’ but the context and influence of his work is made apparent.

Series 4 Episode 4: Nottinghamshire

The remains of a medieval castle lie hidden beneath Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire and the team’s excavations reveal medieval finds and the moat. The broader story of an elite lifestyle and the use of architecture for display as much as defence is explored.

Series 4 Episode 5: Bognor Regis

The fifth and final episode of series 4 takes us to Bognor Regis and the exploration of a seaside villa with royal connections. The context of the development of seaside resorts is tackled and the links to the local Catholic primary school who permitted the excavations provides the community connection.

Concluding remarks

With only two episodes featuring mortuary archaeology in a direct and sustained fashion, there might seem little logic to evaluating GBD as public mortuary archaeology. Still, there are important points to be gained from this survey. First, human remains and mortuary contexts are explained and deployed in an ethical and educational fashion with respect and care but also with proportionate humour. A remaining criticism is that, when they did so, as with many television programmes, there is some simplification and misinformation about burial practices and no real discussion of the post-excavation treatment and fate of the human remains off site although Duckworth’s (2022: 45) book does state that the ‘bones that we removed will be reburied in Masham’s cemetery, in a Christian rite to respect the wishes of the original grieving families. The young girl was gently covered over again where she had originally been laid. She was at peace’. There is a lot to unpack in that statement regarding whether this will happen, has happened to the remains, and how we navigate what we anticipate were the wishes and beliefs of the dead person and their kin, versus modern-day ethics and sensibilities. The fate of the Lenton Priory human remains isn’t divulged in the show or accompanying book. Still, with this hint towards the fate of the excavated dead the show goes further that all others on television to emphasise that ethical treatment of human remains and mortuary practices that hints to the potential of future best practice for on-screen discussions and associated publications.

Linked to this first point, it’s clear that the show was very careful to avoid digging up the dead unless absolutely necessary and explicitly avoided doing so in series 2-4. Indeed, the underplayed and limited post-series 1 use of mortuary contexts – presumably to ensure sensitivities regarding this highly controversial dimension of archaeological enquiry – is in stark contrast to the repeated and sustained portrayal of archaeologists digging and analysing human remains that is the focus of so much TV archaeology. GBG therefore goes some way to counteract the widespread misrepresentation of archaeologists as constantly ‘digging up the dead’: in other words GBD shows there is so much archaeology without disturbing the resting places of past generations.

The dead are also mediated through memorials, both as part of the context and setting of earlier archaeological remains (at Calstock) and as media for connecting with the archaeological dead, as with the gravestone commemorating the reburied Anglo-Scandinavian skeletons previously excavated at Masham, or the Oswestry cemetery memorial for the exhumed and reburied dead from Morda Workhouse.

The fourth point is that the dead exist as a possibility in the archaeological record, as a false positive to be discounted through investigation, as shown for Trow Point.

A fifth way in which the archaeological dead appear is in humour: across multiple episodes the idea emerges that people think of digging in close connection with the burial of the dead in formalised and ritualised ways and in clandestine circumstances.

A sixth and related occurrance – revealed during the Benwell dig – is via the idea that the dead haunt the landscapes in which people today reside – while treated lightly and with humour, this idea is clearly alive and well in Britain.

A final seventh point must be made. As mentioned earlier, throughout all four series, the archaeological dead hover within sight and discussion via the opening sequence. In this fashion at least, mortuary archaeology is pivotal to GBD as a way of branding archaeology and its capability to reveal direct and tangible traces of past people’s lives and deaths. Through this opening sequence, the archaeological dead feature as a prominent dimension of GBD, whether or not the dead are discovered in the show itself.


Cobb, H., Green, K. and Moore, T. 2024. Archaeology: An Introduction. Sixth Edition. London: Routledge.

Duckworth, C. 2022. The Great British Dig. London: Conway.

Williams, H., Reavill, P. and Clague, S. (eds) 2022. The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Williams, H., Wills-Eve, B. and Osborne, J. (eds) 2019. The Public Archaeology of Death, Sheffield: Equinox.

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