BA Archaeology and Anthropology / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Dealing with the Dead: The Archaeology of Death and Burial

Course unit fact file
Unit code CAHE30722
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology & Egyptology
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Death is not just the one certainty of human existence but its final mystery. This course uses archaeology to explore the funerary rites of different times and cultures, in order to learn about beliefs surrounding the afterlife, the power of the ancestors and the role of the dead. We will learn about communities who circulated human bones as relics, and those who buried them under impressive barrows. We will explore chambered tombs in Scotland, the pyramids and royal graves of Egypt, Iron Age chariot burials and bog bodies, as well as Anglo-Saxon ship burials and Viking massacres. We will also explore the exquisite grave goods buried with the dead, and ask what they mean – were they personal possessions, gifts, heirlooms or equipment for the afterlife? The course will also encourage you to explore the art of death and burial: the moving headstones and impressive memorials of the Historic era, the ‘dancing dead’ and jewel-encrusted reliquaries of the high Medieval period. We will finish the course by reflecting on contemporary burial legislation and forensic archaeology.

More fundamentally, we will examine the remains of the dead to explore many aspects of their lives (origin, diet, lifestyle, disease and injury) as well as the circumstances of their death. Basic sessions in the archaeological lab will be complemented by visits to the Manchester Museum, to talk about how we display the dead and the policies and ethics of working with human remains. For those ambitious about a career in archaeology or museums and galleries, or even those thinking of training in forensics, this course will prepare you to deal with all periods of burials within Britain, as well as becoming familiar with some of the most iconic remains in national museums.



Level 3

  • To deepen students’ knowledge of a range of contrastive burial practices from the UK and abroad¿through a range of primary case studies (Seminar, Level 3: Poster)
  • To critically engage with archaeological and ethnographic approaches to the dead, and to debate and assess models of perceived agency, contrastive concepts of ancestry and beliefs about the afterlife (Lectures and Seminars, Level 3: Poster)
  • To equip students to critically discuss the archaeological concept of ‘Grave Goods’ and select primary examples to disseminate to the public (Lectures, Workshops: Radio Programme)
  • To critically engage with qualitative and quantitative methods and their results, in primary case studies of burial practice and cemetery data (Seminars, Level 3, Poster)
  • To deepen students’ knowledge of skeletal structure and equip them to make a basic record of a burial in the field or the lab, and give them the confidence to lift, pack and store human remains for specialist analysis (Lab Practical)
  • To revise technical terminology associated with contrasting mortuary practices (inhumation, excarnation, cremation, preservation) and discuss practical and ethical issues relating to their appearance, conservation and display in archive/museum contexts (Lab Practical, Museum fieldtrip, Lectures)
  • To deepen students’ knowledge of the legislative frameworks surrounding treatment of the ancient dead, critically debate practical and ethical issues relating to archaeological and museums practice, and enable them to evaluate exemplars of analysis, interpretation and dissemination (Lectures, Seminars Level 2 and Museum Fieldtrip: Radio Programme, Poster)


Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • Identify, analyse and interpret contrastive forms of funerary rite and mortuary behaviour from a range of different time periods and regions (Lectures: Poster);
  • Apply archaeological methods and interpretive frameworks to examine contrastive forms of mortuary behavior (Seminars Level 3, Poster);
  • Analyze and interpret the role of material culture in processes of remembering and forgetting e.g. monuments, memorials, cemetery architecture and funerary paraphernalia (Radio Programme); ¿
  • Articulate and debate the theoretical, ethical, social and political issues involved in the investigation and interpretation of the dead.

Intellectual skills

  • Select, analyse and critically evaluate the significance and meaning of s specific primary case study of funerary rites, through an integrated analysis of human remains, grave goods and the character and place of interment (Seminars, Level 3: Poster); ¿
  • Create/design interpretations of funerary practice in a variety of media, and select appropriate language, imagery and content to reach a variety of academic and public audiences (Poster, Radio Programme);
  • Demonstrate leadership in the planning, identification and interpretation of research materials, and develop content to disseminate knowledge to a public audience (Radio Programme).


Practical skills

  • Show leadership in the planning of a public broadcast, by helping to identify research materials, themes and content based around an archaeological artefact from a burial and undertake training to edit recorded material and present the final work (Radio Programme);
  • Research, analyse, interpret and deliver ideas about past burial rites through oral dissemination (Radio Programme), text and imagery (Poster);
  • Make use of academic publications, online news materials, museum digital resources etc. to develop content on a type of burial rite, and undertake technical training to successful create a digitally-designed academic output (Poster);
  • Conduct themselves sensitively, ethically and professionally in the excavation and interpretation of human remains (Lectures, Lab Practical, Museum field visit).


Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Retrieve archaeological and ethnographic information from a variety of sources (Seminar Level 3: Poster);
  • Synthesise, critically evaluate and analyse data and interpretation, and present this in variety of formats, to different audiences (Radio Programme, Poster);
  • Evaluate numerical data, written argument and visual information, in a rigorous manner (Poster);
  • Demonstrate computer literacy, visual and design literacy and ability to create, edit and present audio information (Radio Programme, Poster);
  • Work as part of a team in both informal academic settings (seminar debate/discussions) and formal public presentations (Radio Programme Workshops and final delivery);
  • Manage time effectively both as an individual and as a group (Radio Programme Workhops);
  • Demonstrate an ability to negotiate, problem-solve and adapt individual roles; manage behaviour and carry out responsibilities, as delegated by the group(Radio Programme Workshops);
  • Reflect upon peer and mentor feedback, both formative and summative (Feedback Sheets, Office Hours).


Assessment methods

Radio programme 50%
Poster  50%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback

Summative: Turn-It-In online feedback delivery for both oral and written assessment.

Oral feedback

Formative – workshops  

Office Hours: personalised, one-to-one discussion of feedback delivered through dedicated office hours and group feedback (formative) delivered through lecturer-led seminars


Recommended reading

Core reading (available either as e-books or digital chapters):

  • Boric, D. and Robb, J. Past Bodies. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
  • Bradbury, J. and Scarre, C. 2017. Engaging with the Dead: Exploring Changing Human Beliefs about Death, Mortality and the Human Body. Oxford, Oxbow.
  • Chamberlain, A. and Parker Pearson, M. 2001. Earthly remains: the history and science of preserved human bodies. London, British Museum.
  • Clegg, M., Redfern, R., Bekvalac, J. and Bonney, H. (eds) 2013. Global Ancestors: understanding the shared humanity of our ancestors. Oxford: Oxbow
  • Downes, J. and Pollard, T. (eds.) The loved body’s corruption: archaeological contributions to the study of human mortality. Glasgow, Cruithne Press.
  • English Heritage. 2011. The Heritage of Death. Conservation: The Bulletin of the Historic Environment. Issue 66, Summer 2011. Swindon, English Heritage.  
  • Giesen, M. (ed.) 2013. Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom. Woodbridge: Boydell.
  • Gowland, R. and Knüsel, C. 2006. Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford, Oxbow. ¿
  • Lohman, J. and Goodnow, K. 2006. Human Remains and Museum Practice. London, Museum of London/United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. ¿
  • Mays, S. 2010. The Archaeology of Human Bones. London, Routledge. 
  • Parker Pearson, M. 1999. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Stroud, Alan Sutton. ¿
  • Redfern, R. 2020. Injury and Trauma in Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Violence in Past Lives. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Robb, J. and Oliver, J. 2016. The Body in History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Roberts, C. 2009. Human remains in archaeology: a handbook. York, Council for British Archaeology.
  • Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology. Cambridge, Duckworth.  
  • Tarlow, S. 1999. Bereavement and Commemoration. Oxford, Blackwells.
  • Tarlow, S. and Nilsson Stutz, L. 2013. The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial. Oxford, Oxford University Press. (especially chapter 1).  
  • Taylor, T. 2003. The Buried Soul: How Humans invented Death. London, Forth Estate.
  • Wiliams, H. and Giles, M. (eds.) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society. Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Tutorials 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Melanie Giles Unit coordinator

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