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Guest Post: Launch of the University of Sheffield Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project Website by Greer Dewdney & Jennifer Crangle

16 Apr

Greer Dewdney is a graduate intern on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project, which is run by the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology in conjunction with Holy Trinity Church.  A graduate of the department, Greer’s role is to help facilitate the project through its various stages.  Dr Jennifer Crangle, a University of Sheffield graduate and a Workers’ Educational Association tutor, is the project initiator whose doctoral research it is based upon.  Her research focuses on funerary archaeology and human osteology, with specific reference to medieval period England and Europe and a focus on the funerary treatment and the curation of the dead, both physically and ideologically.  Joe Priestly is an undergraduate student in history and archaeology at the department and also a freelance documentarian.  He acts as the project’s media designer and built the project website.

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The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project is a joint venture between the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology and Holy Trinity Church at Rothwell, in Northamptonshire, which aims to further understanding of the Medieval ossuary beneath the church.  The ‘bone crypt’ as it is known to local Rowellians, is one of only two sites in England with a Medieval charnel chapel where the structure remains intact and with human remains in situ (the other is at St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent).  The Project was begun as a result of Dr. Jennifer Crangle’s PhD research, and since then has been continuously expanding to address the many and varied areas of interest that have arisen in the investigation of this almost unique archaeological site.

One of the main areas of focus for the project currently is the creation of a ‘digital ossuary’.  This is being produced through collaboration with the Computer Sciences department and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) at the University of Sheffield.  By taking a 3D laser scanner into the crypt and strategically positioning it around the ossuary to take multiple scans, a point cloud has been generated which accurately records the ossuary in three dimensions.  This point cloud is what can then be processed and refined into a full 3D digital model, which can be viewed and explored by people through a computer, so that the fascinating and engaging experience of visiting the bone crypt is no longer restricted to people who can get to Rothwell and have good enough mobility to tackle the stairs.  This research was presented at this year’s CAA (Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology) conference in Oslo, Norway, by Jennifer Crangle and Peter Heywood.

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The new website introduces the background to the site and the aims of the project. All images courtesy of Joe Priestly.

Another of the current focuses is an attempt to secure some dates for the bones in the crypt, as obviously the question of when they date to is foremost in the minds of many of the researchers and local residents.  Recently, some surface samples were taken for CHRONO, the C14 radiocarbon dating service at Queen’s University Belfast, to test the nitrogen content of the material.  These have determined that the bones are well-preserved enough for radiocarbon dating to be feasible.  With kind permission of the Church Council, five full samples will be taken to be tested (again at Queen’s University), so hopefully there will soon be some more concrete ideas of when some of the remains are  from.

Although this won’t tell us when the bones were deposited in the charnel chapel, it will answer one of the most frequently asked and longstanding questions in the site’s history.  The dates could give us some further insights, however, into the use of the charnel chapel and how it was perceived by Rowellians; for example, if one or more of our samples date to the 1700s or later, then they had to have been brought in after the site’s rediscovery circa 1700.  This illustrates the continued belief, that the charnel room was a suitable place for depositing bones, even if it wasn’t being used as a charnel chapel in this time period.  As a part of this any and all results from the radiocarbon dating are going to reveal so much more about the charnel chapel than we currently know.

Recently the project was awarded funding from the University of Sheffield Engaged Curriculum, and this has enabled the hiring of 3rd year Archaeology & History undergraduate student Joe Priestley.  Joe designed and built the project website, as well as providing invaluable services in photography and documenting events.  This strand of the work has created a great relationship between the people of Rothwell and given them, and others from across the world, the ability to interact with, and further, the research happening at this fascinating and unique site.

Further Information

  • Find out more on the Rothwell Charnel Chapel project website, where the history of the site is discussed alongside the current research aims.  You can also take a video tour of the church and chapel itself with the researchers and members of the church involved with the project.  Keep an eye out on the site for open day tours of the site with the University of Sheffield researchers and the church representatives.  Typically these are held yearly but expect the project to pick up pace and introduce further open days as appropriate. 
  • Check out the Facebook group where we regularly post updates about our research and get involved with the project.  We also welcome feedback, so please do get in touch with questions or ideas.
  • Check out a previous These Bones of Mine photography essay on Rothwell from the 2014 open day.  The post delves into the background of the site and highlights what research has taken place over the years at Rothwell and the context for the current University of Sheffield research project.

Selection of Previous & Current Research on Rothwell

Crangle, J. N. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Published 03/08/2013.  Accessed 14/04/2016. (Open Access).

Crangle, J. N. 2016. A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices In Medieval England. University of Sheffield. Unpublished PhD/Doctoral Thesis.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). University of Sheffield. Unpublished MSc Thesis. (Open Access).

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

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A Brief Photo Essay: Rothwell Ossuary and Charnel Chapel

2 Aug

On the same trip as the Sheffield General Cemetery post below I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Trinity church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, which houses a unique medieval charnel chapel and ossuary.  It is only one of two remaining charnel chapels and ossuaries in England known to have survived the 16th century English Reformation in the original location, with the other site being St. Leonard’s in Hythe, Kent, although others may possibly exist intact elsewhere (Jupp & Gittings 1999).  As previously mentioned on this blog I was at Rothwell to volunteer for the day, talking to members of public about the value of human skeletal remains and giving demonstrations of how to age and sex the skeleton.

On first glance the Holy Trinity church is perhaps surprising in its size for the first time visitor as it is a building that dominates the modern-day village of Rothwell.  The origins of the church can be traced back to the early part of the 12th century during the reign of Henry I when the church was built by Earl Roger of Clare.  It was subsequently much improved in size when it was acquired by the wealthy Augustinian abbey of Cirencester in the 13th century, appearing today as much as did in this period (Garland et al. 1988: 235, also see here).  During the 14th and early 16th centuries further extension of the church was completed, including the addition of a spire to the west tower and expansion to include a lofty sanctuary.  However the church faced ruin with the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII’s reign.  In the late 17th century the building could not longer be kept at the size it was, so the north and south transepts were demolished.  Further natural disasters followed which reduced the building and left it in ruin, right up until the 1890’s when it was decided that the church needed to be restored, a process which was not completed until the 1980’s.

It was only during the 18th century that a previously much used charnel chapel and ossuary was unexpectedly re-discovered (Parsons 1910).  It is this ossuary, and its contents, that will be the focus of this brief photographic essay.  So once again with friends from the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield and my trusty Pentax S1a camera loaded with black and white film, I took my first trip down to the ossuary.

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One of the first things that visitors will notice, after having made the journey from the spacious church and down through the rather small and somewhat suffocating stone staircase to the ossuary and charnel chapel, is that the visitor is greeted with numerous crania.  These stare somewhat impassively out from their wooden shelves.  It can be cold in here, in a room three-quarters underground which is dark and damp.  It is the perfect environment for the post-mortem demineralization of the bones, and for the breeding of micro organisms (including fungi), which have infiltrated the human remains and remain active in their decay and physical degradation (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The likely original entrance to the ossuary was probably from the outside of the south-west wall, which now has an 18th to 19th century porch covering the medieval entrance (Crangle 2013).  Originally a black and white photograph, coloured in Windows Media Player.

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The second immediate sight that the visitor will notice are the two large stacks of bones that dominate the centre of the 13th century building, which measures 9 meters long by 4.5 meters wide (Garland et al. 1988: 236).  It is often mistaken that the two stack collections contain just the crania and the femora of the human skeletons however this is not true as many individual elements are represented in the stacks, including the odd animal bone.  The bones were stacked in this way as a result of the changes made during restoration of the ossuary in 1911, where previously, and likely originally, the bones had all be stacked against the walls of the crypt (Parsons 1910: 484).  Later studies have shown that the bones are still undergoing macro and microbial damage as a result of the damp environment (Garland et al. 1988: 248).

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The osteological remains charnelled in the ossuary represent the secondary post-deposition movement of many individuals from the medieval period (13th to 16th century) from Rothwell and the surrounding area (Garland et al. 1988: 239).  Parsons (1910) & Garland et al. (1988: 247) have both noted the appearance of bacterial destruction within the bones and damage within the charnel chapel itself, with Garland et al. stating that further investigation and conservation is likely needed for preservation.  White & Booth’s (2014: 93) experimental research into bioerosion on pig carcasses highlights the importance of understanding the context of the depositional environment of bodies and activity of putrefaction.  In particular understanding the importance of the position of the body (surface exposure or primary burial) in relation to the role of the body’s intrinsic microbiota will leave specific diagenetic signatures in bone microstructures in the form of bioerosion (White & Booth 2014: 101).

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A close up of some of the crania on the shelves.  The osteoarchaeological research that has been conducted on the ossuary remains has all taken place with the charnel chapel itself due to the fragile nature of the remains and the ethical considerations of removing the bones from the place where they were intentionally deposited (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  The site is an important location for understanding the cultural heritage for Rothwell and for the country, as there is much still to be researched and investigated in the ossuary and charnel chapel and of its importance for the surrounding area and historical population (Garland et al. 1988: 240).  It is also a site that continues to see the latest implementation of archaeological and osteoarchaeological techniques to record and conserve sites and human remains (Gonissen 2013).

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The original black and white photograph of the first.  The ongoing Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project, spearheaded by the University of Sheffield doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle, aims to investigate the funerary practice of charnelling at Rothwell and the long-term conservation of the skeletal remains.  Traditional and emerging osteological techniques are also being implemented in the study of the skeletal remains and their context.  This has included the use of CRANID, a statistical program used to ascertain the geographic origins of the individuals represented in the ossuary, and the use of 3D imaging techniques, such as photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), to digitally record fragile osteological material in-situ and then use the images produced for anthropological analysis of the remains (Gonissen 2013).

The above photographs of the Holy Trinity church ossuary are all largely focused on the crania present at the site.  Although this was not a deliberate attempt at capturing the individuals, I think it helps to highlight the fact that this isn’t just a random assorted collection of bones.  Far from being shunned or hidden, this charnel chapel and ossuary would have been known about and visited from the 13th to 16th centuries by the many residents of Rothwell and by the many visitors to the area (Crangle 2013).  I also hope, in part, that this photographic entry entices you to visit Rothwell to see, explore and learn about a now rather unique collection of skeletal remains and their historical context.

 Learn More

  • The crypt and ossuary at Rothwell’s Holy Trinity church is open to visitors each and every Sunday during the summer period, with church guides on hand giving out information.  It is also open every second Sunday during the winter months from October on-wards.  Everybody is welcome to take a look at this fascinating site.
  • The University of Sheffield regularly hold annual open days for the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project at the church, with doctoral candidate Jennifer Crangle researching the ossuary as part of her ongoing research into the post-depositional treatment of medieval human remains.
  • More information on fascinating ossuary of St Leonard’s church in Hythe, Kent, (the only other known surviving medieval English ossuary), can be found here.

Bibliography

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.  Accessed 29th July 2014. (Open Access).

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

Jupp, P.C. & Gittings, C. (eds.). 1999. Death In England: An Illustrated History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Parsons, F. G. 1910. Report on the Rothwell Crania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 40: 483-504.

White, L. & Booth, T. J. 2014. The Origin of Bacteria Responsible for Bioerosion to the Internal Bone Microstructure: Results from Experimentally-Deposited Pigs. Forensic Science International. 239: 92-102.

Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project Open Day 28th June 2014

26 Jun

I’ve previously discussed the Rothwell medieval charnel chapel and ossuary project before on the site, but I just wanted to highlight another open day coming up on the Saturday 28th of June at Holy Trinity church in the village of Rothwell, near Northampton, for this great site.  The ossuary at Rothwell is one of only two or three surviving medieval charnel houses in the UK, so it is a fantastic and rare opportunity to visit this wonderful site and to learn about the history of the church and it’s importance in understanding medieval funeral and mortuary archaeology.

There will also be University of Sheffield researchers there on the day, talking to members of the public about what human osteologists can tell from the human skeletal itself, and of the recent bioarchaeological and historical research that continues to be carried out at Holy Trinity itself.  Jennifer Crangle, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield who established and is leading the research at the chapel as a part of understanding the post-depositional treatment of human remains, will be organizing the event along with Dr Elizabeth Craig-Atkins of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield (Crangle 2013).  The team on the open day will also include a number of past and present researchers from the archaeology department from the University of Sheffield.  I, too, will be present helping by talking to members of the public on how to age and sex skeletal remains of individuals from the archaeological record.  It is something I am deeply looking forward to.

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Family friendly events will be taking place, and there is also the the unique chance to learn about some of the research that has been carried out by Masters and doctoral students at the University of Sheffield.

The open day is part of the project to help understand the osteological remains present at Rothwell and to introduce members of the public to the human skeletal and what we can tell about individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  The open day will include crypt tours, where the stacked remains of medieval individuals (consisting of rows of crania and stacks of femora, amongst other bones) are stored alongside church tours of the early 13th century building.  The event will also be host to a number of family friendly activities which are focused on understanding what the human skeleton can inform us of.  This will include:

An Exploded Skeleton, with attempts made to piece the individual back together.

Mr and Mrs Bones, to see if there are differences in male and female remains and why this may be.

Old Bones, on how the skeleton changes as an individual ages and how this can effect the individual person.

My Aching Bones, detailing which diseases can affect the skeleton and which may be visible on skeletal remains themselves.

The research at the Rothwell ossuary and crypt is part of an ongoing and long term study into understanding the skeletal remains and their physical condition at the site.  This involves trying to ask what the bones are doing in the crypt in the first place, why they were placed as they were and what their function was by being placed in such a way.  The second major aim is to try to understand the composition of the stacked remains, highlighting the fact that it is not just the crania and femora but also many of the bones in the skeleton that are present in the stacks, as well as animal bones.  The third aim is to investigate where the people who are present in the crypt came from.  This includes the osteological analysis of the bones themselves for composition and for preservation levels, as well carrying out a statistical analysis on the bones using measurements based on anatomical landmarks to help indicate what populations/geographic areas the individuals came from.  The fourth major aim is to ask in what way new technology can help and supplement the standard osteoarchaeological approaches used by bioarchaeologists.  At Rothwell this has involved laser scanning the remains to produce 3D images, which is helping to promote the non-movement of some very fragile bones (Garland et al. 1988: 246) and highlight the value of new technology in human osteology (Gonissen forthcoming).

The importance of understanding the post-depositional movement and composition of the skeletal remains at Rothwell is really important as the site itself is not environmentally stable for the long-term storage of the remains.  By investigating the physical remains at Rothwell and understanding the funerary context that they were used in, it is hoped that the project can initiate and produce a more stable environment for the remains to be stored in, whilst also documenting mortuary behaviour that has largely gone under-studied when historians and osteoarchaeologists have studied the skeletal remains of individuals in the English medieval period.

In a curious way the Rothwell project has been highlighted on this site a few times, in blog interviews and in a number of posts on conferences, so it will be great to finally visit the site myself to see the stacked remains of medieval individuals and also to talk to members of the public about the real value of understanding human remains.

Learn More

Bibliography:

Crangle, J. 2013. The Rothwell Charnel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. Posted 3rd August 2013.

Garland, A. N., Janaway, R. C. & Roberts, C. A. 1988. A Study of the Decay Processes of Human Skeletal Remains from the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, Rothwell, NorthamptonshireOxford Journal of Archaeology7 (2): 235-249.

Gonissen, J. 2013.  New Tools in Anthropology: An Evaluation of Low-Cost Digital Imagery Methods in 3D Photogrammatry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging Applied to Fragile Osteological Material with Limited Access: the Case of Rothwell ossuary (Northamptonshire, UK). Unpublished MSc Thesis. The University of Sheffield.

Interview with Paul Koudounaris: Behind the Lens

5 Feb

Paul Koudounaris is an art historian based in California, USA, who specializes in the documenting and photographing the use of human remains in sacred contexts, especially in ossuary and charnel houses.  Perhaps best known for his two books, Empire of Death (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2013), Paul gained his PhD in art history from the University of California Los Angeles in 2004.  Paul’s personal website can be found at Empire de la Mort, which contains a whole host of information on upcoming talks, books and an extensive selection of his stunning photography.


These Bones of Mine: Hi Paul, thank you for joining me at These Bones of Mine!  I recently had the great pleasure of watching you speak at the University of Sheffield on the topic of your latest project ‘Heavenly Bodies’, the so-called saints from the catacombs, but for those that don’t know of your research interests how would you best describe your previous and ongoing work?

Paul Koudounaris: I basically study the use of human remains in sacred contexts. Heavenly Bodies was my second book with Thames and Hudson, and it was a study of the skeletons of supposed martyrs taken from the Roman Catacombs starting in the late sixteenth century, and magnificently decorated with jewels. The book that preceded it was the Empire of Death, which was a study of ossuaries. By training I’m an Art Historian, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, and it’s important to note that because my primary interest has always been in documenting how what I am studying fits into the visual culture of its period. I’m not trying to come up with a provenance for these bones, that’s outside of my skill set and usually not terribly relevant to what I want to probe, which is what people saw in them at the time, how and why they decorated them, or decorated with them, and what that meant.

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A beautiful photograph of the stacked crania and long bones from the medieval Rothwell crypt at Holy Trinity Church in Northampton, England.  Rothwell is only one of a few surviving English charnel houses and is currently being assessed by a team from the University of Sheffield for best conservation methods and examination of the skeletal remains.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

If by training I’m an Art Historian, I have to also fess up that by nature I am something else–by nature I’m kind of a dilettante. I came into Art History through the visual arts, before I went and got the PhD I used to do assemblage sculpture and installation work, and while the rigor of studying the material for the two books was important to giving the subject matter meaning, it also left me kind of cold. It’s for that reason that the next book will turn out to be radically different. Both of the previous books are very photo heavy–they need to be, the images themselves are an important part of the story–and I do all my own photos. There was an interesting personal transition for me in completing those books: when I started, I thought of myself as an Art Historian who did photography, now I think of myself more as a photographer who does Art History.

For that reason, I wanted to do a book that would allow the images to break free of the need to conform to the text. The text was crucial to the two books, but it was also tyrannical when it came to the images, the text dictated how the images needed to be used, where they could appear and in what context. But the next book, which will be much more global (including copious material related to the veneration of human remains I have shot in Asia, South America, Africa), will be formatted in a very different way. The images themselves will construct the story–they will be arranged based upon their aesthetic qualities, and the text will be made to conform to them. This will allow different, maybe more romantic and imaginative connections. There is no reason why, say, a decorated skull from Nepal cannot sit alongside a painted skull from Austria, other than the fact that the previous texts wouldn’t allow that. But this time the images will be laid in first, and I have instructed the designer to simply leave me blank text boxes within the layout, and it will be my job to go back in and construct texts that will link these images together. In essence, we’re working in a way that’s exactly opposite of how we had worked before.

TBOM: I think anyone who has read any of your books, or has come across your photography work before, will recognise the fact that you have a real passion and skill for capturing the innate character of your subject.  Do you ever feel a personal connection to what, or who, you are photographing, or is the act of photographing itself a sort of personal veneration of the object or individual?

Paul: That’s a great and complex question. I find the term “innate character” a bit tricky, but what I try to capture is whatever I feel is most expressive about a site or skeleton, based on my own innate, intuitive reaction. With the charnel houses, I figured out very quickly how to take great looking pictures of them–if you have the right equipment, it’s not that hard, there are just a handful of technical things that are important. But shooting that way, just to make things look good, gets rhetorical. When I was shooting Empire of Death, it was important to me not just to shoot to make things look good, but to walk into a place and try to assess my own reaction to it–or rather, what my reaction would have been had I not already visited scores and scores of other charnel houses. That’s not easy to do, to try to erase your own callousness towards the subject matter and look at things with fresh eyes. But that was the goal, to try to retain some freshness of vision to shoot each site so that it expressed whatever impact it might have had on me, had I walked in totally naive.

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A photograph from the 2013 Heavenly Bodies book, reported to be the Saint Munditia, the patron saint of Spinsters, in Germany (termed the Katakombenheilige).  Notice the fine silk screen, exquisite metal work and re-made eyes.  (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

When I was shooting Heavenly Bodies, each time I would come to a new skeleton, I would try to come up with a single word that best distilled what I felt it expressed. So some conjured for me the idea of pride, others loneliness or abandonment, others humility. Of course, the skeletons express none of these things, these are my own reactions to them, but it was important to me to get a simple and clear sense of what I was receiving from them, and then try to capture that single expression. It was a terribly hard task–if shooting charnel houses is, as I said, relatively easy if you have the right equipment, shooting those skeletons was torturous at almost every turn. They are awkward items, the angles are invariably difficult, the lighting is horrendous, and worst of all the vast majority are encased in glass shrines that cannot be opened without breaking them–so not only are you dealing with issues of reflection and glare on the glass, the glass itself could be upwards of 400 years old, so not only dirty, but filled with defects and divets I would have to somehow avoid. You’re not asking about the photography on a technical level so I won’t go into detail on what I had to do, but as I said, it was very, very difficult to even get a shot in many cases, and even more so to try to get any kind of expressive effect.

To me, though, that is where artistry lies–not just reproducing the object, but responding to it. That approach has puzzled a lot of people, frankly. People at the sites were expecting someone who was simply interested in studying them as historical objects, and in such a mindset, pretty much any picture will do, and the optimal quality to be striven for is clarity. But I was doing something else, trying to find some expressive quality–as I said, it was often puzzling to people. Many thought I was just nuts, because I might be walking around a site or staring at a skeleton for long periods of time not doing anything, just staring, or spending long amounts of time making tiny adjustments with the camera or lenses or filters. Is it a form of veneration? I don’t know. Maybe. I think it’s a form of respect. I think it’s also a form of bonding. I don’t know about veneration. The thing to remember, though, is that all those pictures are my own reactions to the objects or sites, so there is a level on which they also serve in an inverse way as portraits of myself. Anyway, long answer, but as I said, it’s a complex question.

TBOM: I very much like the idea that it is a form of bonding with the subject, especially in the case of the saints in Heavenly Bodies.  It has been noted that you are also keen to study the burial places of animals, especially pet cemeteries.  Are you fascinated by the human-animal relationship through time and do you regard the burial places as outpourings of human grief for animals or as examples of demonstrative wealth?

Paul: That’s another complex question, more complex than I would have thought before I had started looking into pet cemeteries–and yes, I have become rather fixated on them lately. You mention the “human-animal relationship through time,” but we need to be aware of how that relationship has evolved, and how it varies historically and cross-culturally. It’s a very hard evolution to trace, since it is not something that was typically documented in texts. In short, what we call “pets” were basically an invention of the nineteenth century, particularly in France and the UK. OK, sure, people had always had domestic animals, apparently dating back to prehistoric times–I say this because graves have been found containing people and animals buried together, so presumably in such cases there was some domestic relationship between them.

But what we call a pet–the way we conceive it, the way we treat it, the way we feed and groom it–is as I said something that really starts in the nineteenth century. I wouldn’t even use the term “pet” for animals before then, because to me that term has a cultural specificity. Well, it’s a long story, obviously. But when it comes to pet cemeteries, not surprisingly they also start in the nineteenth century, and not surprisingly then they also start in the UK and France. They start with the modern conception of pets. Animals were buried before then in their own graveyards, this dates back again to ancient times–but a place like Bubastis, where cats were mummified in Egypt, was not a “pet” cemetery, because of course these were sacred animals.

Anyway, regarding the burial places, they likewise have a different meaning depending on the culture and era and the way the animals were conceived, but one interesting thing I have noticed about the modern pet cemeteries is that they really aren’t examples of demonstrative wealth, which seems counter intuitive. To some extent they are I suppose, because the very poor are excluded due to cost, and the very wealthy have greater means to memorialize their animals, but by and large wealth has nothing to do with it–it’s more a question of the attachment to the animal, and whatever ritual its owner feels is necessary to gain closure.

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Unknown individuals at a Ruamkatanyu skull shrine in Bangok, Thailand. As part of a charitable foundation that provide coffins to low-income families, the skulls are the patrons of dead paupers and unidentified individuals that symbolises the value of the work that the foundation carries out. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

I have been talking to a lot of people who work at and have animals at pet cemeteries, and even gone to some vigils at one here in LA (they have a monthly candlelight vigil). I have yet to come across anyone I would consider in the top-tier economically, but have found many people whom I would consider no better than middle class. They have no interest in demonstrating wealth or status. Like I said, the decision to memorialize in a cemetery is due almost exclusively to attachment to the animal and the need for closure. It’s love in very pure form. Sometimes in a frightening form because it can be obsessive, but it’s based in love, and, with the filters we use for grieving humans removed, the emotion is often raw and poignant to the point of pain.

TBOM: Could you tell me more about the monthly candle lit vigils for animals in LA?  Also have you noticed any obvious differences between modern countries for pet cemeteries?

Paul: Sure. They hold these candlelight vigils at night, once a month. Anyone is invited to come, it is a chance to speak about their departed animal–to help the person who lost the pet find some measure of solace and resolution in the company of others who are struggling with the same grief. After a person speaks their candle is then placed in a box with those of the others who have previously spoken, it’s obviously a symbol of solidarity. Pet cemeteries are odd places, because as I have said the normal conventions and formalities we have with other people are removed when it comes to animals–think about it, no matter how giddy I might be feeling, I simply can’t walk up to another person on the street and pat them on the head, pinch their cheeks, and start saying, “oh you look so cute”–but I can do that to a dog, so you can encounter pretty much anything when it comes to people grieving an animal. When it comes to these vigils, mostly it’s pretty straight forward and dull, but sometimes it can get very odd–the last one I went to, there was an elderly woman in a wheelchair singing “My Darling Clementine” to her dead dog in an operatic voice, it was like something from a David Lynch movie.

As for differences between cultures when it comes to the pet cemeteries, they’re really a very American thing–the vast majority of pet cemeteries are in the USA. I mentioned that they started in the UK and France, but the place they caught on is here in the USA. I am still not entirely sure of what that says about us as a culture, but my intuition is that there are two ways it could be interpreted. One is that we are simply more devoted to our pets, and thus willing to publicly memorialize them. I would have to somehow to find statistics on per capita expenditures on animal toys, accessories, and other related items to confirm if that might be true. The other way to interpret it is simply that, hey, it’s the USA, and we can create a commodity out of absolutely anything, we can even find a way commodify your dead dog. I have a hunch the answer will turn out to be the latter, sadly.

TBOM: As a part of the ‘Encountering Corpses’ art exhibition at the Manchester Metropolitan University in March, you are displaying some of your original photography from the Heavenly Bodies and Empire of Death books and presenting a talk about your work.  What for you is the driving force to document these bodies and the pet cemeteries?

Paul: Hmmmm. Well. What is the driving force that compels me to do this kind of stuff . . . to answer that properly would require deep introspection. On a more superficial level, I tend to be interested in things that have a profound, emotional meaning, but have fallen through the cracks of history. Of course, I have chosen *these* topics in particular, which I suspect appeal to me because in addition to their historical and emotional value, they also often have a surreal weirdness associated with them.

Fiesta_de_las_Natitas_La_Paz_Bolivia-19a

A still from the Fiesta de las Natitas in La Paz, Bolivia. The festival, held every November, is little known outside of Bolivia where the living commemorate the dead and especially venerate the skulls of the ancestors. Paul has written an informative article for the Fortean Times here on the festival and it is well worth a read. (Image credit: Paul Koudounaris).

To pry a little deeper, they all obviously involve death and remembrance, which is a topic I was obsessed with ever since I was a child. I used to try to talk to my mother about exactly what I wanted written on my tombstone (yes, she thought I was odd, and no, she did not particularly want to talk about that topic as it seemed to unnerve her). But it’s hard for me to come up with an answer beyond that. Obviously, we are talking about topics that are part of the great mystery that binds us all as living creatures–but there was no specific incident I can recall that would have made me any more macabre than anyone else.

TBOM: Thank you Paul for that response, I think a lot of archaeologists and human osteologists will agree that in a large part, the study of history, our interactions and thoughts about death and remembrance, all drive our passion for pursuing our chosen fields.  A final thank you for joining These Bones of Mine and for enlightening us to the worlds of Saints, pet cemeteries and your inner thoughts!  I look forward to the culmination of your next project.

Further Information

  • Paul will be appearing for a talk and exhibiting a number of his photographs at the Manchester Metropolitan University Encountering Corpses exhibition on the 28th of March 2014 (exhibition on from 28/02/14 to the 10/04/13).

Select Bibliography

Koudounaris, P. 2010. Skulls Cops and the Cult of the Natitas. Fortean Times. Accessed 05/2/14.

Koudounaris, P. 2011. The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. London: Thames and Hudson.

Koudounaris, P. 2013. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. London: Thames and Hudson.