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Rhind Lectures 2021: Untimely Ends

22nd October 2021 - 24th October 2021


Presented by Professor John Hunter OBE BA PhD FSA FSAScot MCIfA FCSFS

The Society’s first hybrid event with the Rhind Lectures is taking place in the NMS auditorium and online. However, it may be necessary, due to any future local restrictions imposed because of the pandemic, to move certain events to fully online only. Please keep an eye on the Society website, e-newsletters and your email inbox for the latest news and further information on Society events. 

This event is open and free to all. Find our Rhind Lecture 2021 leaflet here.

Rhind Lectures Outline

Archaeologists have always been fond of the dead. Their study enables us to learn about past societies and gives us free rein to air views and theories about what went on, what people believed in, and how the dead were disposed of and commemorated. It takes place at arm’s length from reality.

The past is a distant place, and the main artefact of death (the individual) is often anonymous. Experience of working with police forces throughout the UK and overseas locating and excavating clandestine burials can offer more cynical views of archaeological process and interpretation. There are some interesting comparanda when it comes to excavating murder victims, applying archaeological techniques to formal exhumations, analysing media perceptions, and locating markers in the landscape.

It would seem that we tend to think about the past in a different manner to the way we think about the present. This series of lectures will try and link the past and the present in an unusual way.

Friday 22 October
6pm – 
Mission impossible  

The series commences with a brief retrospect on the role of the archaeologist and the achievement of professional respectability in a diverse forensic community. It considers police culture, historic murders involving burial, different disposal characteristics and the divergence of forensic archaeology from its conventional parent subject, particularly with regards to evidence type, narrative, dissemination and links between forensic science and archaeological science.  Case studies involving bodies in cellars, gardens and woodland demonstrate a range of archaeological issues and solutions. Thought is given as to how the investigation of the present can stimulate a more evocative view of the past.

Followed by a drinks reception

Saturday 23 October
11am – I am arresting you because your ears are too big  

Archaeological techniques need to be adapted to respond to different types of murderer, motive and victim disposal; examples include those from both Russia and Scotland. This session also explores how the killer is perceived in the media and the uneasy parallels with the theory of Lombrosian anthropometrics in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Key to this movement were a number of Scots who believed that criminals could be recognised by physical and facial features. Their theories are mapped against the osteological studies of groups of archaeological burials in the Neolithic, and from prehistoric burials recovered from peat bogs.  

2pm – X marks the spot  

Locating old or ‘cold case’ burials brings about problems with landscape change and collective memory, both of which are considered in relation to survey work carried out in the Western Isles. Examples of relocating ‘cold case’ graves are given, especially with neonates and how some criminals like to mark their victims’ graves. Some investigations involve the burial of material for later recovery (drugs, firearms etc.) and this presents parallels with ancient hoards where concealment also involved the intention to recover (animus revertendi). Were treasure hoards marked, if so how?  This session examines the data from Scottish hoards, from Skaill to Galloway, and the shortcomings of early reporting and recovery.     

3.30pm –  ‘Burials tell us more about the living than the dead’

Discuss the findings from the previous analysis on marking hoard locations are outlined, but the main thrust of the session moves to memorials, funerary ritual and commemoration. This session considers modern ritual but with some prior discussion of decay and associated factors of forensic recovery. The focus, however, is on those occasions when formal exhumation is required as part of criminal enquiry. Here practical archaeological problems, logistics and public interest need to be carefully balanced. Case studies include that of a distinguished 19th century Cardinal whose exhumation transpired to be both unusual and embarrassing.  

Sunday 24 October
2pm – Experimenting with people  

The growing volume of cold cases where unresolved crime took place has generated interest in ‘body farms’ where levels of human decay are assessed in relation to context and elapsed time. Discussion considers buried environments which offer conditions that can both accelerate or contain decay, and also the effects of animal scavenging and surface scatter. In the UK pigs have been used as human analogues and much research has been conducted using various geophysical techniques to detect buried human remains at different stages of decay. The session concludes with the identification of human remains from fires.    

3.30pm – Mass graves and ethics  

Archaeologists began to be deployed in mass graves in Europe in the 1990s, notably in the Balkans with excavation of victims of the Srebrenica massacre and elsewhere. There are significant issues of ethics involved, for example, does excavation undertaken forensically to gather data for convictions differ in method and character from excavation for humanitarian repatriation? Can there be minimum standards? How do archaeologists operate effectively in situations where their input is constrained by political agencies? The methodology of one particular excavation is outlined; it draws together the victims and the landscape where they lived and considers some archaeological analogies.  

Presented by Professor John Hunter OBE BA PhD FSA FSAScot MCIfA FCSFS

John was appointed Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Birmingham in 1996. As well as undertaking archaeological research and survey in Scottish islands for over 35 years, he developed forensic archaeology in 1988 and has worked with police forces in the UK and overseas ever since. He has written over a dozen academic books, including three on forensics. His most recent, Ritual in Bronze Age Grave Goods and The Small Isles, on historic landscapes, appeared in 2013 and 2016 respectively. His current interests concern island landscapes, social change and diaspora. He was awarded an OBE for services to scholarship.

Due to the nature of this series of Rhind lectures, some of the content may be upsetting to some viewers. There will be clear warnings if graphic images are to be shown on screen, and these will not be recorded or shown during the live feed.

Rhind Lectures 2021 Registration



House Rules

We aim for our events to be safe and harassment-free and the Society has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment and bullying.

The Society expects all attendees to act with respect to one-another during this event and anyone making comments which we believe to be inappropriate (e.g. offensive, misleading, spam) or abusive will be removed from the event immediately.

To report any abuse you think we missed, please contact the Director of the Society, Dr Simon Gilmour (director@socantscot.org)


Please arrive and enter via the Lothian Street entrance to the Museum on Friday evening, and Chambers Street entrance on Saturday/Sunday.

Lifts are available to all floors and accessible toilets are available on most floors, as well as a Changing Places (U) toilet in the Entrance Hall on Level 0.

There is an induction loop in the Auditorium.

The auditorium is supplied by a separate AHU and it supplies fresh air in the correct proportions by monitoring the CO2 PPM.

More information on accessibility available here.


COVID-19 Precautions for attending in-person events

To ensure all attendees and members of staff follow safety protocol and have an enjoyable experience at these events, please make sure you adhere to the following rules:

  • We request that attendees take a COVID-19 test prior to the event
  • Please wear a mask at all times (unless exempt) even whilst sitting in the Auditorium during lectures
  • Try to maintain social distancing where possible, we will limit numbers within the auditorium to allow this
  • Please use hand sanitising stations provided
  • Please use the check-in system when attending the event
  • Listen to further announcements by members of staff

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