Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

SHA 2023 Conference, Lisbon, Portugal

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It’s time for another travel blog, coming to you live from…my home office where I am writing this very jetlagged, because we got home at 2am yesterday after 27 hrs of travelling! This year, the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) hosted their annual general meeting and conference in Lisbon, and over 900 archaeologists descended on the city to attend the event. This conference was meant to be held in Jan 2021 originally, but for some weird reason that I couldn’t possibly remember, they had to push it forward by two years, and thankfully were able to go ahead with Lisbon 2023 instead! So here we are, drinking vinho verde and talking about archaeology in a gorgeous city of colourful tiles and Moorish castle ruins.

The conference ran from January 4-7, 2023 and was hosted at Universidade NOVA de Lisboa. We were able to volunteer as grad students this year to help with registration and monitoring sessions in exchange for not being charged the registration fee for the conference, which is a great initiative that the SHA always has at their conferences. We spent about 8 hrs each (me and my husband, Ian), volunteering over two of the conference days, and attended a load of talks and some events as well! This is going to be a lot of conference stuff, as well as a lot of talking about food and wine, as you do.

Overlooking the city and river from a viewpoint in Alfama, Lisbon (photo by author)

The first day of the conference is always dedicated to workshops and tours, which we usually don’t participate in because they are often very expensive and not super accessible to students. This year, there were several walking tours of the city for a reasonable price, so when we registered months ago, we also signed up for the ‘Medieval Lisbon’ tour! It was really great to be able to do the walking tour, since it was a city and country that we’d never been to before, so getting shown around a little was super helpful because it helped us get familiar with the city centre…and some medieval structures and archaeology, which is really all you need to know about a place, right? The photo above was taken from a viewpoint in the district called Alfama, which had so many historic buildings and gorgeous vistas like this one! We also took a look a the medieval walls of the city’s Castelo de São Jorge, which has been a fortified site since around the 1st century BCE, and the castle you see there today dates from the Moorish and Christian occupations of Lisbon in the early medieval period. The castle has a super long history, I highly recommend a visit! After our day out we made dinner in our airbnb apartment, and then headed over to meet up with friends from ‘archaeology twitter’ at the opening night reception. We had a great time, but they ran out of wine 45 minutes into a 2 hr reception, so we left to find a nearby wine bar, as one does.

Ian posing beside his poster at the SHA poster session 1

Conference day 2 was the start of the talks, and of volunteer shifts! Ian was at the registration table, and I was monitoring the Mortuary Archeology session, run by Richard Veit and Harold Mytum. For those of you who don’t know, Harold ran the undergraduate field school that I attended in 2011 at the beginning of my archaeology adventure, in Ireland and the Isle of Man, and is how I got introduced to cemetery archaeology! He was also my first archaeology boss, as I was asked to come back to the field school in 2012 as a supervisor and illustrator for the project, so it was great to catch up a little! I also got to meet my twitter friend Anna (@annaandthedead), which was so fun! Day 2 also included the first poster session, where Ian presented his ongoing PhD research to lots of cool people! The poster turned out really well, and it was great to see how many people went over and were super interested in what he’s looking into for his research.

That night, we went out for dinner with our friends Steph (@Cult_Archaeo) and her husband Pat, their friend Liam, and our friend Hanna Marie (@tinysapien), and after a struggle to find a GF-safe restaurant we finally ended up at a place that served traditional Portuguese food, and has been opened since the 18th century! I had a dish called Bacalhau à Brás, which is made of shredded potato, egg, salt cod, and onion, all baked together. I definitely want to try making it at home! We also got to visit the castle at night, as well as try some more local wines like vinho verde.

Conference day 3: Ian and I both spend the morning volunteering at the registration table on the Friday, and attended a few really cool talks in the afternoon, before calling it an early day. We made dinner at home, and then headed off on the Metro to see a soccer game! I bought Ian tickets to the Benfica vs. Portimonense game that night as an early birthday present, and we ended up sitting really close to one of the corners, one row from the bottom. I’m not into soccer at all, but it was actually a really fun experience.

Presenting some of my ongoing PhD research! Thank you Ian for taking a pic.

Conference day 4, or the one where I had to present! My talk was titled “Mortuary Landscapes and Cultural Representation in Burial Spaces, 17th- to early 18th-Century Northeast North America“, and covered some of my ongoing PhD research. So far, I’ve looked at the diaries of Samuel Sewall and Joshua Hempstead (click those names to read about the research!) to see how people in the later C17th and early C18th described funerals and burials, and to see how they represented the burials of Black and Indigenous people during the period as well. I am going on a research trip to New England and NY in a few weeks to continue this line of research, and I can’t wait to explore it further. For a grey afternoon on the last day of the conference, there was a very good turnout for the session, so a huge thank you to everyone that attended, and to my fellow presenters! Everyone’s talks were so cool! If you are interested in learning more about my research, please see the blog posts I linked earlier in this paragraph, or wait with bated breath for my dissertation, which I’ll be writing hard on come this Monday! After the conference was over, we spend the evening hanging out with April (@AprilMBeisaw) and Bill (@ArchaeologyGame), which was a wonderful way to round out the conference!

After the conference, we stayed in Portugal for another 4 days to do some exploring, and had an amazing time! On our downtown Lisbon day, we visited the Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa, which we briefly saw from the outside on the walking tour. There is a relic of Sao Antonio at the altar, and there was a room in the basement where the saint was apparently born back when there was a palace in the location (the chapel was built after he was sainted). What I was really excited to see though, was the incorruptible corpse of St. Justina of Padua. She is dressed in a beautiful gown, and has a plaster face modelled over her skull, because it is her body inside the glass case. I have included a photo of her below, which I debated because it is technically a photo of human remains even though you cannot see her remains in the photo, but her body was purposely put on display as a part of her religion, so I think that’s alright. You can’t see it in the photo, but she was also adorned with so many strings of pearls!

Within the downtown core of Lisbon, we also checked out the Carmo Convent, which is both the ruins of a convent and an archaeology museum. The convent itself was founded in the 14th century, and the building was badly damaged in the 1755 earthquake and fire that affected much of the city. The apse and nave of the former church house a small archaeological collection today, including an Egyptian mummy and two mummified bodies from Peru (repatriation would be super), who had been collected by antiquarians. To me, the most interesting part of the collection, besides the best interpretive video I’ve ever seen in a museum, as a small collection of Portuguese discoid gravestones, which were mounted on swivels so you could turn them around and see all sides. One had a five-pointed star drawn with a single line inside a circle, also known as a pentangle or pentagram, a symbol of protection from evil, and another had a Maltese cross on the main face, with a hexfoil on one side and a whorl on the other. The plaque said that they were examples from the 13th-16th centuries but did not tell me anything else about their origins. Even though I’ve turned in my manuscript on protective marks in mortuary contexts, it was still so exciting to see new examples, in a country I didn’t include in the book!

Me posing beside a gravestone fragment with a hexfoil on the side in the Carmo Convent museum.

We also had the chance to visit the Cemitério dos Prazeres, which is touted as one of the most beautiful and well known cemeteries in the world! Harold and Anna suggested that I visit this site before leaving, and I’m super glad we had time to get out there! The cemetery was opened in 1833, a bit later than the sites I’m looking at for my research, and is perched on the top of a hill. The morning that day was spent in Belem, then the LX Factory for lunch, and from there we hiked up to the cemetery and wow, I’m ready to sit for the next month (apparently we have walked over 100km since Jan 1). The cemetery was stunning! Rows of mausoleums and trees lined the stone streets, surrounding a mortuary chapel that housed a historic autopsy room with a granite autopsy table! It was so peaceful to walk down the patterned streets in the sun. The majority of the mausoleums had glass doors or metal doors with windows in them, so you were actually able to peek inside and see the ornate coffins inside, on little shelves stacked to the ceilings. This was really special, because coffins are something that, at least in North America, you might see for a few minutes at a funeral, but otherwise aren’t an object we get to see very often. At this site however, you can see the coffins easily, and appreciate the different styles and craftsmanship that people picked for their loved ones. Some of them, like the coffin the photo below is leaning on, were covered in cloth but most of them weren’t!

We didn’t have too long to explore the cemetery before they were preparing to shut the gates for the night, but I’m glad we had the chance to walk around for an hour at least, and it’s definitely somewhere that I’m interested in going back to whenever we can return to Portugal. There was an English cemetery nearby that I’m really interested in seeing in the future, as well as more historic burial locations.

Overall, the SHA 2023 conference was a great experience, and I’m so glad that we were able to attend. The conference venue felt a little disjointed than the last SHA I attended, in Boston, because it was spread over 4 buildings, but there was a nice courtyard in the centre with a cafe (poor baristas, they were totally overrun the entire time), but it was still very easy to get around and I didn’t have any trouble getting to and from the sessions. Portugal was never somewhere that was at the top of my travel list, but after getting the opportunity to visit for this event, I can firmly say that I want to go back immediately! We’d love to spend more time in Sintra, and go up to Porto to check out that area as well! I’ve seen some amazing photos of hikes…and ossuaries…from the countryside that I’d love to visit as well. Thank you to the SHA organisers for putting together a wonderful event!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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