Sven Ouzman Lecture

7 October 2021


Image of Plague Headstone with Skull

The Archaeology of Death and Pandemics

A public lecture by Dr Sven Ouzman, Archaeologist and Heritage Specialist, UWA School of Social Sciences

Death is a key moment and process in human life. People often invest a great deal of thought and emotion in how they adjust their relationship with once-living people, things and places. Indeed, how we define and dispose of the dead is one of the attributes that makes us ‘human’.

But how does a study of death work during a global pandemic, when death is anything but academic? In order to address key questions such as 'what is death?' (and did you know Western Australian legislation does NOT have a definition of ‘death’?), we need to understand pandemics in global and archaeological perspectives, back to the first recorded pandemic the Justinian Plague of 521 CE. We also need to consider at the ‘downtrodden dead’ – children, women, Neanderthals and ‘deviant’ burials and how pandemics variably affect these categories of people. For example, most people unaware of the lethality of imported pathogens to Indigenous people, with up to 90% of some populations decimated.

But Archaeology is not just a study of the past – it places the present in context (in the next 100 years we have to dispose of over 7 billion people) – and helps us map the future of our death behaviours (from alkaline hydrolysis to integrating human ashes to coral reefs or making them in to diamonds, pencils or shooting capsules of cremated remains into space). This talk concludes by arguing that the lasting social, religious and economic impacts on how we understand and treat death is entering a new chapter as COVID and related deaths reconfigure our future necroscapes.

Dr Sven Ouzman is an archaeologist and heritage specialists at UWA’s School of Social Sciences. He researches the Indigenous rock arts and archaeology in northern Australia and southern Africa. Around Perth he investigates issues of homelessness and graffiti. He is Director of learning, Teaching and Student Matters for UWA Social sciences and co-ordinates the Archaeology Major in which he teaches ARCY2006 The Archaeology of Death.

Warning: This lecture contains images and sometimes names of dead people, and examines issues that can be distressing. Counselling is available for staff and students:

 Or for the general public here:


A note for attendees at our event:

For the wellbeing of our community, we ask that attendees at our events please follow WA Health Recommendations. Please stay at home if you are feeling unwell. To find out more about current health measures for Western Australia, please read the latest Western Australian Government guidelines