The people of the past: part 2

In a museum local to me, there is a film playing by the entrance. An actress, in character as a citizen of the Roman empire, introduces herself and describes her background, likes and dislikes, and religious beliefs. It’s rather like the two-minute introduction to a contestant in a reality show.

At the end of the segment, visitors are invited to walk to walk to the next room, where they can view her skeleton.

In a nearby display case are rows of skulls, staring out at the visitor. The caption on the glass reads “meet our other guests”.

Perhaps it is overly sensitive of me to feel that I do not want to view the remains of a person with whom I feel that I have a sense of personal connection, having been introduced to them as an individual. Perhaps it is an indictment of my sense of humour that I do not feel that body parts, excavated from their context and set out in a case like any other museum objects, are a very distant concept from that of visitors or guests.

Indeed, I know that I was a minority in my student cohort in finding these displays eerie or uncomfortable. There were a large number of trained archaeologists around me who felt that the display of human remains was entirely justified, for their educational or scientific value. They did not understand why I would dislike seeing a skeleton unexpectedly behind me when I turned around in a museum context, or why I felt a sense of shock at the transition from living person on the screen to remains in a display case.

So why my determined dislike? I know the justifications for showing people the scientific evidence for archaeological knowledge on health, lifestyle, and injury. I know the important narratives of evolution, migration and development that can only be discovered or proved through hominid remains. I know that in the absence of descendent communities, like those discussed in part 1, there are few people who will object to the display of any one particular person. Still, my emotional reaction is the same every time.

Fundamentally, I have empathy for these people of the past. I do not see an object, an archaeological resource – I see a person, albeit one that is no longer living. And that raises key questions of consent and exploitation. Would this person, buried with full funeral rites and care, with to be placed under bright lights and  subjected to the idle curiosity of tourists? Perhaps they would consider the care of curators and interest of visitors to be an honour. Perhaps they would willingly have donated their remains for this use. Usually we cannot know, though there are some exceptions.

I have no ethical objection to the preservation of scholar Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton at University College London, since this was the specific direction of his will (though I cannot deny I find its eternal presence on the somewhat creepy side, like those walls of surprised-looking and rather tatty taxidermied animals in stately homes.) On the other hand, the ‘Irish Giant’, 2.3m tall Charles Byrne who died in 1783, had intended to be buried, and, according to reports had specifically told his friends that he did not wish his body to be used for research. The acquisition of his corpse by John Hunter and its ongoing public display in the Hunterian Museum are, quite rightly, still subjects of criticism, particularly as they tie into ongoing debates over the exploitation of medical conditions for ‘freak show’ publicity and the traumatic history of Anglo-Irish relations, as well as the issue of how much agency a dead person has to decide over the fate of their own body.

In most cases, however, we cannot know the individual’s wishes – particularly with older remains like our friend the Roman woman. There is such a contrast between what they might have expected, to be left buried in perpetuity, or what we would expect of more recent remains, to be reburied respectfully, and the brazen display of their skeletons alongside artefacts like pottery and jewellery, which strips these remains of any humanity, reducing them to the status of sterile object.

I have no religion, no belief in the afterlife. I do not really believe that the people who once lived in these bodies know how they are now displayed. But my fundamental discomfort at the depersonalisation of what was once a human like me persists.

No doubt some of you are now thinking that this is simply the result of our modern disengagement with mortality. In Britain, and many other countries across the world, modern healthcare, higher life expectancies, and trends away from open-casket funerals and displaying bodies “lying in state” have placed barriers between ourselves and the reality of death. We have come a long way from the Victorian popular party entertainment of “mummy unwrapping“, which in many ways exemplifies the peak of scientific disinterest in the humanity of the dead as well as that colonialist willingness to claim and destroy the history of other cultures. I cannot claim that my own unease around the open display of the mortal remains of others is not a reflection of my own deep-seated psychological fear of my own inevitable death.

But how unusual am I? It is hard to tell. Within a group of archaeologists, this discomfort – whether an ethical compunction or simple squeamishness – puts me very much in the minority. Yet one of the most consistent criticisms that can be made of museum and heritage site interpretation is that the experts assume that visitors and members of the public are interested in the same things as curators and researchers. The human stories that are widely engaging are sometimes lost in the wealth of scientific or historical detail and jargon that obscures as much as it illuminates. Perhaps the open display of skeletons, mummies, and other human remains makes a not insignificant proportion of people uncomfortable, as it does me, but because these people are not archaeologists or curators their voices do not make it into decisions on interpretation. Indeed, knowing myself to be unusual among my peers is why I wanted to publicly state my own position, even though I am showing myself to be an extreme wuss.

Let us assume that I am not alone in feeling that people, however long dead, should be treated with sensitivity, and that the open display of human remains can be shocking or disturbing. I would argue that an empathetic interpretation would do as some museums have already done, in particular with remains which are still meaningful for living communities; display signs warning visitors where human remains are likely to be present, or curtain off some areas so people do not unexpectedly stumble across them but have to decide to go to see them.

Above all, you may have noticed that this post, and part 1, have not featured any images. This is not laziness on my part – it is because I have major problems with the use of images of human remains online for publicity. The old adage is that what separates archaeologists from grave robbers is the scientific value of their finds; what value in the use of the contents of those graves for dramatic effect or even casual entertainment for the public? Perhaps the attention drawn to archaeological research thereby can be used to justify such exploitation of the dead, but the ethical line walked is perilously narrow. (Indeed, it was extraordinarily difficult to even find online sources to link from this post which did not contain large, obvious images of the dead, even, ironically, among discussions which questioned the public visibility of those very sights.)

“Using ‘grotesque’ images (of skulls , traumas, criminals etc) to catch attention turns human remains into a spectacle, a freak show.” – archaeologist Alison Atkins, quoted on the Bodies in Academia blog.

And there are even more serious concerns than the blatant shock-value publicity which news articles and even press releases from archaeological sites draw from publishing headline images of human bodies. For living people with trauma in their pasts, the unexpected view of a body on a news site or social media feed may be highly damaging. Respect for the dead and respect for the living can be combined in not using these images for publicity – or at the very least, hiding them under a warning that will let readers be aware of what will be visible and allowing them to choose whether or not to view it.

All people have emotional connections to other humans. It is the very foundation of our survival as a species and our functionality as societies. Where the line is drawn between “other human”, for whom we may feel empathy, and “body”, for which there is no such consideration, is clearly variable from person to person. Coming from one side of this argument, I cannot force anyone with a different opinion to agree with my judgement. All I can say is that it is worth considering, for those in positions of responsibility for others living and dead, is that I may not be alone in my views.


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