dead bodies museums

Should the dead be on display in museums?

Must admit I’ve seen my fair share of dead bodies in museums. Like all children, when I was first taken to see the ancient Egyptian mummies in the British museum back in the 1970s – I was eyes out on stalks! Take for example this chap below they used to call the “orange man”. He dates from about 3,400BC – also in the British Museum – and from what we call the pre-dynastic period. Now, as a result of seeing him, that term was embedded in my mind aged seven or eight.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

His excellent state of preservation is because in the pre-dynastic period – a thousand years before the pyramids you know and love – bodies were buried in the sand. And that was a great preserver! You can still make out his ginger hair.

However – informative though this may be – some think orange man should not be there for us to gawp at. And this issue is becoming ever more pressing.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display!

Goodbye shrunken heads!

About five years ago, I visited the Horniman Museum in south London and was unable to find a particular exhibit that exerted a ghoulish hold on me when I’d first come to the museum as a child in the 1970s. Back then, a large glass case displayed several shrunken heads.

When I asked a curator where they were on this recent outing, she grimaced and said: “We don’t really put that kind of thing out anymore.” The shrunken heads are still shown in graphic detail on the museum website but are labelled as being “in storage”.

And the Horniman isn’t the only museum vexing over the ethics of corpses in cases. There’s a very heated debate going on behind closed doors about the morals as well as the potential negative PR that is attaching to having heads and bodies for the public to ogle at.

FIND OUT MORE: Galvinism and the science behind Frankenstein

Tribal groups demand their ancestors back – no more dead bodies in museums

Indigenous peoples, tribes and nations are increasingly animated about their ancestors being exhibits. Concerns have been raised from tribal nations in the United States to aboriginal peoples in Australia – and lots of places in between. And you have allegations of racism or colonialism attaching to the display of Ancient Egyptian mummies or Inca sacrificial victims.

Those hostile parties may not be – for example – Egyptian in the case of the mummies but ‘feel’ or believe they have an affinity with these remains. No matter how tenuous one may feel their claimed link is – it’s now becoming difficult to ignore.

Guidance on displaying dead bodies in museums

The United Kingdom government has issued guidance in the past to museums on how to treat human remains. And since 1996, the UK has been committed to repatriating aboriginal remains to Australia and New Zealand. In one example in 2017, over a thousands remains including 13 skulls were sent back.

The British Museum lists its human remains online and it makes for fascinating reading:

  • From Australia: Human skull (adult, male?), covered with pigment; with grass plug in nasal aperture
  • From Borneo: Decorated human skull made of bone (human), wood, cane, shell (cowrie), gum.
  • From Chile: mummified child’s foot with sandal
  • From China: a skeletal human hand with a bangle on the wrist
  • From Ecuador: shrunken head with feathers and beetle wings
  • From Egypt: Fragments of bone and two teeth from infant sacrifice.

And so it goes on…

Egypt’s recent public display of new mummies

In 2020, the Egyptian authorities invited the media to snap at 59 ancient coffins just discovered. One of them was opened up in a flourish to reveal the mummified body within. In a sign of changing attitudes, many people registered their disgust at this theatricality.

Catholic shrines and death

For many Catholic shrines, removing bodies from display would effectively end their pulling power for both tourists and pilgrims. For example, in Palermo, Sicily you have the Capuchin Catacombs where hundreds of bodies, many in their Sunday best, are hanging from the walls. They date from the 17th to the early 20th century.

The Capuchin Catacombs includes the body of a girl, Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920. And yes, she is exceedingly well preserved. I have seen her myself (in 2019). Visitors claim that she blinks at them. I got no blink in case you’re wondering.

But I have to admit this display possibly crosses a line. Why? I suppose the relatively short amount of time that has elapsed since her death; her very young age which is rather creepy in of itself and the fact that the 1920s were not Ancient Egypt.

We were not routinely mummifying bodies at that time. So why not put this poor girl where she should be? In the ground.

Dead crusaders on display

In 1976, I was taken to see the desiccated remains of several bodies in the crypt of Saint Michan’s church in Dublin, preserved by the very dry air underground. In those days, you were invited by the guide to shake hands with one of the bodies. And being a child who liked to show off a bit, I grasped the bony fingers of an 800-year-old crusader.

However, times really have changed. Because two years ago, that wasn’t enough for some vandals who broke through a steel door, stole the aforementioned crusader’s head and “desecrated” the body of a nun. I don’t even want to ask!

It does beg the question though whether these kinds of displays, which have an almost Victorian fairground quality, encourage boorish and despicable behaviour and if their time has been and gone.

Or are we getting too sensitive?

But maybe we’re all being way too sensitive. In 2010, a survey by English Heritage found that only 9% of the public opposed bodies being displayed in museums. I will bet that percentage has risen however. But for museums, it’s not just the wider public that are a concern – but those activist groups representing tribes and nations that feel enough is enough.

What do you think? I’d love to know.

Ancient bog body murder mystery

Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post – as we look at an ancient bog body murder.

All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.

Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.

Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?

I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.

And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder

Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.

So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.

Clonycavan Man

He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.

Clonycavan Man – note his man bun hairstyle – image by Tony McMahon

Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.

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He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.

The skull of Baronstown West Man detached from the body but with hair well preserved – National Museum of Ireland – image by Tony McMahon

In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.

Bog body confused for modern murder

A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.

For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.

Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!

Galvanism – Frankenstein science and the dead!

The Georgians and Victorians did love the shock of the new. And science provided plenty of thrills and spills. For example, the use of Galvinism to bring the dead back to life. Or so it seemed! What we might call Frankenstein science.

Galvinism turns a dead criminal into a real life Frankenstein!

At the start of the 19th century, a criminal hanged in London was seemingly brought back to life through an early use of electricity to re-animate the dead – something called Galvanism! It was this primitive use of electricity that inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein.

If you go to the Old Bailey in London today, you’ll just see the Central Criminal Court and nothing much else. But in the late eighteenth century, you would have encountered Newgate prison next to the Court of Justice and close by, the Surgeon’s Hall.

This was pretty much the journey that those condemned to death took on a single day: prison cell, hangman’s rope and then dissected on the surgeon’s table.

While on the surgeon’s table – the dead criminal might be exposed to the new technological trick of Galvanism – a Frankenstein technology that involved using electricity to bring corpses back to life!

DISCOVER: Why were the bodies of crusaders de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Galvinism turns dead murderers into entertainment

The bodies of murderers, once executed, were subject to a display of anatomy in front of an audience of students and other interested individuals – who may have paid to get access.

It seems incredible, but operations on the living and the dead were a spectator sport in London two hundred years ago. Although those present would have claimed they were there to be educated and informed!

A man called Foster was executed for killing his wife. Following the usual routine for the accused, he was brought from the typhus-infested Newgate prison out to the Court of Justice and condemned to death.

The sentence, up until the 1860s, was carried out in front of the court house on a platform for crowds to watch. He was then cut down and his body taken over to the Surgeon’s Hall.

Mr and Mrs Galvini – pioneers of Galvinism!

It was then subjected to what was described as the “Galvanic Process” – invented by Luigi Galvani and his wife, Lucia Galvani. They found that frogs’ legs could be made to twitch using an electrical current long after the animals had died. In London, they decided to see if this would work with dead humans. And yes – we are talking about the period when the author Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein.

The thrill for the spectators in the anatomy theatre was to see a dead murderer brought back to life using Galvanism – a brand new science. What would the killer do? Would he lunge at the audience? Would he speak? Could he be made to do their bidding?

Truly – Frankenstein stuff!

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A nephew of the Galvani duo was present as the doctors began applying electricity to the dead man’s face and jaw – at which point, one of his eyes opened! According to a contemporary account, “the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted”. Then the right hand rose up, clenched. Following that, his thighs and legs began to move.

Tony McMahon investigates how criminals were brought back to life using Galvanism in 19th century London
Luigi Galvani – and some frogs’ legs!

The contemporary account goes on to say that the object of the exercise was to show “the excitability of the human frame when animal electricity is duly applied”. It was hoped that this Galvanism could be used for victims of drowning, suffocation or even stokes (“apoplexy” as it was called) “thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality”.

Unfortunately, the account then claims that the right arm of the deceased rose with such force that it actually struck one of the employees of the Surgeon’s Hall “who died that very afternoon of the shock” (most likely a heart attack).

So instead of Galvanism presenting hope to those feared drowned – it became more associated with a the sort of Frankenstein horror that of course Shelley would immortalise.

Pompeii destroyed by a volcano!

It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano.

The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.

Pompeii volcano described: “Tree with a flaming trunk”

One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks.

Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away. Instead, the stunned citizens of Pompeii decided to stick it out. Maybe they were still overcome with a degree of incomprehension – the sight before them was too much to absorb.

What happened next was the collapse of the enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside.

At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape from the Pompeii volcano.

DISCOVER: Victorian movies from the 19th century

Pompeii rediscovered

It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses.

By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.

I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!

London plague pits – the locations!

Most Londoners are oblivious to the number of dead people under their feet – especially those buried in their thousands in plague pits.  And those London plague pit locations are in some very unlikely places.

Here’s a few London plague pits that might make you shudder next time you stroll over them:

Vincent Square – enjoy your picnic in Westminster because you’re sitting on top of a heap of skeletons. The pits extend under nearby government buildings.

Green Park – when the Victoria Line was being built for the London tube in the 1960s, construction workers bumped into a lot of 17th century bones. Pits from the Great Plague of London!

Golden Square – I love the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square but had no idea that during the 1665 plague, the “Searchers” were bringing cart loads of corpses and dumping them here. This must have been one of the most ghoulish of the London plague pits.

Marshall Street/Beak Street – I used to work round here and used the swimming pool at the Marshall Street leisure centre. Yep, there are bodies under that pool! There were several pest houses in the area surrounded by a brick wall to which plague victims were sent. When they died, they were put in plague pits around the modern junction of Marshall Street and Beak Street. Not tens of bodies…not hundreds…thousands!

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Sainsbury’s Whitechapel – Next time you’re browsing the tinned food or veg, spare a thought for those under the supermarket floor whose shopping days are long gone.

Charterhouse Square – During building work for Crossrail in 2013, a plague pit dating back to the Black Death in 1348 was discovered. Historians believe that up to 50,000 medieval Londoners might have been interred in the area. This makes it top of the London plague pits!