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.

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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.

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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.

metal detector

Metal detector treasure hunting comeback!

The metal detector is making a comeback with treasure hunting enthusiasts back out again looking for ancient loot. But in the United Kingdom, this has led the government to rethink the law on ancient artefacts dug up by amateur enthusiasts.

Changes are being made to the 1996 Treasure Act (yes, such a piece of legislation exists!) that will re-define metal detector finds as treasure. That’s if they are of major historical or cultural significance. Which means, you can’t make off with them so easily. Or at least, that’s the idea.

The normal definition is that a find has to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found alongside artefacts made of precious metals. In 2014, a Roman figure of a man nearly left Britain for a private collector because it didn’t meet these criteria. The export was stopped at the last minute.

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Roman statues cast in bronze have slipped through the net and disappeared, which is very sad. New rules mean that will no longer happen. Or at least, if it does – it’ll be illegal.

I was given a metal detector back in the 1970s when I was about 11 years of age. Epping Forest was at the top of my road and I got hopelessly addicted. Those beeps and whines of the machine were great fun. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of history in the area where I grew up – Roman, Saxon and medieval treasure eluded me.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Paris with work. And I’m very aware that many metal detector enthusiasts make their way to the battlefields of the two World Wars looking for artefacts. I suppose because my father was alive during the last War I’m a bit queasy about this.

So are the French authorities. At the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris there are placards held up by employees warning Eurostar travellers that if they smuggle stuff out then there will be consequences.

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

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This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Berlin museums shut because of Coronavirus, however…

I was in Berlin in February 2020 just before the Coronavirus struck and led to the city going on lockdown. It seems incredible that at the time of writing this, I was in Berlin three weeks ago and walked around the incredible Pergamon Museum – whose doors are now closed.

But – I don’t want you to be denied the amazing sights of the Pergamon Museum just because of this wretched virus. So luckily, I had my iPhone and captured the incredible Roman gateway that was shipped a hundred years ago from what is now Turkey to Germany. The Gate of Miletus was then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in a vast room.

Here it is and it’s truly stupendous in scale!

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!

Neolithic statues that look like aliens

I was in the capital of Kosovo – the city of Pristina – last month and saw some incredible 7,000 year old statues from the Neolithic period that quite frankly, looked like aliens.

At the Museum of Kosovo in Pristina, I browsed the strange Neolithic sculptures of alien like beings in glass cases. Oblong heads and huge eyes – they really are quite hypnotic. These figures were made by people of the so-called Vinca culture.

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These Neolithic humans hadn’t mastered metalwork yet – this was a late phase of the Stone Age. But despite that, the Vinca were surprisingly advanced. They may have had multi-storey buildings, sophisticated agriculture and even a written script. Eventually, they discovered how to work with copper.

These Neolithic alien-like figures were first discovered a century ago. At first, it wasn’t completely clear what they were – let alone their incredible age. Now we know these enigmatic figures came from one of the largest Stone Age communities in Europe.

In some ways not surprising that a relatively large population was there. The mighty river Danube flowed nearby that would have ensured both fertile land and fish to eat.

Unfortunately, the Museum of Kosovo suffered during the Balkans war in the 1990s. Most of his prehistoric exhibits were spirited off to the Serbian capital Belgrade and there’s not been much willing to hand them back.

I loved these figures and have one sitting on my desk – a replica of course!

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

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With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923

Ancient Egyptian spoons – four thousand year old cutlery!

In recent years on visits to museums I’ve been more and more taken by everyday items used by our ancient ancestors. This week, I was at the Louvre in Paris looking at the treasures of Ancient Egypt. But it wasn’t the mummies or sarcophagi that caught my attention – but the spoons!

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Ancient Egyptian spoons are intriguing!

In one cabinet, behind glass, were some exquisite spoons. One shaped as a woman being pulled along by a bird, possibly a swan or a duck. Another depicted a servant carrying a large sack.

I think it’s objects like these that give us real insights into the lives of people in Egypt under the pharaohs. And the state of preservation of tableware going back millennia is surprising.

Some of the spoons had a rather modern look about them. I put this down to the influence Ancient Egypt had on the 1930s art deco movement. The lady and the bird spoon could easily have graced a fashionable table in 1932 AD when in fact it dates back to around 1500 or 2000 BC.

The emergence of knives, forks and spoons is fascinating – honest! There’s nothing that dictates we MUST use utensils like these. I studied Japanese for several years and went to live in that country to practice my linguistic skills. I also had to use chopsticks 24/7.

And once you use chopsticks for a while, it becomes obvious that there are different ways of eating that are perfectly fine. By the way, if a Japanese person says ‘you are skilful at chopsticks’ – then my teacher warned me they’re just humouring your terrible form at the table.

Back to the ancient Egyptian spoons! Apparently, no spoons have yet been found in pre-dynastic Egypt – that is before the pharaohs. But they do pop up afterwards. Now I’ve read one academic paper stating that they were not used at the dinner table. In fact, no cutlery at all. Food was served and you dipped in with your hands. Please correct me if I’ve been misinformed.