Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it.

Photograph of the display space of Skeletons: Our Buried Bodies, Leeds City Museum, 2017

The display space, photograph by Gemma Milner. I think this is probably fair use, firstly in the sense that this is a review or critical work for which this is illustration, but also in the sense that the bodies are not very visible and you’ve no way of telling which was which. I’m conscious that I’m edging my own scruples here, however, so do read on now…

Why am I being so precious about this, you may ask? It is after all not hard to find other pictures of actual bodies on this blog if you go looking; I haven’t deliberately taken any down. But I do now think differently about it than I used to. This is partly because of being asked to lecture on archaeology to undergraduates (and that link does include pictures of bodies, in some sense, so be warned) at about the point the first conversations about whether we should use trigger warnings in teaching started. It is much more, however, to do with some of the excellent posts on these issues at Howard Williams’s blog Archaeodeath. (And by the way, Howard’s department is currently under serious threat, as is the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield, whose closure has already been announced—so if you care about these issues in any direction there are actions you can take which may help those campaigning against this, reachable from those links!) These got me thinking about what is actually gained by displaying the dead.

Well, the obvious and cynical answer is that it brings people into museums, and the footfall we observed in Leeds and the publicity the exhibition got straightforwardly demonstrated that point if demonstration had been needed. But there is also an ethical debate about personhood and its attachment to dead bodies that bears on this, but is often not heard.4 It bubbled to public notice years before all this when the various versions of the Bodyworlds exhibitions (be careful with that link if you don’t know this show) started touring the world. I personally didn’t go to those because they looked stomach-turning, but my stomach may just be more delicate than some, and I certainly read some moving testimonies about how people felt as if they understood their own body better for seeing someone else’s laid open like that. But then accusations emerged that the exhibition company founder, Gunter von Hagens, might have been getting some of his bodies from places which didn’t care about consent to subsequent disposal. I think this made the papers at least as much because the western media loves to catch China, which seems to have sold von Hagens some executed political prisoners, transgressing our ethics as because they were genuinely bothered about the rights of the deceased, but it did expose that there were lines that, societally, the West thought maybe shouldn’t be crossed about the rights of the dead. But which dead, from where and from when, and in what circumstances?

The modern church of St Aidan, Bamburgh

The modern church of St Aidan’s Bamburgh, whose relevance will become clear below…

Now, if there are good educational reasons to display the dead, Skeletons: Our Buried Bones had them covered. The extent to which personal histories which reflected directly on events, practices and beliefs of the past and became physical, imaginable and indeed painful was very substantial and has, as you can tell, stuck with me. And I know, from teaching with coins or with photos and spinny virtual reproductions of coins, or from the difference in the Staffordshire Hoard displays between the actual objects and the fascinating, educational but ultimately virtual touch-tables they had to let you study the artefacts zoomed in, that while we might argue the point, having the actual bodies there was always going to get through to people in ways that any form of reproduction right up to life-sized fully coloured plastic casts just wouldn’t. But there we are right on the issue: these objects have effect, traction and even attraction because they actually were people. But is this any way we would treat people who were, for some reason, in a coma or whatever? Obviously not, so the point of inflection is hanging somewhere between ‘were people’ and ‘are not people’. And here we hit questions like the ones we’ve previously debated here about how soon the sufferings and deaths of the past become OK to discuss or commodify. Because while this exhibition did have all the justifications, and even a reflective section right at the end of the display about the ethics of displaying the dead—since they were doing so, it was of course always clear what position they would argue, and I guess the hope was that by the time you reached the panel you were convinced—it also showcased pretty much every reason for objection you might come up with.

Consider. Firstly, if as the Bodyworlds controversy suggested, consent of the displayed is an issue, obviously none of these people gave that. Indeed, it would have been hard to explain to most of them what a museum was, still less why anyone would wish to pay to see old dead people when surely there’s enough death all around you to educate you about it. Now, one could maybe try to argue that they didn’t refuse consent either, and in the case of the Towton body I guess that’s likely; I assume he did not intend to die there and probably didn’t say to anyone that if that went wrong he should be shovelled into a pit with the other battle dead either. But in the case of the Iron Age couple it seems likely that they were put somewhere on their own expectation and where they were presumably expected to stay, since they were not subsequently disturbed till archæologists got to them, and five others of the skeletons came from Christian churchyards where, we can be pretty sure, they would have expected to be left (except possibly in London, where the recycling of graveyards was old news even before politicians started selling them for fivepence each). One of the Sheffield bodies came from the erstwhile Carver Street Methodist Chapel, Sheffield (now a theme bar, the digging out of whose cellar meant the exhumation of 101 bodies which are now, apparently, in Sheffield University Collections) and was recent enough easily to have donated their body to science had they wished to do so; but they didn’t, and the fact that they wound up in a museum collection anyway can’t be anything they foresaw or desired.5

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Bicester

The Church of the Immaculate Conception, Bicester, again associated with the topic in a way I’ll explain at the end

Also, not all the bodies are anonymous. I’m not sure ignorance should clear our moral slates on this issue anyway — if I didn’t know who a Covid-19 victim was would it be OK to use a picture of their body to make a warning poster about vaccination? or even just better than using one whom I could identify? presumably not by most people’s standards — but as it happens the anchoress from All Saints York is probably identifiable. Thus, as a result of this exhibition, her posthumous historical reputation is now inextricably bound up with the fact that she had syphilis, which for all we know is exactly what she went into a cell, never again to have direct contact with the living, in order to conceal! I certainly can’t imagine her being happy knowing that six hundred years after her death hundreds of people would be looking at her body on a slab trying to perceive the ravages of venereal disease on her bones, can you? (And for that reason, though the websites I’ve linked to do name her, I won’t.) But apparently the personhood of her actual history still sits far enough away from that body to make it OK not just to display her, but to explain how she had probably failed the moral code of the society which buried her in an honoured position in a church as part of that display.

So, it was issues like these which had led someone from the Institute of Medieval Studies at Leeds to organise the trip to see this exhibition, and we did debate the issues quite a while in the party. But as you can maybe tell I don’t think I personally reached a place of comfort with it, and if anything it probably did more to convince me that we could reasonably let the dead lie, or at least, even if we study them so as to learn these kinds of things from them, there isn’t a good enough reason then to make them into a spectacle, than to make me think that this kind of exhibition is something that should happen. None of them may have been my ancestors (I mean, when you’re dealing with Iron Age inhabitants of the country in which your own ancestry is documentable, who can know, right? but it’s not likely on the basis of what I know about mine), or even my academic concern, but I still think more respect is due to our subjects of study than this.

Reburial ceremony for military dead from Napoleon's 1812 retreat from Russia

Reburial ceremony for military dead from Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Russia, image from the BBC article linked through

It is also worth saying that it’s not just me who thinks like this. The example that came straight to mind when I thought about this was the ongoing dig at the Northumbrian site of Bamburgh, where between 1998 and 2007 110 burials were excavated, and in 2016 they were solemnly reburied in St Aidan’s Bamburgh, shown above, a church fittingly dedicated to the first bishop of Lindisfarne who may even have preached to the people who once owned the oldest of these bodies. The reburial of the skeletons was a condition for permission to dig the site.6 A similar story can be told of 58 bodies dug up at Masham in the late 1980s, which became part of a study collection in Harrogate (and some in Masham itself) before finally being reburied in consecrated ground at St Mary’s Masham in 2009, though I can’t immediately find out what changed people’s minds about what should be done there, especially since it’s not clear that those bodies, from an Anglo-Scandinavian period cemetery which predates the church, were Christian. A more interesting case is 15 mostly female seventh-century skeletons excavated at Bicester in 2011, which were reburied at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Bicester, shown above—the town’s modern Catholic church, note, not the older Anglican one just next door despite its probable early medieval ancestry—only after the Catholic Bishop of Birmingham had got into a dispute with Thames Valley Archaeology that went to the Ministry of Justice, who ruled that, “the bones were not of national significance and so could be buried.” The BBC reports James Lewis of Thames Valley Archaeology saying that they would rather have had the bones available for analysis, and that “there are other ways of showing respect other than reburying”, an intriguing diad of statements about what looks a heck of a lot like an early nunnery’s cemetery.

And lastly, above, just in case you think this is all solely a concern of wet western liberal academics or English churchmen, we have the case above of 120 soldiers killed in the 1812 Battle of Vyazma and found earlier this year, whom the Russian Army have now reburied at a monastery nearby.7 These bodies apparently merited more respect, and I can’t help thinking that that’s because churchmen and soldiers, two sorts of professionals who regularly face (and in the latter case train to cause) actual dying, rather than just the results of death, were involved. There was lots that was good about the Skeletons exhibition, but it never really admitted there was this other side to the debate in which the curators had already decided their position.


1. Emma Herbert-Davies, with Jonathan Jarrett, Winchester Cabinet Coin Display, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Leeds, 6th October 2017 to date, and Herbert-Davies with Jarrett, u>The Winchester Coin Cabinet, 30 September 2017 to date, online here.

2. Emily Sargent, Jelena Bekvalac and Rebecca Redfern, Skeletons: Our Buried Bones, Leeds City Museum, Leeds, 22nd September 2017 to 7th January 2018.

3. Lucia Marchini, “Review – Skeletons: our buried bones” in Current Archaeology no. 333 (December 2017), online here.

4. The obvious reference here is of course Howard Williams, Benedict Wills-Eve and Jennifer Osborne (edd), The Public Archaeology of Death (Sheffield 2019) but I could also add Niels Lynnerup, “The Bare Bones of Medieval Archaeology” in Mette Svart Kristiansen, Else Roesdahl & James Graham-Campbell (edd.), Medieval Archaeology in Scandinavia and Beyond: History, Trends and Tomorrow (Aarhus 2015), pp. 141–151.

5. I remembered this story differently, as being related to an early modern or late medieval church in Leeds, not Sheffield, which had been closed and demolished in the 1950s or thereabouts and the bodies placed in store then. It seems as if I must somehow have learned about St Mary’s Mabgate, but if so, there were no bodies from it on display. This makes me very cautious about the other thing I only incidentally remember, a story that a descendant of one of the bodies had in fact been contacted about its display—or had come in to see the display and been startled to find an ancestor there?—and been delighted to know not just that it was being useful but that the body still existed. But now I can find no trace of this story—and as curator, I would have blogged the heck out of it if I got that kind of public engagement, as indeed we know—so I don’t think my memory can be trusted, alas.

6. Again, I am worried by my memory here: I remembered this story, which I was sure I had mentioned in a new links from the blog, but I remembered it as being the cemetery at Street House, which as it turns out isn’t even on a newer church site. I also remember the site being significant because the bodies had been discovered to be our kind of height, rather than the more minimal stature medieval people are often assumed to have had, and that makes me think that the site I remembered was actually not Bamburgh at all but St Peter’s Barton-on-Humber, where a similar reburial took place in 2008, just because Bamburgh is so significant a site that I think I would have remembered it being there because of already having an association for it. But if so, I can’t now find any reference to the Barton-on-Humber bodies being surprisingly tall. Who knows how many data have become confused in my head here!

7. One last instance of memory failure has denied me another military example here. I remembered that the sixth- or seventh-century warrior burial found at RAF Lakenheath had been reburied by the US Air Force contingent there with full military honours, as a fellow soldier. However, this can’t be right, as the body (and the horse skeleton with which it was found) are now on display at Mildenhall Museum (warning: link smacks you straight in the face with a skeleton picture). It is maybe possible that the body was given a salute and a service before being raised, but if so, I can no longer find any sign of that on the web. Also, that body was found in 1997, whereas I’m sure I remember this happening after my doctorate. Again, heaven only knows what I misremembering, but if you know as well, please do say!

11 responses to “Thoughts on two exhibitions

  1. I personally have no qualms with old bodies being dug up by archaeologists and studied. I would love to see every body discovered being subjected to DNA tests to give us a fuller understanding of just who were these people, where did they come from and how we are linked to them.

    • Well, the DNA isn’t always there to be tested any more, and biological ancestry isn’t necessarily very much of someone’s lived identity. But I agree with you in general; if this post seems like an argument against study of the dead, especially when found or disturbed for other purposes anyway, it’s not meant to be; I am keenly aware how much mortuary archæology has taught me, let alone actual archæologists. This is just about the subsequent display and treatment of the bodies.

  2. Pingback: Displaying the dead | stuff 'n other stuff

  3. Is it possible to tell from the bones whether syphilis is acquired or congenital?

    • That is a sharp question to which I don’t know the answer! The signage still suggested (and website still suggests) that she was maybe atoning for a life of sin, though, so ultimately ‘we’ as social commentators are still sex-negative…

  4. “… the fifteenth-century woman … who may have been an anchoress but also turned out to be suffering from … syphilis!”

    She was quick: in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

    • That is also a good point! I hadn’t stopped to consider the chronological implications. Now I have, and have also done some fairly grim websearching, and can say the following:

      1. The idea that syphilis first came to Europe from the New World is disputed (though no-one seems to doubt that Columbus’s crew probably did pick it up there). It has been debated for years, in fact, but…
      2. serious medical research opinion as of 2000 seemed pretty solidly against the ‘pre-Columbian hypothesis’, and…
      3. … in 2011 a meta-study of all the reported cases (54!) of pre-Columbian syphilis was carried out that concluded that every one of them was inadequate for diagnostic purposes and that the case still stood. But!
      4. Last year a team at the Max-Planck Institut revived the idea with a new case based on a now-extinct strain of the disease and an argument that the genetic profile of the disease is too diverse too early to originate through so narrow a pipeline so close to the points of sample, so now the jury is back out at least a little way again. However…
      5. … as far as I can see the only actual evidence dating this burial is the supposed identification, which is as I said to a known anchoress who died in 1448. If it’s not she, they’ve got nothing that they mention and the burial could as easily be later; they didn’t do radio-carbon dating on her, and with this fine a date margin, that might not have been sufficiently precise anyway.
      6. So, given what seem to be the heavy odds against pre-Columbian syphilis in England, one might carelessly suggest that the presence of syphilis probably disproves the identification!

      But then where would the story be that let the poor lady into the exhibition, eh? I may have to edit the post to include a note to this discussion now…

      • Oh, good. I was going to say that the debate on whether venereal diseases came from the New World has been raging for decades, and I’m not sure which way the current consensus is tending. I do think the museum may have been going for shock value, and I can’t say I blame them given the difficulties of getting adequate funding: whatever brings the punters in, I suppose. But the problems of congenital syphilis are one of my peeves regarding (for instance) Regency romances in which heroines go for the reformed rakes rather than the straitlaced dull men: they’re gambling with their own health and that of their children. Lydia Bennett is stupid in more ways than one for going off with Wickham. Mr Collins or a priggish layman like Sir Thomas Bertram would be a far safer bet. Anyway, sorry about the derailment into much later centuries and fantasies thereof; even if the bones are those of a woman with syphilis who became an anchoress, it could be that she did so because she was handicapped and not marriageable due to a congenital form of the disease. Unless you can distinguish acquired vs congenital from the bones, in which case never mind!

        • Sorry, Dame Eleanor, this one wound up in spam for some reason and I didn’t notice it straight away, but it sounds as if you are with the general consensus here!

  5. Evil Steve

    Yes, the display of bodies is a ‘strange’ thing when you look at it, even if cloaked by the passing of time. It’s a very Christian thing, I suppose. When i watch things like Conan coming across necromancers in ruined places of the dead, i always chuckle at the thought that this was what ‘barbarians’ may have thought coming to the outskirts of Rome in the late antique period :)

    • Yes, actually, that’s quite apposite! There’s a kind of mix of revulsion and fascination with it all in Einhard’s ‘Translation of the Saints Marcellinus and Peter’, but the part of it’s that hard to pick up from a modern perspective is the sense of sacred power these things could obviously convey to the right audiences. There’s places in that text where I get the idea that to the believer (i. e. Einhard) the relics are almost tangibly greasy with mana. I think if we all spent more time in dark churches nearly sick from incense we’d probably get it more easily… Of course, the relic sellers and thieves presumably didn’t find themselves giddy with incarnate holiness in quite the same way. And that would get us into John Arnold’s stuff about medieval unbelief, I guess, but thereby hangs a different conversation.

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