The display of human remains has been a focus of controversy across the globe in recent decades. Yet the situation regarding where and how the archaeological dead are on view for the public varies locally, regionally and between nations and continents, affected by a variety of factors. Depending on the nature of collections, available space, curatorial practice, ethical considerations, museum policies and legislation, each museum has a different range of the archaeological dead on display.
Despite pressures for their removal, few UK museums have chosen to remove human bodies and body-parts found during antiquarian and archaeological investigations within the British Isles from display entirely. This contrasts starkly with the situation in North America, for example, where human remains rarely appear as elements of displays in archaeological galleries.
Wrexham Museum provides a fascinating, small-scale example of this situation. Smaller museums like this deserve our careful attention rather than allowing our debates to revolve around the larger regional and national museums with bigger collections. This is because, the central importance of human remains for narrating the human past and allowing reflections on human mortality in the present becomes all the clearer when we consider these smaller displays. The importance of particular sets of human remains are thus amplified in importance.
Wrexham Museum happens to have two principal sets of human remains in its permanent galleries: Brymbo Man and an unprovenanced Egyptian mummified hand.
Found in 1958, ‘Bymbo Man’ was accidentally discovered during the excavation of a pipe trench adjacent to houses at Brymbo. The north-south aligned stone short-cist contained only c. 13% of an adult male skeleton of c. 35 years (head to the north, looking east) together with a flint knife placed behind the skull and a ceramic vessel in the south-east corner of the grave. These finds are indicative of an early 2nd millennium BC date, possibly the 17th century BC.
The fragmentary nature of the human remains suggests that the cist had not remained closed off, but had been accessed in years and decades after the body had been placed in the grave, or possibly that the remains were interred after decades or centuries of residing elsewhere. There was evidence of post-mortem cuts on some bones, suggesting de-fleshing could have been performed as part of the mortuary practices.
The remains are now resident in Wrexham Museum and is their only permanent human remains on display from Britain. The remains are on display in a mock-context of the stone cist, its capstone displaced upwards and backwards allowing visitors to gaze downwards onto the fragmentary skeletal remains.
An archaeologist’s trowel balances on the cover-stone of the cist, implying the presence of absent archaeologists. In this fashion, the display implies a moment of discovery, when the cist was first opened.
Behind on the wall are photographs of the excavation and text identifying two open questions:
- There was no mound left above Brymbo Man’s tomb. How many more graves like this are out there undiscovered?
- Only 13% of his skeleton was found in the cist when they lifted the capstone. What happened to the other 87%?
Opposite is further informaton about the Bronze Age and a holographic image of the facial construction created for Brymbo Man.
Furthermore, Brymbo Man has a prominent online presence through Wrexham Borough Council’s website here, which includes details about his discovery and significance.
As such, and given his epithet, it is clear that Brymbo Man is a local ‘immortal’ (to use the term of Nina Nordstrom), a modest local celebrity from the past whose individual identity is narrated and celebrated as an entry-point into a past world and past society of the Early Bronze Age.
Visitors are invited to leave questions for Brymbo Man. Those on display ranged from the practical to the philosophical:
- Did you have any brothers or sisters?
- Where did you live?
- Did you have medicine?
- How did you die?
- What did you eat?
- Did you have any children?
- What did you ever aspire or dream of becoming?
Do you have any questions for Brymbo Man?
For me, the key question is: how would you feel to know that even 13% of you is enough to make you a modern-day museum icon?