Visiting the Hunterian

William Hunter’s death mask

I have an ongoing research interest in the public dimensions of mortuary archaeology and I have written a forthcoming book chapter about the hitherto uninvestigated topic of how we display cremated human remains in British and Scandinavian museums. Called ‘Firing the Imagination’, the chapter is out next year in the OUP book co-edited by me and Mel Giles called ‘Archaeologists and the Dead’ as discussed here and here.

The chapter argues that discussions of human remains in museums have unhelpfully revolved around bog bodies, mummies and articulated skeletons. As such, there has been far less attention paid to the many other ways the dead populate our museum display cases and galleries including the artefacts and ‘cremains’ of the conflagrated dead retrieved from archaeological excavations.

Moreover, on this blog I have previously addressed how we display and educate the public about past deathways through the use of human remains and material culture, including the display of materials and remains associated with cremation in the human past. See previous these blog posts here and here.

Fossil bones

The EAA’s 21st annual meeting in Glasgow gave me the opportunity to look around the Hunterian Museum and think about the many ways ancient bodies and mortuary remains inhabit the galleries. I was struck by the multiplicity of very different categories of human remains on display.

Situating the Diversity of the Archaeological Dead

In my view, understanding the archaeological dead in museums requires us to situate them in relation to a range of other dead bodies on display. At the Hunterian, these include the fine collection of medical specimen jars full of human body-parts. Also, there were human bones showing examples of pathology and a model teaching skeleton.

These are juxtaposed between and around many non-human bodies, from ‘monstrous’ Siamese twin animals to fossils of ancient marine reptiles. There was also the death mask of William Hunter himself: not looking happy at all at being part of the exhibit. Then there were of course models of early hominin skulls in a discussion of (unsurprisingly) human evolution.

Finally, there were representatives of the archaeological dead and these are incredibly varied. They extended from an Egyptian sarcophagus, Roman tombstones and a skull found on Arran in the early 20th century amidst a complex array of human remains and now dated to the Neolithic.

Roman tombstone
Egyptian sarcphagus
Neolithic skull from Arran
The human dead on display

Trafficking Mortuary Culture

A further and important dimension of the mortuary remains on display are those items ripped from their mortuary contexts and sold within the illicit trade in antiquities that continues to destroy archaeological sites and landscapes (those both known and unknown to science) and distribute the heritage of many regions of the world into private collections of the wealthy and ignorant. In the Hunterian, the illicit trade is illustrated through artefacts that entered the Hunterian’s collections long ago, including artefacts taken from mortuary contexts. This part of the exhibition explores the ongoing research of the Trafficking Culture project and it makes a clear illustration of the importance of researching the impact of trafficking on heritage sites and local people. This is an important display. For me, it is a pity that the importance of context for understanding these artefacts in past mortuary ritual wasn’t articulated (although I confess I didn’t read every word and might have missed something). I say this because it is not just the acts involved in the plundering and trafficking of ancient artefact that deserves highlighting, but the detachment from, and destruction of, the contexts in which they were found. Often these are tombs, cemeteries and graves of various kinds.

Greek krater from the Trafficking Culture exhibition
Croy Hill cremation

Cremation in the Hunterian

Amidst this variety of mortuary traces in the Hunterian, I found one cremation burial on display: an urn of Roman date displayed with cremated bone. Adjacent to this was a fragment of a second pot, although thought to have served as a cinerary urn. These cremation burials were part of a special exhibition on the Antonine Wall and both derive from Croy Hill Roman fort, North Lanarkshire.

Brimming with the burnt dead
Brimming with the burnt dead

Like many displays of human remains, there was no adequate explanation of what the visitor was looking at. While a skeleton or skull might seem ‘self-evident’, cremation most certainly needs and demands interpretation.

What did cremation practices in the past involve and why was the urn clearly filled beyond the brim with clean, washed fragments of cremated human bone? It is almost certainly a conceit of display; we are not looking at an urn that was respectfully left unemptied, jam-packed without charcoal, soil and much else! Certainly, cremation burials rarely survive with their contents intact to the brim!

Were these the bones originally from this urn, or from elsewhere? Are there photographs, plans and sections to show how it was found? Also, Romano-British military and civilian communities used cemeteries of various scales; this isolated pot tells us nothing of the communities of the dead that accrued around settlements. Was it really found in isolation?

Still, the modest scale and character of the urn and its contents is notable, in stark contrast to the grandiose pillars, shrines and tombstones also on display. This prompts us to think about status and ethnicity, age and gender, family and faith; what factors prompted this mode of disposal? The cremated dead are an important dimension of our museum displays and it is surprising how much they are neglected from academic and public debate and discussion regarding the ethics and significance of mortuary archaeology. Sometimes they are effectively displayed and captioned, at other times one might call their display lazy and hazy.