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Cremation on display at the Weaver Hall Museum

In previous posts I have discussed the display of human remains in museum contexts at the British MuseumHunterian Glasgow, Leeds Museum, Museum of Liverpoolthe Grosvenor Museum Chester, Wrexham Museum and Llangollen Museum (this last example displaying some of the results of Project Eliseg!).

As you’ll also be aware if you are a regular Archaeodeath reader, I have a forthcoming paper on the display of the dead in museums in my book co-edited with Mel Giles (Manchester University) called Archaeologists and the Dead. This chapter is called ‘Firing the Imagination’ and it focuses on the hitherto neglected topic of how and why prehistoric and early historic cremated remains are incorporated into museum displays and what these displays reveal about our professional and public priorities for thinking about cremation as a disposal strategy for the human dead of past communities and our own present-day society.

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Helsbury hill reconstructed by Dai Owens

A Prehistoric Landscape

For both these reasons – my interest in displays of human remains and my specific research into cremation in museums – it was of particular benefit and interest to me to get the opportunity last evening to go to the opening of a new temporary exhibition designed by Cheshire West and Chester’s museums service at Weaver Hall Museum, Northwich. Called ‘A Prehistoric Landscape: Archaeology of the Mid-Cheshire Ridge‘, the exhibition explores the archaeology of the sandstone ‘backbone of Cheshire’. Open from today (21st November) through to 7th February 2016, the prehistoric collections have been put on display together with the results of new research conducted by the Habitats and Hillforts Landscape Partnership Scheme.

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Kim Atkinson’s impression of the entrance to Eddisbury Hillfort

The Exhibition as a Whole

Many positive points can be said about the exhibition as a whole, including the incorporation of artworks produced by school groups as part of the project, the use of old collections material and recently discovered sites and materials, an interesting virtual animation of a hillfort, artist’s impressions by Dai Owen and Kim Atkinson of prehistoric sites including burial mounds and many of the hillforts found along the ridge, whilst also crudely articulating a clockwise chronological narrative from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age. All these elements worked perfectly in the small space available.

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Collared urn and cremated bone from Kelsall

Cremation in the Display Case

Of most interest to me, were two displays of cremated material. In a two-tier display case with a display of Earl Bronze Age mortuary remains.

In the top tier, there was an Early Bronze Age Collared Urn found upside-down covering cremated human bone. Analysed by my colleague Dr Amy Gray Jones together with students from the University of Chester ahead of the exhibition, they were found to contain an adult with green staining on some bones hinting that the individual may have been cremated with copper-alloy artefacts.

Amidst the human remains was the remains of a beaver tooth, also subject to the funeral fire (although it seems this is in the wrong place for it to be clear it came from another site).

Displaying Collared urns the right way up is always an odd thing to do, when as the text indicates, they are often deposited inverted. Therefore, while this display reveals the materials found from excavated cinerary urns, this is not the first display I have noticed where Collared Urns are placed the right way up rather than mimicking the original context of discovery. Elsewhere, I’ve even seen them with cremated bone within them, as if they were used to contain the cremains, even though the accompanying text confirms that they had been found inverted!

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The lower tier of the display case – artefacts from Seven Lows

In the bottom tier were cinerary urns excavated in 2012 at the Seven Lows round barrow cemetery, together with associated finds: a saddle quern, worked bone and a flint knife. Here, there are not cremated human remains. For both top and bottom tier, the text is descriptive and short.

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The section through the mound

The Burial Mound

To the right of the display case is a mock-up of a sectioned burial mound, a clever way in the small space available to evoke a sense of the contexts in which Early Bronze Age cremation burials were found.

Visible inside the mound’s section were two cinerary urns, the left found at Glead Hill Cob barrow in 1878. The analysed cremated remains by University of Chester students revealed a child of 6-7 years old together with a boar’s tusk (NOTE: this tooth (and perhaps also bones from Glead Hill?) was actually on display in the upper tier display case, confusingly without caption which might confuse viewers into thinking they were associated with the Kelsall urn). Green staining was also found on the bones from this burial, suggesting the former presence of copper-alloy artefacts on pyre. To the right, was a cremation urn from the Seven Lows round barrow.

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Dai Owen’s impression of an Early Bronze Age burial mound – a lovely balance between present and past.

Artist’s Impression of an Early Bronze Age Round Barrow

Assisting an appreciation of these displays was framed artwork by Dai Owen of a Bronze Age burial mound, with primary and secondary burials visible in cut-a-way section. On the other side of the mound, an adult man, woman and child standing around a newly inserted grave pit with a cinerary urn placed on a rectangular cloth awaiting interment (a dog looks on from beyond the ring-ditch). Behind is a settlement and other burial mounds are visible. This image is also integrated into the adjacent heritage board explaining Bronze Age mortuary practice.

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The heritage board

The Heritage Board

The single heritage board about Early Bronze Age mortuary practice was simple and clear. What is a joy is that this small display managed to do something rarely done in modern UK museum displays: actually incorporate plan photographs of sites of excavation, a cinerary urn under excavation, and an antiquarian plan of a site (Seven Lows) together with Dai Owen’s artist’s impression. Of course, missing from the entire display is any hint at the complex multi-staged process of fiery transformation that cremation is in many different times and places around the world.

Summary

Despite the slight confusion regarding the display of the boar’s tusk and which burial it came from, I was staggered by how effectively themes of death, burial and commemoration focusing on cremation ceremonies were integrated into such a small space. I was also proud to see the work of University of Chester students integrated into the displays of cremated material thanks to liaison with my colleague Dr Amy Gray Jones.

I suppose these displays of cremated human remains and associated artefacts are always frustrating to me as an archaeologist. Where are the flames? The pyres? The different stages of preparing, transporting, burning, cooling, collecting remains ahead of the final burial. This is a ubiquitous challenge of displaying the cremated dead in museums.

The advantages of displaying cremation are apparent however. It allows the distillation of complex spaces into a small area. Cremation is like that! Still, most of all, I was delighted to see a display of the cremated dead that DID NOT resort to having an artist’s impression of a beardy guy with his arms raised up in supplication: the ultimate cliche of cremation in archaeological art! This small temporary exhibition deserves a visit, both for its inclusion of the ancient cremated dead, but also its many other fascinating dimensions.

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The cremated dead at Weaver Hall Museum

 

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