I have a forthcoming article on the display of the cremated dead in museums in the UK and Scandinavia. How we put the fragmented remains of the cremated dead on display in museums is a topic I have addressed numerous time on this blog, last time for the Weaver Hall Museum, Cheshire here. It is also a topic central to my ongoing research on Project Eliseg. In various venues, I have discussed the challenge of articulating complex multi-staged ritual practices associated with transforming the dead by fire in static museum displays.
My recent visit to the reconstructed late Neolithic passage grave and its visitor centre at Newgrange, Co. Meath, revealed the same challenges I have identified at other heritage sites and monuments in the UK and Scandinavia. Let’s not be too critical: this is a superb heritage site allowing controlled access to the site itself with guided tours inside, plus rich and varied displays within the visitor centre. It has many stories to tell and the mortuary practices involved in the site and landscape are only part of the picture. I also appreciate the staged journey on foot to the visitor centre and on by foot and bus to the monument itself. Still, despite the many positive points, I would like to address critically some concerns I have with how we display the prehistoric dead in this environment from a cremation perspective.
The sanitised dead?
The entire visitor experience must be accused of sanitising death and the dead apart from one section (see below). The route to the visitor centre from the car park, much of the visitor centre itself,, the route from the visitor centre to the monument and the monument and its environs are all cremation free.
Admittedly, the ephemeral traces of the dead from the excavations at Newgrange make it difficult to effectively integrate the disposal and treatment of the dead into the archaeological narrative. Yet this is more than about levels of survival, this is about choice of story. For Newgrange, the big stories are the landscape, the building process, the monumental architecture and the solar alignment, seemingly not the relationships between the living and the dead.
Hence, in my view the cremated (and uncremated) dead don’t quite get the attention they deserve, or at the very least are not actively promoted in a striking fashion. In this regard, the spaces are clean and tidy, and movement and death-free, uncluttered with the arrangement (and disarrangement) of bones and bodies (both living and dead). This allows the monument to achieve an aura of immortality: a deathless transtemporality.
Talking around cremation
The one exception to the deathless nature of Newgrange is a space in the visitor centre where the cremated dead are displayed. Here, most of the display talks around cremation, rather than talks about it:
- one display – ‘Evidence from Bones’ pictures cremated human remains from Newgrange but actually is about evidence from bones that might tell us about what living Neolithic people ‘looked like’. This fails to indicate how information can be extracted to reveal appearance and diseases suffered, and nothing is said about how cremated bones reveal details of the ritual and other processes to which they have been subjected. In short, cremation is portrayed as a taphonomic challenge rather than a disposal process;
- a model of a human skeleton illustrating the information that human osteologists and palaeopathologists can glean from bones: cremation doesn’t get a look-in here;
Bearded high hands
It’s well known that Stone Agers couldn’t shave, and almost always look like hippies. There is one wall panel explaining mortuary practice – the possibility that bones were left to rot in wooden mortuary houses before being burnt and then washed in the River Boyne before disposal in the passage graves. This is good and clearly represents a possible ritual process. As such, this display is the closest one can come to a dynamic mortuary process in the static architecturally focused displays. Still, they resort to what has become, perhaps accidentally, a classic cliche of archaeological illustration: a bearded older male with high hands (in this instance brandishing the torch that presumably lit the pyre) presiding over the ceremonies. Here, he appears twice at two stages of the postulated funerary process: first he is incanting over the burning bones, second he is scattering cremains into one of the stone basins. Good for him and great for the three people who bothered to show up! Imagine all the kith and kin who never bothered to even respond to the invititations! Where are the crowds? Where are the multiple women and kids? Where are the animals? Most importantly, where is the rain?
The driest bodies that blow
Cremated remains without context are the driest bodies that blow. Thankfully, the visitor centre opted for a really striking and memorable arrangement for the cremated remains themselves, with a stone kerb mimicking the passage grave in miniature. This is a nice touch. The stone circle focuses on a replica stone basin like those found within the chamber and containing ashes. Around it, there are four perspex pillars, each featuring an artefact found in the excavations.
However, while the cremains are here given context, they are very much settings for the striking artefacts. It is unclear how else they might have done this to enhance a sense of identity to the bones, but my forthcoming article does explore a range of ways this has been achieved in other museums and heritage sites. Sadly, the relationship between bones and artefacts are obscure, and the role of artefacts in the cremation itself is not explored.
For me, this is a great visitor centre and ancient monument and well worth exploring. The archaeological dead do have a place in this landscape, albeit restricted, controlled and sanitised. The challenges and the potential of displaying the cremated dead have been tackled head on in the visitor centre but I’m not sure how clear it will be for people to understand mortuary process, mortuary variability and the relationships between bodies, bones, material culture and architecture in the life-history of Newgrange. Despite the efforts, the display is lacking heat, not to mention smoke, steam, ash, bone and fire…
Williams, H. (in press 2016) Firing the imagination: cremation in the modern museum, in H. Williams and M. Giles (eds) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.