dsc09810Do we need intact skeletons and mummies on display to feel we come ‘face-to-face’ with the past, the dead and human mortality in museums and at heritage sites?

In my latest edited collection – Archaeologists and the Dead – I discuss the fixation of much recent discussion of human remains in museums and heritage contexts upon articulated skeletons and mummified bodies. In my own chapter in the book, I explore the complex challenges faced by, and the near-ubiquitous display of, the cremated dead and this is a theme I’ve returned to repeatedly in this blog in discussing heritage sites as diverse as Stonehenge and Newgrange, Chester Cathedral and Leeds Museum.

dsc09842In the Introduction to the book (and reviewed in a recent post), I discuss how Sutton Hoo provides a series of other engagements with the archaeological dead which are fragmentary but also ghostly. I say this because Sutton Hoo is a mortuary landscape without well-preserved human remains, and yet with a series of striking material traces revealed by sustained and careful multiple campaigns of archaeological excavation which together imply bodies disturbed, absent but implied, or present but in boneless forms. There are also those suggested by earthworks and images.

dsc09853In a forthcoming book chapter, I’m writing about the sand bodies at Sutton Hoo; traces of bodies eaten away by the acidic soils leaving only soil-stains to be carefully excavated. There is the ‘absent body’ from Mound 1, known only through the rich artefacts. Others were perhaps broadly contemporaneous with, and beneath, the ‘princely’ mounds, including the disturbed traces of cremation burials in Mounds 3, 4 and 5 etc. There are the disturbed hints of a wealthy female grave from Mound 14. Most famous is the undisturbed but still ghostly remains from beneath Mound 17; here was a horse’s sand-body was found in a pit adjacent to an adult male weapon grave.

Then there is the ghostly traces of execution victims from around Mound 5 recovered around a possible gallows from the Eastern Cemetery. These graves yielded all manners of postures and positions indicative of victims of torture and execution: a pair of later Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries.

dsc09846Visitors today to the National Trust site encounter many displays about these phantoms: different non-corporeal mortuary traces. At the visitor centre, the exhibition hall contains examples of these as follows;

  1. The artefacts and display boards of the exhibition reveal many different images and accounts of the dead at Sutton Hoo without displaying bodies;
  2. A sand-body of a later Anglo-Saxon execution victim – a cast taken during excavation and now placed beneath glass in the floor to evoke the character of these ephemeral graves;
  3. dsc09881The reconstruction of the chamber within Mound 1 with a mannequin in the exhibition hall together with replicas of the principal grave-goods. This has been updated since my last visit in 2010, and whereas the chamber used to have a cut-away side allowing a view into an arrangement of the chamber with a faceless body implying the presence of a former body, now one can enter into the chamber itself. As a result, the assemblage has had to be squashed against one side of the chamber, so that it no longer resembles the spatial layout of the excavated chamber. However, this does allow close proximity to, and engagement with, the replica artefacts and the ‘dead body’.
  4. markers outside the visitor centre denoting the locations where graves were found ahead of construction (the Tranmer House cemetery recently published by Chris Fern);

dsc09783dsc09786These are matched with various phantoms on the site itself. These not only relate to the surviving earthworks of the ancient mounds, but also the reconstruction of Mound 2. Furthermore, there are:

  1. fdsc09942lint cobbled areas that denote where sand-bodies were excavated,
  2. the location of the horse and man found beneath Mound 17.
  3. a further, single sand-body – the ‘ploughman’ from grave 27 – possibly a later Anglo-Saxon execution victim buried with his instrument of torture. This is one of the original casts

dsc09948Together, these different traces of the dead create a non-corporeal series of phantoms of the archaeological dead for visitors to engage with: those implied by mounds new and old, artefacts authentic and replica, stains and traces, markers and artists impressions. One might add the presence of replicas and re-enactors to this mix.

The contention of Archaeologists and the Dead is that Sutton Hoo provides in microcosm a sense of the sophisticated and varied cenotaphic mortuary landscapes created at archaeological sites and museums. These are often neglected from discussion and debate through an over-emphasis on human bones and fleshed cadavers, and yet these constitute the mainstay of archaeological contributions to current engagements with the remains of the dead.

dsc09968As with my discussions of the Pillar of Eliseg, the challenge is that such traces are less ‘human’, less ‘tangible’ than an articulated set of bones or mummy. The question isn’t perhaps ‘are they sufficiently tangible/corporeal for visitors?’ and more whether their distinctive and varied natures are tied closely and carefully to explaining the interpretation of mortuary archaeology. In other words: what stories do these graves tell through their disturbed, fragmentary and ephemeral traces?

The thing is, we might be missing a trick here. People can and do response to such ‘ghostly’ traces, just as they can respond to textual memorials and, indeed, completely anonymous monuments in emotive and sophisticated ways. The question is not about ‘bringing the dead to life’, but engaging visitors with their traces and absences. The onus is therefore, instead, on how archaeological narratives engage visitors with phantoms as well as things.

This discussion applies to the ‘dark heritage’ of concentration camps, memorials to those lost at sea, war memorials and so many other dimensions of contemporary engagements with memory and material culture. It also applies to the sand bodies, cremation graves and disturbed tombs of Sutton Hoo…