A recurring theme of this blog is the challenge faced by heritage professionals of displaying cremated human remains in museums in a fashion that conveys spectacle and multi-staged processes involved as well as the complexity and variability of cremation within and between different periods of the human past. I’ve address this, for instance, in relation to Newgrange, Stonehenge, Leeds Museum and Cheshire museums. Indeed, in 2016 I published an article exploring how we display the cremated dead in museums in the book Archaeologists and the Dead.
In this post I wish to present how a range of cremation burials are incorporated into the Museum of London’s permanent exhibitions.
Cremations are never alone: they always appear with other traces of the dead in museums. At the Museum of London, the cremated dead are displayed alongside a range of other mortuary remains from prehistory and early history. There are skulls found in the Thames and Walbrook stream. There is also are mock-up Bronze Age inhumation burial.
The Roman burial evidence dominates given the nature of the exhibition. There is an inhumation grave and sarcophagi. Further, visitors can see gravestones and a range of Roman-period artefacts retrieved from mortuary contexts. So as always, cremation in the human past is displayed alongside a range of other kinds of mortuary remains. Yet for this post, let’s focus on the overt threefold display of cremation practices.
Early Roman inhumation grave
Late Iron Age Cremation
In the immediately pre-Roman period, there is a solitary cremation burial on display in a modest ceramic vessel. What is striking though is that the cremated human remains are fully on display, brimming from the top: clean, sorted and washed. Of course viewers might think this is how they are uncovered in the archaeological record. Regardless, it is important to note how contrasting this is for most people experiencing modern ‘cremulated’ ashes. In short, such a simple mode of display is so commonplace in museums, implying that this is how ‘inurned cremation burials look’, it is easy to forget how contrived these displays actually are.
Romano-British Cremation Graves
There is a really distinctive display of the Roman-British cremated dead that is very effective because it combines two lines of sight into the case from either side. Another cool feature is the range of different sizes and materials of vessels on display – indicating the diversity of burial practices afforded to ‘cremains’. Stone, ceramic, glass – it was a crazy world in Roman Britain where a wide range of vessels could serve as funerary urns.
An important further feature of this display is an artist’s reconstruction of a cemetery scene. This is good, since it manages to condense and illustrate multiple stages of the post-cremation grave-side ceremonies. There are tombstones in the background. In the middle ground, two male individuals and one female (whether servants/slaves or family members, it is unclear) sort through ashes from a bustum cremation while a male in more illustrious dress stands watching. In the foreground, a middle-aged woman and boy watch a man prepare a grave with a large amphorae used as a funerary grave-good and slabs inserted implying an adjacent burial cist.
A Special Romano-British Cremation
Whether it wasn’t there before on my last visit, or it is new, there is also the Great Dover Street cremation burial hidden in a narrow space at the end of the Roman gallery. The text says the find was recent (2000) but I ahd visited before since then. In any case, this is the media’s “female gladiator” as reported here. It contains a range of picture lamps and was a bustum burial (cremation over a pit). However, again, I’m not sure whether a non-specialist would be able to appreciate the precise details of the grave’s arrangement in relation to the excavated grave without photographs or a plan. Still, there is an artist’s impression of the road-side tombs, a feature reflected with a plan and artist’s impression of extramural cemeteries around London elsewhere in the gallery.
Put all this together and visitors to the Museum of London get a real sense of the complexity and variability of cremation practices in Britain’s past, but not the pre-cremation and cremation stages. Moreover, visitors won’t get a clear sense of why burial practice varied so much, even if religious and cultural, social and economic factors are cited as possible causes. These are common challenges facing the museum display of the cremated dead.
Finally, there is one more critical point. Cremation is really only displayed in a coherent way for the Roman period. For later prehistory and the early Anglo-Saxon period funerary vessels are on display, cremation as a funerary process escapes detailed attention or mention. Hence, visitors could be forgiven for missing the importance of burning the dead over the longer term in London’s prehistory and early history.