In August 2017, Prittlewell Priory Museum reported  the chipping of a side-edge of a medieval stone coffin. Staff were ‘shocked and upset’ and regarded it as an ‘unbelievable incident’. The museum curator said ‘you really don’t expect people to try to get into the artefacts’.

The coffin was protected by plastic transparent barriers along its side. However, the parents must have lifted the child over the barrier into the coffin in order to take a photograph. The edge of the coffin was evidently subjected to internal pressure and an existing weakness led to a corner of the existing broken edge fracturing. The council predict repairs will cost under £100.

The coffin was found in the priory grounds in 1921 and is unique to the Cluniac monastic house. It might date to the 13th century and is an important artefact for the locality.

The damage is more than unfortunate and is clearly the result of irresponsible visitor behaviour.

Archaeology responses

Archaeological and heritage professional responses to this news story were fascinating: fury and rage against the museum visitors who caused the damage was near-ubiquitous.

On the BAJR – UK Archaeology site it was regarded as an ‘act of vandalism’. Others relayed stories of the public’s inability to leave artefacts on display in museums alone, needing to interact with even fragile items. Others called those responsible ‘idiots’, and ‘fools’, others saw them as ‘entitled’ and ‘probably proud of themselves’. Another drew analogy to US VP Mike Pence touching an object marked ‘do not touch’.

Others blamed the child and wider ‘entitled’ practices of endangering children by letting them lean over barriers and placing them for photographs close to dangerous animals and precipitous drops. Some went further, mentioning potential violence that might be done to misbehaving children and calling the child a ‘little sod’. Another suggested (presumably in jest) that curators should be ‘armed’ and another (again clearly in jest) that ‘electric fences’ should be installed.

Regarding the damage itself, one archaeologist proposed that it should be reported to the police and that those who caused the damage should pay for the cost of restoration. It was propsed that they should be banned from other museums. Another commentator suggested the breakage constituted ‘criminal damage’ that should lead to prosecution.

Then there were those that tried to contextualise the incident and the many challenges museums face between displaying and protecting artefacts, and how most museum visitors are respectful.

Then the question came of why would you want a child’s photograph in a coffin? No responses. Indeed, the fact that it was a medieval stone coffin, not a Roman vase or a post-medieval brooch, wasn’t really considered at all by the archaeologists and heritage professionals. Was it a joke? Was the aim to take a photograph of the child in the coffin, or not? Certainly, no one considered the value of this incident for raising awareness about medieval death, burial and commemoration, and exploring potential funerary motives for visitor attempts to interact with mortuary artefacts and structures, within museum and heritage contexts. Even if the desire was born of ignorance, the question remains: are mortuary artefacts particularly sensitive and should be withheld from visitor interaction? More broadly, and beyond this act of damage, is it either potentially damaging or disrespectful to touch mortuary artefacts and monuments, let alone take photographs of them or with them?

Sarcophagi Engagement

I’d like to make a case for why lying in, sitting in or standing in, a medieval stone sarcophagus isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, at least when they are outside the museum context. However, I make no defence of the behaviour within the museum context where it should be plain that this artefact was out of bounds. For outside heritage contexts, and perhaps even in ecclesiastical contexts where stone coffins are displayed, I would make the point that they:

  1. are not usually ‘graves’ – they are coffins that usually have been removed and thus de-contextualised from their burial site in past centuries (Note: Heysham is an exception as they are rock-cut, and Norton Priory they remain in the locations where they were found);
  2. have been de-contextualised from their grave-covers/grave-slabs which may be lost or displayed elsewhere;
  3. have lost the human bones within: so they were once used to contain one or successive human bodies but are no longer associated with skeletal remains;
  4. are often roughly cut and not ornamented, so footsteps and touching them is unlikely to cause significant damage in a way that occurs to grave-covers left outside or indeed inside within churches and subject to footfall;
  5. are made of sedimentary stone: they are not impervious to harm but equally they are not particularly fragile;
  6. are almost always broken already by the time of discovery or during translation to their current situation;
  7. are often displayed in the open air, at ground level, and usually with no protection or signs warning you against touching or interacting with them;
  8. are almost never associated with coherent and effective heritage interpretation, which might be remedied (I don’t know and couldn’t see from the media photographs whether this applies to the museum context and the Prittlewell example, let’s presume not);
  9. are relatively easily repaired, as the case at Prittlewell demonstrates;
  10. when broken, still retain nearly all of their existing archaeological and historical significance and information;
  11. imply a former occupant through their shape, and therefore are spaces that encourage people to interact with using their own bodies. They are not equivalent to vases or statues: they uniquely foreground a corporeal absence in an uncanny fashion;
  12. provoke interaction with burial spaces of the past and imply lost human bodies, and are thus a potentially valuable way to engage visitors to museums and heritage sites within past mortuary and commemorative practices.

So while I wouldn’t advocate their widespread deliberate damage or treatment with disrespect, I don’t see them as naturally ‘out of bounds’ when visiting open-air heritage sites or churches. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy for their conservation, management and interpretation in the UK.

Yet stone coffins are important an widespread features I’ve encountered at many churches and other holy sites. Here’s one at Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, together with a sarcophacat!

When I visited the rock-cut graves at Heysham a few years ago, I saw no harm and potentially interesting insights to be gained by experiencing lying in one of them to try it out for size, as discussed here.

When I visited Dorchester Abbey a few years back, I saw no problem on conservation or grounds of ‘respect’ with letting my kids sit in a stone coffin under my close supervision.

And when I visited Norton Priory, the in situ stone coffins I considered too wet and dirty for sitting in or lying in, but I didn’t consider them precarious enough to avoid touching or standing in to investigate them. Indeed, I considered the value of their open-air display for engaging visitors with the mortuary practices taking place at the Augustinian monastic community.

And I’ve discussed the ubiquity of stone coffins as part of larger assemblages both inside and outside at monastic sites and cathedrals, as at Chester Cathedral. While I wouldn’t advocate standing on these, especially the ornamented surfaces, I equally didn’t seem them as under profound threat and they bear no warning signs or cordon.

What I did most recently was encourage one of my students to try out the stone coffin at Valle Crucis for size. In doing so, we weren’t ‘arsing around’ as one commentator suggested or displaying disrespect for some long-dislocated human body. Yet we were most definitely responding to the mortuary character of an artefact that is displayed without interpretation whatsoever within the ruins of the monastic church. Instead, the posing, and the photograph were part of pedagogic practice. We discussed the role of high-status secular burials in the nexus of death, burial and patronage associated with a Cistercian abbey. We also addressed the 19th-century clearance of the abbey ruins and the display of the mortuary and architectural fragments discovered. In short, interacting with a medieval stone coffin had educational value as part of an HE field trip about medieval archaeology and archaeological heritage. No damage was done.

In summary, embodied engagement with sarcophagi  – recognising and responding to their once-mortuary role and occupancy – needn’t involve playing, touching and lying within them. However, we need to understand empty body-shaped funerary spaces as key media for engaging people in both past mortuary practices and their mortality today. Care should be taken at all times. Yet, as a teacher and researcher, I see carefully interacting, and photographing interactions, with stone mortuary monuments and artefacts, unless specified otherwise, as not disrespectful or damaging, but a key mechanism for societal engagement with the past and mortality.