Recent decades have seen an evolution of facial reconstructions, derived initially from forensic contexts, as a striking mechanism for bringing back to life the ancient dead. Wrapped around skeletons retrieved from archaeological investigations, and using forensic experts to inform their appearance, I’ve called these “Talking Archaeo-heads”. This is because these are interpretations, informed by available evidence, that evoke personal narratives of dead people. They thus ‘speak’ to living people in a fashion other archaeologically derived human remains often cannot. They are like well-preserved, fleshed bog bodies and mummies, but with their eyes open and expressions configured. They were first popularised in the UK on TV by Meet the Ancestors presented by the wonderful Julian Richards.
Certainly, I’ve been critical of many, but I’ve never doubted their power to convey past individuals to present-day visitors to museums and heritage sites: they fashion corporeal present-day ‘ancestors’ for our time. Britain’s past has become a gallery of facial reconstructions of individuals spread across the nation’s museums and heritage sites, created from skeletal remains. My most local is Brymbo Man but there are untold numbers.
Despite awareness of this trend to re-flesh the ancient dead, I didn’t anticipate the power of facial reconstructions to spark controversy and conflict, as well as to inspire new positive perspectives on the past. At least I didn’t until the recent news headlines. I refer to the recent new reconstruction of Cheddar Man.
Early this month Cheddar Man once more hit the news. New DNA evidence suggests he may well have been blue-eyed and dark-skinned. Here’s a link to FAQ about the DNA results from Cheddar Man: Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton.
Suddenly, facial reconstructions take on a whole new level of significance in British society which has become increasingly divided over its attitude towards race and identity in the context of long-term disputes over British origins, the rise of English nationalism, the immigration crisis, Brexit, the era of fake news and the rise of global far-right.
In this multi-faceted context, it is very difficult to deny the importance of this powerful reconstruction, linked to a TV programme about the research, showing us a possible appearance of an individual who lived in what is now Britain in the Mesolithic: 10,000 years ago.
Some have rightly found it amusing that it challenges insular and white supremacist attitudes towards Englishness, Britishness more broadly, and narratives on immigration of darker-skinned peoples as somely fairly recent in Britain’s story. Yet it is more than funny: it is deeply powerful. I was struck by the positive responses it received from people of colour, for whom it wasn’t simply an amusing anecdote with which to laugh that those for whom it will enrage. For many, it is about reclaiming the distant British past in a fashion that has been denied. MP David Lammy’s response was, for example, quite revealing in this regard.
Likewise, the responses to clickbait claims that it is ‘fake news’ spurred by a New Scientist article claiming to cast doubt on the evidence, tell us much about alt-right rage at the possibility of early post-glacial populations in Britain were dark-skinned.
In short, Cheddar Man’s facial reconstruction , informed by new DNA evidence, reveals more than our obsession with ‘race’ and skin-colour. It also shows the power of the ancient dead to speak to us down the centuries through archaeological and scientific research, to open up new stories about the past and for our future.
Let’s remember why this matters. There is no denying that previous reconstructions of Cheddar Man, and indeed almost all reconstructions of every other early person from prehistory, have been afforded white-skinswithout exception. Whether it is the recent Stonehenge Visitor Centre or the Amesbury Archer, prehistory is portrayed as white. This has been a casual white-washing of Britain’s past that archaeologists have all been complicit in. Indeed, even recently the concept that dark-skinned people might have lived in Roman Britain caused a furore among the lesser educated and far-right, driven forward by outrage at the choice of images we select to portray Britain’s past in an educational resource by the BBC. But this is different from the Roman ‘debate’, since it relates to indigeneity – about an early post-glacial inhabitant of Britain whose population is, in part, ancestral to people living in Britain today. This is somewhat different to the debates over ‘multiculturalism’ and the Roman Empire and cannot be so readily discounted as evidence of ‘visitors’ rather than a sustained contribution to the population of these islands.
So I’ve taken my time before commenting, but here I simply post to celebrate the research. I also applaud the interest and varied responses to the new ‘Taking Archaeo-head’ of Cheddar Man. Its significance is about more than the pigmentation, the blue eyes, the expression, the hair. It is all this and the archaeological context and date. It is also about the complex story the head reveals about the Mesolithic past and the many questions about ‘what happened next’ – the peopling of these islands through subsequent millennia. Through Cheddar Man, we can ‘speak with the dead’ afresh, opening up new conversations about our past and its complex social, economic, environmental, religious and political stories, as well as Britain’s long and complex links with Europe, Asia and Africa.
What was my response? I took a humorous approach at the initial news release (featured in the image on this post – one of my more popular tweets). I stand by my stark choice of response, since it serves to parody the inevitable far-right reaction to the news in Britain and elsewhere. Most people seemed to get it; Cheddar Man has provided a Blazing Saddles archaeological moment for some in the UK as it obsesses over how to distance itself economically and legally from the European Union, and in a climate where xenophobia is rife. It is sad that it is required, and tragic to see the inevitable denials and sick comments that have resulted. Still, Cheddar Man is a new British hero. I hope he remains so and he is joined by other representations of British prehistory that avoid a complete white-wash.