It’s rarely the case that there is a brand-new exhibition on death in a local museum. Now there’s two!
I recently got to open the combined exhibitions of art and artefacts in the Grosvenor Museum relating to death, burial, mourning and commemoration. Downstairs is the Dead Normal exhibition, and upstairs is the Memento Mori exhibition.
The Dead Normal exhibition explores the history of death through a rich range of art, artefacts, monuments and also some human remains, engaging with the themes of what is death, dying, death, burial, mourning, and commemoration.
Many of the items cross-cut these categorisations, and there is so much to see. I’d like to pick out ten of my favourite items. I don’t have full details of each. Still, I want to share with you my personal top-ten, as in combination they serve to showcase the exhibition. In particular, they give a clear sense of how the exhibition cuts through time and shows the diverse human responses to death mediated by material culture. They also relate, in different ways, to my research interests. There are, however, many more things to see that are just as fascinating!
So let me explore my 10 items from amidst this rich and distinctive collection.
Cinerary Urns and Caskets – Early Bronze Age and Contemporary
It makes sense, for me, to lead up my top-ten with a discussion of artefacts linked to cremation past and present, since this is a long-term research interest of mine. Here, the middle and top layers of the display case contain caskets, cinerary urns and scattering tubes from the present, including one with Chester’s football club’s insignia – presumably designed for ash-scattering at the club. This is juxtaposed with a Food Vessel of Early Bronze Age date from Kelsall. I’ve discussed the display of cremation in CWAC museums before here. Here, we get a trans-historical sense of the role of ash-containers across time and space. Thoroughly deserving of my top-ten as a starter!
Ushabtis (followers) are fascinating examples of artefacts made for the grave, and express a distinctive corporeal engagement with the afterlife. They served as miniature servants to assist the dead person with physical tasks in the afterlife. Made of varied materials, from wax in the earliest forms to ceramic, stone and faience. This collection derives from the Garstang Museum and while I’m a rank amateur when it comes to ancient Egyptian mortuary practice, it would be crazy not to include these wonderful miniature human forms in my top-ten.
An Early Medieval Skeleton from Heronbridge
The 1930-31 excavations at the Roman roadside settlement south of Chester at Heronbridge revealed a near-unique instance of the victims of early medieval conflict, purportedly linked to the conflict between King Aethelfrith of Northumbria and his Welsh and Mercian rivals in c. AD 603/4. Bede records the battle with glee as the British monks were slaughtered by the Northumbrians, suspecting them of using battle-magic against them.
This individual skeleton bears evidence of multiple sharp-force traumas to the skull, suggesting a brutal end. Whether a monk or warrior, set into the floor of the exhibition in a false grave, the bones shed light on death in the martial kingdoms of the Early Middle Ages.
The juxtaposition with posters and images of death from other times, brings home a universality to the violent death that implicitly evokes far more recent conflicts: this is very effective and therefore deserving of my top-ten. As one of only two sets of actual human remains (the other being a mummified ancient Egyptian human hand – depicted above), it is also deserving of note in relation to my point of discussion in my opening address regarding the ethics of displaying actual bodies and body-parts for visitors to see.
Early Medieval Weapons from Meols
Found as part of a broader collection of antiquarian discoveries from Meols, the bent arrowhead (or is it a lancehead?), spearhead, axehead and shield boss might constitute elements of one or more furnished early medieval graves. Such a group might indicate a ‘Viking’ (i.e. Scandinavian-style) furnished inhumation grave, associated with a long-running beach market site on the tip of the Wirral peninsula. How can a possible Viking furnished grave not make it into my top-ten?
The Overchurch Rune-Inscribed Stone Fragment
This wonderful fragment of early ninth-century carved stone monument, perhaps part of a grave-slab, was found in Overchurch, Wirral. Its runic inscription commemorates one Aethelmund, perhaps a local member of the secular elite of a region on the borders of Northumbria and Mercia. It is truly a fascinating and intriguing, unique monument, and therefore fully deserving of a top-ten position.
Lead Grave-Goods from a Later Medieval Priest’s Grave
From the long-running excavations of the medieval chapel site of Poulton, just south of Chester, comes this wonderful pairing of later medieval grave-goods. A lead chalice and paten – presumably made as substitutes for silver equivalents – might have been made for the funeral of a priest and deposited in his grave to articulate this rank and role in this world, and to ensure spiritual recognition for his soul and ease his passage through Purgatory.
Later Medieval Grave-Slab Fragment from the HQ Site
As with the ushabtis, we return to artefacts made especially for funerals. This is a fabulous find from the excavations of the medieval Benedictine nunnery of Chester, revealed in the as-yet-unpublished excavations ahead of the building of the HQ building in Chester. I confess I can’t recall seeing an equal-eight-armed floriated cross quite like this, but there are parallels from Bangor (Gwynedd) and (closer to Chester) at Nercwys (Flintshire).
The Deva Hospital Pauper’s Coffin
Previously, I’ve discussed the mnemonic power of mortuary artefacts used to contain bodies and evoke their former presence through their form, particularly discussing sarcophagi. But biers and coffins used to convey multiple corpses have a particularly powerful allusions. This 19th-century pauper’s coffin from Overleigh cemetery was used for transportation, not for burial. As such, it bears traces and stains, and provokes one to think of the hundreds of individuals it once might have borne to their simple graves.
The Bier and Coffin
I’m cheating here, since this is actually a combination of two distinctive material culture elements, juxtaposed to powerful effect in the exhibition. First, there is a 19th-century bier from a parish church near Chester. On top of this is a present-day environmentally friendly woollen coffin. Together, they communicate how the containment and transportation of dead bodies as a key ingredient of funerals past and present. Hence, this combination deserves to be in my top-ten.
An Early 20th-century Gravestone
The grassy knoll of butcher’s grass might look unfunerary and a bit naff to the uninitiated, but I think this is a brilliant display for multiple reasons. First, it offers a triad of stones facing different directions, appreciated on their own and together, from contrasting periods. Moreover, it raises gravestones up at angles to be apprehended by young and old alike, in a safe manner. Third, artificial grass is actually a key ingredient of modern-day graveside funerals, and therefore its presence indoor is apposite. Having previously discussed the Anglo-Saxon runic inscription and the medieval grave-slab on display, my final object in my personal top-ten is this early 20th-century child’s gravestone, dislocated from its original situation and now kept in the stores of the Grosvenor Museum. For me, nothing is more forlorn than such a recent, now-cenotaphic former grave-marker. Is it a coincidence that this individual died one month short of 100 years before the opening of the exhibition, soon after the end of the Great War?
A final note: I’m really unsure what the ‘Not Died Yet’ refers to: an aspiration to eternal life, or an articulation of still living in the memory of the parents? Or both?