Are human remains more ok to display if they are local? Are human remains ‘better together’ or better displayed as discrete articulated individuals?
In a previous posts reflecting on last week’s visit to Leiden, I outlined how the rich galleries of the RMO (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden), cited death and displayed death through Egyptian artefacts, sarcophagi and art far more than mummified animal and human remains. I’ve also addressed Etruscan and Roman artefacts and monuments that allude to cremation practices, but without the display of the cremated dead themselves. The Greek gallery also had artefacts on display to discuss mortuary practices and afterlife beliefs (vessels for offerings and tombstones) without human remains on show.
Moreover, the Carthagian remains of gravestones of infants – the debate still continues over whether these were sacrifices or simply infant-deaths.
The cremated dead do not appear in any of these galleries. I focused particularly on cremation practices, but only in the Roman Netherlands gallery did I finally find a small display of cremated human remains.
However, it was only in the Archaeology from the Netherlands gallery on the second-floor of the museum, did I encounter a series of human remains as part of the story of the national story. So is it seen as more ‘ok’ to display the human dead if they are from ancient NW Europe as opposed to from colonial acquisitions and from outside the nation/region?
How are the remains displayed? Well, there is one mass-deposit of human remains of early Neolithic date. With the display titled ‘Better Together’ from Medel-De Roeskamp and dating to the early 4th millennium BC.
In contrast, there are two displays of single skeletons in fashions well established in European museums. An articulated adult skeleton from an Early Bronze Age ‘Beaker’ grave is on display without any explicit allusion to the character of the cists and graves in which they are discovered, but with a Beaker at its feet.
Finally, there is a late medieval skeleton, affording a sense of context by being situated in a sarcophagus. This is therefore the only possible Christian burial on display in the museum.
So the museum finds many ways to discuss death and remembrance within its walls and across many cultures, but the display of human remains themselves (as opposed to wrapped inside mummies) is reserved for the prehistoric, Roman and medieval periods of the Netherlands. Better together or better apart? The Roman cremation deposit, and the early Neolithic mass-burial, afford a sense of the transformations and fragmentations that can be integral to many past societies’ funerary rituals. Meanwhile, the articulated Early Bronze Age and medieval skeletons, allude to practices that retain corporeal articulation and integrity in death. I liked the fact that both these dimensions – fragmentation/intermingling, and articulated disposal, find a place in the galleries, even if (once again) cremation practices are not adequately explained, envisioned and displayed.