In October last year, I got the chance to go back to the city where I did 3 years as an undergraduate. As well as delivering a research seminar to my old department, I explored the Weston Park Museum. In a previous post, I discussed how, with the exception of a single Bronze Age cremation, death was envisioned in art and illustrations, miniaturised and modelled, but not displayed via human remains.
Many of the early medieval artefacts in the Beneath your Feet display, including Benty McBoarface (aka the Benty Grange helmet) derive from mortuary contexts in the Peak District. Most result from the 19th-century barrow-diggings commissioned and/or directed by the ‘Barrow Knight’ Thomas Bateman. A caption fully explains his contribution and legacy in terms of the Weston Park Museum’s collections.
These include bed-fittings from Lapwing Hill
There’s also a wonderful glass bowl from Cow Low.
And a hanging bowl and hanging bowl escutcheons from Benty Grange and elsewhere.
Not to mention the fabulous gold jewellery from various barrow-excavations.
Hence, put them all together and you get a strong impression, particularly for the ‘Conversion Period’ furnished inhumation graves, of early Anglo-Saxon burial practice but without the construction of a mortuary context. Instead, it is an assemblage of ‘things’, without a human context.
Partly this is justified since Bateman only kept skulls, and only in the latter part of his barrow-digging campaign. However, in addition, there are also finds on display from the Wigber Low excavations directed by Professor John Collis, including cow ribs suggesting a joint of meat was placed in the grave of an adult female.and spearheads…
a beaver-tooth pendant set in gold…
a crystal ball..
and this shield boss:
Such artefacts were found with articulated and intact, well recorded and excavated, human skeletons. However, no human remains are displayed. Put these finds together and almost everything you see of early Anglo-Saxon (5th-7th-century date) are artefacts selected by survivors for deposition with the dead. Many were situated in far-older prehistoric burial mounds and cairns, although a few were also interred beneath newly constructed mounds.
The display is perhaps confusing for visitors in my view and not only for the immediate lack of mortuary context. Also, early Anglo-Saxon artefacts without burial contexts explained, and later Anglo-Saxon/Viking period finds in the same display cases as earlier ones. Still, one is given a feast of the best artefacts from the Bateman digs augmented by other finds and Collis’ excavations at Wigber Low. These include a sword, spearheads, vessels, purses, brooches, beads and other dress accessories.
Yet it isn’t all that simple, because the mortuary context does get envisioned in multiple ways and to an extent these afford a sense of the burial environments from whence the artefacts were derived. First, Llewellyn Jewitt’s sketch of the Lapwing Hill weapon grave is deployed as context.
In addition, for Wigber Low, there are grave-plans (‘field sketches’) included in the display boards – something surprisingly rarely done in British museums.
More surprising still than the much-welcome grave-plans there is a short video of the original excavations. This is an all-too-rare example of what can be achieved, even with old footage, of contextualising human remains without recourse to bodies on display.
Despite this being a fabulous display, I’m not fully content with the cross-periodisations and the lack of clarity regarding who dug what and when. Many will visit and see just ‘shiny things’ rather than exploring or appreciating their funerary significance and context of discovery. Yet without displaying human remains, the Weston Park Museum does reveal potential directions for alternative displays via digital and artistic visualisations without actually putting human remains on display.
Previously, I’ve discussed the challenge of dealing with absent bodies regarding the Sutton Hoo Visitor Centre: maybe in combination, Weston Park and the NT Sutton Hoo sites show us avenues for displaying the dead in museums beyond the corporeal.