In previous blog-posts I’ve considered multiple aspects of the display of the human dead in museum contexts, but mainly relating to prehistoric (including Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age), ancient (Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman-period) and early medieval (including early Anglo-Saxon and Viking-period) graves and mortuary remains. Seldom have I reflected on how later medieval (late 11th to early 16th centuries AD in NW Europe and Scandinavia) remains are put on display. There is good reason for this: rarely do later medieval, Christian-era, mortuary remains get put on display. Partly this is due to the double-standard indulged by generations of archaeologists of happily displaying the bodies and bones of earlier ‘cultures’, while differentially respecting and reburying any disturbed remains of the Christian Middle Ages. In their absence, funerary monuments are frequently the only dimensions of death on show: from outdoor lapidaria to museum display cases.
The exceptions are revealing: the fabulous displays of architecture and material culture at Norton Priory include not only grave slabs and funerary artefacts, but skeletons and facial reconstructions. I witnessed another example in 2018 when attending a seminar in Sweden. My blog-post commented on the display of the partially excavated grave of a bishop in the town museum of Sigtuna, Sweden. In most later medieval museums and heritage sites, however, the human remains are unknown due to circumstances such as antiquarian excavation or poor curation, or else due to ethical considerations and their reburial following analysis.
Yet, late last year I encountered a further example of later medieval human remains put on display in the Bryggens Museum, Bergen, Norway. This was a wonderful museum, in the process of being reorganised and redisplayed, with rich material evidence of later medieval Bergen’s Hanseatic trading history revealed by a host of artefacts from leather and pottery to bone and iron, not to mention the amazing collection of rune-inscribed sticks.
In a separate alcove at the far end of one’s tour of the displays, and therefore avoidable if one would prefer not to look upon human remains, a skeleton took centre stage in the ‘sacred’ section of the display. In display cases around the walls are a host of Christian sacred artefacts, including a chalice and crosses.
Furthermore, a skull and other post-cranial bones were displayed to illustrate particular pathologies suffered by the townsfolk.
Central in the room was an adult skeleton laid out in broadly anatomic arrangement, but for the feet which were re-arranged beside the legs.
At the time of visiting, I had no clear information regarding the display: who was this person in life? When were they found? What made this individual selected for display in the museum context?
I cannot find more information about this display online, and I wonder if there are other Norwegian museums happy to display Christian-era skeletons as comfortably as they are content to display pre-Christian human remains?
I look forward to revisiting to find out more. For now she/he is a further, relatively uncommon, instance of a skeleton under 1,000 years old on display in a European museum.