While the early Anglo-Saxon dead take pride of place within the recently re-opened ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia’ gallery, as discussed earlier via this link, I wish to briefly survey the constellation of other ways by which the archaeological dead pervade dimensions of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. I would recommend anyone to visit this fabulous museum and art gallery, and my comments here are to encourage you to do so, and following a series of posts exploring the display of the dead in UK museums.
First up, when I visited in 2019, there was the fabulous display of prehistoric burial contexts from Staffordshire. As well as a survey of monument types and burial traditions, there is text describing the excavation of two mounds at Wardlow excavated in 1955 containing cremation deposits in secondary positions. As often is the case, the text describes how the Collared Urn was placed over the burnt bones, but still the tradition is followed of up-turning the vessels to operate as a container for the ashes. So the display is actually inverted. Middle and Late Bronze Age cremation vessels from Barton-under-Needwood are displayed: bucket-like cinerary urns from c. 1500 BC. This is another striking example of the display of the cremated dead in a contemporary museum space.
Etruscan and Roman death
A second dimension of cremation-related material culture is a pair of stone sculpted funerary containers. One is an Etruscan coped-lidded burial chest (I need to check this, I might be wrong), and the other is a smaller early Roman stone ash-chest.
A contrasting dimension of later prehistoric or Roman mortuary practice is cave-burial. Old Hannah’s Cave has produced evidence of human remains which are undated and might be prehistoric or Romano-British. The label affirms ‘probably Romano-British’.
The Cistercian house of St Mary, Hulton, is the focus of a display incorporating not only a cross-sculpted grave-slab but a human skeleton in a stone coffin, both set in a raised tiled surface to evoke the church setting in which they were found. The text explains that over 100 graves were discovered by archaeologists in the abbey church, some in wooden coffins, a few with decorated stone grave slabs. The excavations revealed a range of ‘symbolic’ objects, including wooden staffs, lead badges and (in one instance) a wax seal from Rome. Clerical items include a gold and sapphire ring and a wax chalice in a priest’s grave.
There is also hair from the body of Lady Elizabeth Audley dating to the late 14th century; her grave was discovered in 1886. The body was skeletonised, but her hair was encased in clay and preserved.
The industry of death in the Victorian era is next up. As well as a church bier, a display includes 19th-century coffin handles, a coffin lid plate, decorate tin plate from a coffin lid, a late 19th-century ceramic memorial, a 19th-century Christ rising Lazarus scene, a ceramic funeral wreath and a host of other items including mourning jewellery and memorial cards. Earlier this year, I also discussed the ceramic 19th-century grave memorial on display.
A further indirect dimension is the Greek red-figure ware, much originally from funerary contexts, which inspired Wedgwood designs in Staffordshire from the late 18th century. A further memorial dimension is a pot thrown by Josiah Wedgwood himself with the assistance of his partner Thomas Bentley at the opening of the Wedgewood factory Etruria in 1769.
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything, but this brief superficial survey illustrates how material cultures of, and remains of, the dead are a pervasive feature in this wonderful town museum. Whether one approves of displaying human remains in UK museums or not, one cannot deny that this range of material cultures and human bodies, distributed across the galleries, provide a powerful theme connecting the people past and present, and overtly flagged up for visitors to reflect upon. Thus, as well as windows onto the past, these displays allow us to chart our complex relationship with mortality.