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A tale of three deaths

August 9, 2013

When I was a child I was inspired and fascinated by three events. A trip to St. Albans, a trip to The British Museum, and the raising of the Mary Rose. In different ways, each of these experiences ignited a life-long interest in archaeology and history. But now, as a thirty-something man, I find myself questioning the use of the dead to educate and entertain’ I find myself struggling with the morality of displaying human remains – questioning the integrity of the curators, archaeologists and historians who compromise religious and cultural rights.

St. Albans skeleton

In around 1987 I went on a school trip to St. Albans. It was a lovely sunny day, and the mini bus hummed with excited chatter and laughter.

The Roman hypocourse and arena were interesting, as were the mosaics. In fact, the whole town seemed to resonate with atmosphere and history. Unfortunately my classmates didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm for history – their interest wasn’t peaked by the colourful artefacts and pieces of pottery in the museum.

I remember vividly walking around the museum in a kind of trance. I was glued to the cases, whilst my friends frowned and tutted, hoping expectantly to find a gift shop. But one exhibit in particular haunted me. A skeleton.

The skeleton was found in Park Street Villa in a lead-lined, limestone coffin.

I remember with stark clarity the sense of sadness I felt as I looked at the skeleton, dark with age, seemingly cringing beneath an alien ceiling with its constellation of spotlights.

The male Skeleton was found near to a female skeleton – also in a limestone coffin. Experts speculate that they were husband and wife.

So, what right do we have to separate a couple in death?

Scientists haven’t learned very much from the skeletons – there are no new revelations about Roman death rites. In fact, the time period in which the man died is as broad as 40BCE to 400Ad. A time period that spans a multitude of spiritual and religious beliefs.

Whatever belief system, whatever god or prophet one worships, surely it is an act of desecration to break open a limestone coffin and display its inhabitant to staring tourists and school children?

Lindo Man

In 1984 workmen discovered a body whilst digging pete in a bog in north west England. The man, a beautifully preserved Iron Age individual was taken to The British Museum where he was studied. The detailed analyses taught us a great deal about life in around 1AD.

Experts were not only able to examine skin, hair, organs and clothes, but they were able to learn about diet from the contents of the man’s stomach. Allied to this, scientists studied trauma patterns and were able to fairly accurately assertane how the man died.

It appeared that he was sacrificed – given to the bogs as an offering. The received wisdom is that the druids had a hand in the ritual, and that human sacrifice was common place, and maybe not just preserved for criminals as part of a punishment ritual.

When I visited the exhibit a couple of years after it opened, I was fascinated and flabbergasted. “Pete Marsh” as he was Christened lay in a glass container, his brown skin and dark features stark beneath the lights. He absolutely fascinated me, spurring me to learn about the Iron and Bronze ages, and even becoming a major inspiration for one of my short stories.

But, let us for a moment consider the fundamentals. Pete was Pagan – Pete the Pagan! He lived in a society that venerated nature, the gods and ancestors. A belief system that understood that sacrifice may be honourable, as the spirit may become a messenger, an interlocutors for the gods. We also speculate that the flesh was less important than the spirit and soul, as in many cases the bodies of the dead were disposed of or simply placed in chambers or pits. However, Pete was different. If we are to interpret the evidence correctly, we can suggest that he was indeed sacrificed. This means two things – it means that his spirit and his body are sacred.

Now, we can’t do much about his spirit, it is either with his ancestors or has been reincarnated. But, it seems as though his body was supposed to stay in the bog in order to appease the gods or ancestors. If this is the case, do we have a right to remove it and stuff it into a display case? Morally, does science justify itself by asserting that the knowledge gained is worthwhile? Or, can’t the remains be examined and the body re-buried in the marsh?

The answer might be no. In order for people to become inspired they must see. Museum staff would argue that having Pete on display not only educates but enthrals, inspires people to learn and even take up history and archaeology. In my case, I was certainly intrigued, but I chose to learn and turn what I learned into fiction.

Mary Rose archer

In 1982, the Mary Rose began its ascent to the surface. I remember watching Blue Peter and Newsround with wrapped fascination as the ghostly hull of the ship was shown to us.

It began its service in 1510, and was sank in 1545 in the Solent. Henry VIII flagship, the monarch himself was reported to watch the sinking from a nearby headland – the sound of the crew drifting up to him.

The remains of 179 individuals have been identified, with 92 fairly complete skeletons, including a dog. But it is one skeleton in particular I want to discuss. A skeleton of a man that both tells a story and raises questions.

The skeleton of an archer stands alongside his life size reconstruction in the newly opened Mary Rose exhibition. The skeleton, a tall, strong man has taught us a lot about the bowmen’s trade. From damage to his spine to wear in his shoulders and wrist, the skeleton reminds us of his life. His bow, over six feet of yew is longer than its medieval counterpart, as are the arrows that are propelled at an enormous rate of power and speed.

The archer, one of many aboard the ship, stands like a ghost – forlorn, his modern representation cutting a proud and strong figure – an elite warrior, well fed and well proportioned.

We have learned a great deal from this silent warrior – but, he begs us to confront a moral issue. The Mary Rose is a war grave. As such, its silent passengers should be accorded respect.

But what about the science? We have gained a fascinating snapshot of Tudor life from the remains, we have also learned a great deal about individuals’ ways and manners through their possessions. But is it fair that this one man, this one archer should be chosen to be raised from his tomb of water and mud in order to teach us about his trade? Allied to this, there is an exceedingly high possibility that he was a Christian, and Christians of the period need their bodies to remain intact for resurrection. What right do we have to summon him to the surface to stand in a glass case?

We can learn a vast amount from human remains. How people lived, what they did, how they looked, what they ate, how they died. I have no issues with the science of reason and research. However, I can’t help but feel the indivuals should be accorded the respect they deserve and reinterred. That said, there is nothing more inspiring, thought provoking and powerful than looking into the long dead face of an ancestor and bid him enter your dreams.

Thankfully, modern technology has meant that fewer remains need be disturbed. The recent finds beneath Lincoln castle are examples of careful and vigilant archaeology. In the past, a stone coffin would have to be literally broken open in order to look inside. Now, thankfully because of fibre optics and cameras, x-rays and MRI scans, the remains needn’t see the light of day.

It seems that it is modern policy to examine, catalogue and then rebury – which is an excellent thing. But, to see the dead is surely to understand the past, not as a vague hinterland of grey dates and dusty events, but the true past. A past shaped by men and women, each striving in their own way to understand the world and live with similar hopes and fears as us.

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