A Historian’s Halloween: ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ at Leeds City Museum

This is an accidentally apt post for Halloween (i.e. I didn’t plan to write it for Halloween – circumstances just happened that way!). I don’t really understand the commercialisation of this season set aside to remember the dead; the folklore of Halloween, together with the importance of the two feasts of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd) in the Christian calendar – both medieval and modern – seems to me to be rather diluted with plasticky decorations, fancy dress, the waste of perfectly edible pumpkins, and overconsumption of sugar. Maybe I’m just bitter because my mum wouldn’t let me go trick-or-treating as a child, but I don’t get it.

I’m especially mindful of the deeper significance of All Hallows’ Eve just at the moment because this weekend I made my second visit to the ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ exhibition at Leeds City Museum (my first was during the War Through Other Stuff workshop, which I blogged about here). This time I was part of a group treated to a tour of the exhibition courtesy of curator Ruth Martin, set up by the ‘Bodies Ignored/Obsessed’ initiative at the University of Leeds. Organised by four postgraduate researchers all working on topics to do with the body in history (Rachael Gillibrand, Sunny Harrison, Rose Sawyer, and Vanessa Wright) there are a series of events – seminars, excursions, and a conference – planned in the Bodies Ignored/Obsessed series this year, designed to get people thinking about human and non-human bodies; do check it out. The tour of ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ was an opportunity to get researchers and members of the public together to explore, view, and discuss the exhibition of human remains.

A bit of background. ‘Skeletons’ is a touring exhibition, based on an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in 2008 of human remains held by the Museum of London; it has since toured to Glasgow, Bristol, and now Leeds. In essence, the exhibition is very pared down; the main exhibits are skeletons dating from the Iron Age to the nineteenth century, with photography of the sites the skeletons were found in. Each host adds to the exhibition with skeletons from its own collection, or from nearby institutions, which gives a local dimension to the exhibition. In Leeds, an addition has been made to the exhibition in a second room with some artefacts related to death (including, for example, a Roman cremation urn found locally, and a local burial register), plus some interactive activities aimed at families to help visitors understand what can be learned from a skeleton, and a really interesting video about the excavation of some of the skeletons which were found in West Yorkshire.

I’m not especially squeamish about the idea of human remains on a medical level, and the skeletons are presented in such a scientific way that it’s (I think) actually difficult to be squeamish about them. Certainly, what I observed in other visitors was curiosity, not the ick-factor. The over-riding interpretation is of the pathology of the skeletons: each is laid out in an identical case, in anatomical fashion, with an accompanying caption explaining the visible pathology, e.g. signs of osteoarthritis, fractures, trauma, venereal disease, and infection. There are also photographs and interpretation boards on the wall, giving a bit more detail about the excavation of the remains. It’s actually quite beautiful, and not macabre at all; you can see some images here. Unusually, the Leeds exhibition allows the use of photography of the human remains on display, and the curators are actively encouraging visitors to engage with the ethics of the exhibition by contributing to the visitors’ book, or through social media.

On one level, I found the exhibition absolutely fascinating; I’ve never done any archaeology, and the chance to learn about how osteologists and palaeopathologists interpret human remains was fairly new for me. There’s an element of allowing visitors to interpret the remains for themselves; diagrams displayed next to the cases show where on the skeleton certain signs are to be seen (e.g. the site of a healed fracture), so visitors can discover these the signs for themselves, without having any obtrusive labels on the skeleton. I really enjoyed (if that is the right word?) having the opportunity to see this.

But the exhibition raised all sorts of other thoughts for me, and not all comfortable. The anatomical presentation of the skeletons seemed to rather flatten out the historical differences between them; to the untrained eye there is little to distinguish one from another in terms of age. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I felt that this mode of display, plus the very scientific captions, occluded the interpretation of two factors which are of great importance in my own research: bodily experience, and ritual and religion. By bodily experience, I mean how the people whose remains these are actually experienced their health: what did it feel like, how might they have been cared for, how would their life have been affected by their health conditions? One skeleton on display is of a man who at some point in his life had experienced a wound to his back; an arrowhead can be seen lodged in his spine, with healed bone around it, indicating that the wound did not kill him (nor, remarkably, was he paralysed, since the arrowhead narrowly missed his spinal cord). Both times I have visited the exhibition, visitors commented on the pain he must have suffered. Such awareness of how the people whose remains are now on display may have actually lived is not (I felt) especially explored in the presentation of the exhibition, or on the accompanying interpretation boards. It’s problematic, because discussion of this could easily veer into speculation, and I’m not a fan of assuming that health conditions have been experienced in the same, unchanging way across time (having a tooth abscess now is a very different experience to what having a tooth abscess one thousand years ago would have been like), but still. That being said, the bald interpretation of the exhibition creates an opportunity for visitors to contribute with their own understanding of health; I overheard people discussing the captions with observations of ‘Aunty so-and-so had this’, and observed a family listening attentively to a relative with archaeological training explaining the mechanisms of the human body; the exhibition is a real site for to co-creation of knowledge and for visitors to generate their own interpretation.

I was particularly struck by the limited presentation of ritual and religion in the exhibition. The Iron Age man and women buried together in a double crouched burial, the medieval anchoress, and the man whose skeleton was buried in the cemetery of a Methodist Chapel in the nineteenth century are worlds apart in terms of belief and practice, and it would have been very interesting to be able to explore this more deeply. Then there’s the ethical question of displaying the remains of people to whom their final resting place was a matter of great importance (since different belief systems place emphasis on bodily resurrection or other forms of afterlife, the disturbance and storage of such remains is somewhat problematic). But perhaps these thoughts are more about me than the exhibition. I’m preoccupied by these issues, but they aren’t really the point of the exhibition, which is fundamentally about pathology. Science and religion are not really a binary, though (and wouldn’t have been to many of the people whose remains are on display), and I think consideration of ritual and belief is of fundamental importance to studies of death and the dead.

Since the exhibition is curated in such a way as to invite such musings about the ethics of displaying human remains, I don’t feel too bad about airing my thoughts, and I’m sure other visitors to the exhibition will have their own perceptions which differ from mine! Overall, I think the exhibition is an unparalleled opportunity for people not working in archaeology, osteology, or palaeopathology to learn from human remains, and to get a glimpse into the lives of people who lived before our time. I’ll be returning before the exhibition closes in January 2018 and would highly recommend that others do so too.

I’d love to hear what other people have thought about this exhibition! Leave me a comment, below.

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Conference Report: War Through Other Stuff, Leeds City Museum, 30.09.2017

I love going to conferences. I was bitten by the conferencing bug very early in my historical career, since as an undergraduate I spent a couple of summers working for the International Medieval Congress (for anyone who has been, you know the folks desperately trying to get the yellow feedback sheet off the moderator at the end of the session? That was me! And I still get a sense of achievement thinking of the thousands – yes, thousands – of delegate information packs I helped to put together). Whether giving a paper or not, I find conferences so stimulating. They always help remind me why I love doing history, I like getting away from the university for a bit, it’s brilliant to meet new people, and I’ve had some of my best ideas at conferences – usually during papers not on my specialism in any way (out of period, different geographical context, or sometimes a completely different topic altogether!). It’s good to get out of your comfort zone; you never know what thoughts it might spark off.

Two weekends ago, I attended the ‘War Through Other Stuff’ workshop in Leeds. ‘War Through Other Stuff’ is a new society for researchers studying the history of warfare in unusual and exciting ways. Set up by three enterprising postgraduate researchers, Catherine Bateson (Edinburgh), Laura Harrison (Edinburgh), and Lucie Whitmore (Glasgow), WTOS is not a forum for traditional military history (strategies, logistics, and such) but instead showcases research on the cultural aspects of war through and in society, art, or literature; as the WTOS website succinctly puts it: ‘alternative histories of conflict’. I’m not going to summarise the presentations here, though I would encourage you to read the first-rate Storify put together by the workshop organisers, which brings together the live reactions of delegates on the day. Instead, being the frequent conference flier that I am, I’m going to talk a bit about the composition of the workshop.

Firstly, a moment to appreciate the infrastructure. The workshop was held at Leeds City Museum, thanks to collaboration between the organisers and Leeds City Museum curator, Lucy Moore. This would maybe not be the most obvious place to hold an academic event, but it was an inspired idea. For one thing, it wasn’t anybody’s ‘turf’; when a conference is held at your university, it’s too tempting to slink away at breaks or lunch to check emails, pop to the library, or just do those couple of jobs you intended to do during the week (I work at the home of the IMC; I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself!). Full advantage of the museum setting was taken after lunch (which was really excellent – up there in my top three conference lunches) with a WTOS-themed tour of the museum galleries (this was just one of two activities on offer; delegates could also choose to take part in a story-telling workshop). What a great way to combat the post-lunch slump!

The structure of the workshop programme was innovative: the organisers did away with the traditional 20-minute papers, and instead had two sessions of ‘lightning talks’ – 8 minutes maximum – and two longer keynotes. I really enjoyed this format. The quickfire presentation helped me to make connections between the papers that I might not have spotted otherwise. Presenting an 8-minute paper does require a different approach from the speaker and having done shorter papers myself, it’s certainly a challenge, but as a member of the audience I loved it.

I found the ‘lightning talk’ format especially appealing because most of the papers presented were way out of my range of expertise. This is one of the reasons I attended the conference; it was a brilliant opportunity to benefit from exposure to different methodologies and perspectives, which I do find hugely valuable. But, in this regard, the fact that the workshop was in my home territory (even if not at the university itself) was a major factor in my attendance; I may not have been inclined to travel far for an event where the content was, on the whole, so out of period, even though I do extol the benefits of getting out of the comfort zone. But the WTOS presentations were so inspirational that I am resolved that I should be more outgoing again in the future, and take some risks n my conferencing.

Huge thanks to the WTOS organisers for putting together such a fabulous day. There are exciting times ahead for the (alternative) history of conflict.

My top tip for new University students

Freshers’ Week is all wrapped up and lectures and seminars start this week. I had some really lovely encounters with students last week: so many excited to be starting their new courses, keen for Induction Week to be over and done with and for the course to be underway (students after my own heart!), some perhaps a bit nervous, bewildered by their new surroundings and exactly how to work out the new department. I was particularly struck by postgraduate students who confessed how strange it was to be starting again – to make friends, find their way around a new campus, work out a new library system; they had forgotten how they did those things the first time around. Freshers’ Week is such a mix of experiences, but now it’s finished and the academic business of University begins.

There are some great guides on how to navigate the first few weeks of term. But, because I am a super-nerd, I’m going to talk about something a bit different, which is directly influenced by a question from a student last week, who wanted to know what I thought the best way to organise lecture and seminar notes is. This is something which has much improved my working habits over my years as a University student at all levels, and which has made writing and researching much, much easier now.

Taking notes on a laptop.

In almost every case, I think it is better to create your materials in digital, rather than paper, form – and I believe this for both taught and research courses. This means taking lecture and seminar notes on your laptop, plus taking notes from your reading on a laptop. Doing this has many advantages. If you, like me, type faster than you write, then taking notes on a laptop means that you will catch more of what is being said. Yes, the notes you take during a lecture or seminar will be messy and probably full of typos, but it is quicker to tidy them up after class than it is to type up your notes from scratch. Notes taken on a laptop are searchable (very handy when you just can’t remember where you read that really important quotation!) and a laptop (even a heavy one) weighs less than two or three A4 files full of paper. And think of the environmental benefits – all that paper saved by keeping notes digitally rather than on paper!

My own software of preference for this is Microsoft OneNote – it’s designed for work exactly like this, and is much more flexible than Word. Once you have opened up OneNote, all your class notes or reading notes are just a click away, without having to navigate to a new document or wait for a document to open. It’s really easy to organise your notes by class, but also to set up links between documents if you have topics which tie together. Plus, it autosaves as you go. (This is not a sponsored post, by the way – I just really like this programme, and very few people seem to find it without being told about it!)

Something that will hugely improve any experience of taking notes on a laptop is learning to touch-type. When I started university, I was a two-finger typist. I thought I was fast enough, but I knew that I could be better, and was also aware that I would be doing a *lot* of typing. I used this BBC Kids course – it’s incredibly cheesy, but so, so worth it!

There are some caveats to all this. When redrafting written work, there is a lot to be said for doing some of it longhand, on paper – something I will talk about in another post. And remember that, for most students, exams are taken on paper by hand – so don’t forget how to write! In fact, spending a bit of time each day writing by hand to improve handwriting wouldn’t be a bad idea at all – you don’t want to be called in to type up or read out your exam if the marker can’t read it! If your lecturer has provided you with a handout, then that is a really good backbone to your notes, and you might be better off annotating that handout rather than reinventing the wheel by creating your own notes ex nihilo. And if you just really like taking notes by hand, then do that! Personal preference is very important – but do try out different ways of working; sometimes other people’s methods might be really good.

I’m very aware that not all students have a laptop; they can be a very expensive piece of kit. Investigate to see if your University has a rental scheme; this can be cheaper than buying one. It’s also worth checking out refurbished laptops, which are a lot cheaper than buying new, and will be perfectly serviceable for Uni needs – the laptop I finished my PhD on (and which I am writing this on) is third-hand, and has been brilliant!

Another caveat is that your lecturer or seminar tutor might not love presenting to a room of down-cast eyes tapping away. It’s also very noisy to be in a lecture theatre of keyboards! And, for goodness sake, make sure you have the volume muted, and are fully charged before coming into the class. Don’t disrupt things by having to get up and find a socket half-way through, or by suddenly emitting music or sounds!

And finally, if you commit to digital note-taking, back up, back up, back up! Do I need to say it again? BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP!!!

What *should* I read?

At the risk of seeming unworthy to bear the descriptor of medievalist, I’m going to make a confession.

I’ve never read a medieval text for fun.

There, I said it. I’ve read plenty of medieval texts, and even quite enjoyed some of them, but I have never picked up a medieval text to read for pleasure or even for general interest, rather than because there I’m working from a list telling me what I should read and therefore because I need something from that text.

The tyranny of the reading list has been a long-standing feature of my life, having spent most of the last ten years (barring one) in full-time university study. As an undergraduate, the term reading list was a bit of a misnomer; it was more of a ‘quickly-get-the-gist list’. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to read much more deeply and widely (returning to things I’d first approached as an undergraduate and which re-surfaced as I was writing my thesis was an enlightening process – I’d missed so much first time around!) but what I have read has still been pretty much been directed by what I needed, rather than what I wanted, to read.

Reading because you have to is a specific experience. Rather than taking the text as a whole and letting it wash over you, you tend to zoom in on the ‘relevant’ bits and skim the rest. Yes, that digression on a poor harvest or the appearance of a comet might be very interesting, but if it’s not what you are looking for, time pressures often dictate that you quickly move on. We all know that doesn’t really do justice to the text (medieval authors didn’t stick in those digressions by accident, it’s all part of the author’s deliberate composition), but, you know, deadlines! Taking notes while reading and other forms of active reading also changes the experience of just reading. It encourages you to look for the essential points, the easy-to-summarise bitesize chunks which can flatten out complexity. And, more personally, the result having been directed by what’s on my reading list means that the scope of my medieval reading is a little narrow. Crusader chronicles are rather well-represented, anything else… less so.

Right now, I’m in-between research projects (well, I’m scoping something out, but it’s still pretty early) which leaves me enough mental energy to think about expanding my medieval reading. I’m off to Durham next month with a couple of very good friends; we’ll be visiting the cathedral, which is the resting place of St Bede, and I thought this was good impetus to pick a text. Something far from my research, which I can read passively, and just absorb. I’ve encountered St. Bede before, in my favourite first-year undergraduate module (Anglo-Saxon Culture), but only fleetingly – and that was in 2007, so it’s been a while! In addition, something I’ve only rarely experienced in my research is the direct tangibility of the medieval past, since I’ve never been to most of the places my crusader chronicles describe. But on a trip to Northumberland with the Leeds University Union Medieval Society in 2015, the incomparable Alaric Hall brought the site of Yeavering (an empty field, to the untrained eye) alive by reading Bede’s account of Paulinus’s mission to the Bernicians to the assembled group as we stood in the blustery enclosure – Bede says that Paulinus spent 36 days baptising people in the river adjacent to the site (read more about this trip here). So visiting Bede’s homeland so soon after reading his work will be a great opportunity to experience text and landscape at the same time. I’m sure my (non-medievalist) travelling companions will be thrilled to listen to me reading bits of the Ecclesiastical History out on the journey up. What else are long car journeys for?

So, is this going to be the start of a new sub-library in my Zotero folders? Will I feel the need to go back to the Latin? Will I be able to resist taking notes? Or will I manage to just… read it? And why does it feel like (if I don’t do the aforementioned things) I’m somehow not reading it properly?

I intend to keep expanding my medieval reading, so do let me have suggestions for what you think I might enjoy next! I might not put them on a reading list though.

Happy New Year!

No, I’m not lost in time and space.* It’s September 1, and the university campus is alive with preparations for the new academic year, which officially starts at the end of this month. I absolutely love this time of year. There is an almost palpable sense of promise in the air: new students are arriving for the first time; new researchers are eager to get cracking on their projects; returning students are gearing up to begin again with every good intention and resolution; teaching staff are embarking on new and revised modules. The weather is changing to match: the mornings have a nip to them, the leaves are just becoming tinged with gold, and the whole atmosphere is one of transitions and new starts. It’s exhilarating.

For the first time in 10 years, I’m beginning the academic year in a new department. Having completed my PhD this spring and graduated this summer, I’ve chosen a career in university administration, which is giving me a fresh perspective on this new academic year. While no academic’s summer is ever as empty as they would like (even though they always start with such promise – the end of teaching! No research seminars! No meetings! I’ll write 30,000 words! I’ll transcribe that manuscript! I’ll do ALL MY FILING! Then, suddenly, it’s week 1 again…), this summer I’ve become more aware than ever of how the wheels of the university just do not stop turning over June, July and August.  So much happens: August resits, graduations, admissions, timetabling… on top of that, I’ve got a new set of degree courses and modules to become familiar with, new working relationships to develop, and so much to learn!

Starting a blog has been on my mind for a while and right now seems to be the perfect time of year to do so. I’m embarking on my new career as a stealth medievalist and administrator, I’m finding my place in a new department, and I’m getting stuck into some new academic projects (which, if you stick around, you’ll hear about in the pages of this blog!) So, I’ll bring this first post to a close, but hope to see you here again soon.

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*Although, when someone (who doesn’t work in academia/education) told me a couple of weeks ago that she had 20+ days of holiday still to take this year, I said ‘how on earth will you manage that by the end of September?’ She had to gently explain to me that she meant the end of the calendar year.