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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