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Guest Post: Telling Stories about the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project by Alexis Boutin

26 Jun

Alexis T. Boutin is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the cultural resources M.A. program at Sonoma State University.  In addition to co-directing the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project, she is starting a new community-based field project that studies the casualties and legacy of California’s Bear Flag Revolt of 1846.  Read more at her Academia.edu page or faculty webpage.  When not working or chasing after her children, Alexis spends her free time…actually, she doesn’t have any free time. 


Like most good stories, this one starts in an unassuming way: a lone researcher, flipping through yellowed index cards in the wooden drawer of a museum registrar’s card catalog, stumbles across one for human remains from “Saudi Arabia; Bahrein Island”.  Casually mentioning the find over lunch with her colleague, who happens to be a curator at the museum, he expresses interest in helping her dig deeper into the collections and archives to find out how these bones came to be in the museum.  Thus was born the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project in late 2008 (Porter and Boutin 2012).  The researchers in question are Alexis Boutin, now of Sonoma State University, and Benjamin Porter, of University of California Berkeley.  The museum is the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  The bones, and associated artifacts, belong to the only substantial assemblage from ancient Dilmun in a North American museum. And they have many stories to tell.

Peter Cornwall’s search for Dilmun

We must begin with Peter Bruce Cornwall, the scion of a distinguished family with deep roots in northern California.  He found privilege in his education at Andover, Toronto, and Oxford, but was challenged by the deafness that afflicted him late in childhood.  As a doctoral student in Anthropology at Harvard, Cornwall’s objective – which his advisor would call a “mania” – was to locate the place named in ancient Near Eastern texts as Dilmun.

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1. Peter Cornwall’s 1932 yearbook photo from Phillips Academy Andover.

Dilmun served as a setting for Mesopotamian creation myths and fantastical events.  For instance, the hero Gilgamesh found Utnapishtum there, a former king who was granted immortality after a great flood in a story that mirrors that of the biblical Noah.  Dilmun also was well-known as a trading emporium in commercial networks extending to the Ur III societies of Mesopotamia, Magan in Oman, and Meluhha, the Harappan societies of the Indus River Valley.  But modern scholars had never agreed upon Dilmun’s actual location or extent.

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2. Map of the Arabian peninsula, with ancient locales identified. Image by Benjamin W. Porter.

After overcoming the doubt of his academic advisors at Harvard and eventually winning limited backing from the Hearst Museum, Cornwall sailed for Bahrain in Fall 1940.  His journey was made no easier by its route across the Pacific and Indian oceans in the midst of World War II.  Cornwall excavated human remains and artifacts from at least 24 tumuli, or burial mounds, on Bahrain, followed by survey and surface collection at 16 or more archaeological sites in eastern Saudi Arabia.

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3. Cornwall’s team excavating a tumulus in Bahrain. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The cost of shipping the finds to his northern California home was covered by the Hearst Museum, in return for their eventual accession there.  Cornwall’s analyses allowed him to conclude that Dilmun was a political entity that ran along the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula from Kuwait to Qatar and was centered on Bahrain.  After publishing his PhD dissertation and several journal articles, Cornwall donated the assemblage to the Hearst Museum as promised in 1945, but provided minimal assistance with its accession.  He then began to withdraw from the academic world, moving to Rome and reportedly spending the rest of his days travelling and collecting art and antiquities, before dying in his late 50s of cirrhosis of the liver.  Although Cornwall’s contribution to Gulf archaeology has lived on in the works of many others (e.g., Bibby 1970, Crawford 1998, Højlund 2007, Potts 1990), the location of the materials that helped him make this discovery was not known outside of the Hearst Museum.

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project

Some 4000 years after these people died and 65 years after their remains were brought to California, Porter and I identified this assemblage (referred to hereafter as the “Cornwall collection”) as a rich source of information about life and death in ancient Dilmun.  Although the materials donated by Cornwall had been inventoried during their accession to the Hearst, they had undergone no further systematic analysis since that time.  Working with students from Sonoma State and UC Berkeley, we have determined that the Cornwall collection includes over 3,700 objects made from materials including metal, bone, ivory, pearl, shell, and alabaster, although stone and ceramic objects dominate.  The datable objects derive mostly from the Early Dilmun period, ca. 2050-1800 BCE.  This was a period of unprecedented political and economic prosperity in Dilmun, as suggested by fortified settlements, temple complexes, administrative seals, and imported goods.

When people died in Early Dilmun, their bodies were laid to rest in distinct mortuary monuments that are still visible across the island today.  These mounded tumuli usually consist of a stone lined burial chamber covered by a cone of sediments and gravels.  In most tombs, one or sometimes two individuals were interred, often in a relaxed fetal position.  Surrounding them were ceramic vessels, jewelry, metal weapons, and very rarely alabaster vessels or ivory objects.  A sheep or goat might also be included, likely an offering for the deceased to carry into the afterlife.  Not all tumuli had the same level of elaborate commemoration.  Differences in the size of monuments and the amount and quality of objects indicate that the privileged and wealthy were granted the most elaborate burial conditions.

The human remains in the Cornwall collection represent a minimum of 34 people.  Twenty-four adults, as well as one adolescent, were sufficiently well-preserved to permit sex estimation.  Nineteen are males/probable males, while six are females/probable females.  Of the skeletons for whom an age category could be estimated, the vast majority are adults, with middle adults (35-50 years) being the best represented.  However, adolescents, children, infants and one fetus are also present in smaller numbers.

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4. The author at work in the Hearst Museum collections. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

Unfortunately, the notes that Cornwall deposited in the Museum’s accession files are very limited.  They contain very few associated field notes, such as photographs of the burials, the position of bodies, and even the geographic coordinates for specific tumuli around the island.  We are not sure if Cornwall produced this documentation in the first place, or perhaps he never gave it to the Hearst Museum.  We are hopeful that someone will come forward with missing information about Cornwall’s research from a family archive.  Nevertheless, important insights can be gained from the Cornwall collection when its contents are analyzed in the context of better-documented research in Bahrain and surrounding regions.

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5. Cylindrical wheel-thrown ceramic jar (9-4680) typical of Early Dilmun burial assemblages. Photo by Colleen Morgan. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Bioarchaeological analysis of skeleton 12-10152 provides a powerful example of one ancient Dilmunite’s experiences in life and death.  Cornwall excavated the remains of this person—a male who was at least 60 years old when he died—from a tumulus in the Dar Kulayb mound cemetery near Bahrain’s western coast.  No durable objects were buried with him, although multiple bones (including the skull) from a sheep (Ovis aries) or goat (Capra hircus) suggest that he did receive a large portion of a recently butchered animal.  The three stories that follow illustrate how bioarchaeological data from one skeleton (here, 12-10152) can be assembled and interpreted in various ways, to tell multiple stories through multiple media.

The Osteological Version

Analysis of 12-10152’s skeleton reveals a long lifetime of physical activity based on degenerative joint disease (DJD) throughout his skeleton.  Degenerative joint disease occurs when chronic stress on joints progressively damages articular cartilage and, eventually, underlying bone surfaces.  Bone formation and destruction characterize DJD, including the breakdown of articular cartilage, formation of osteophytes at joint margins and entheses, degeneration and consequent porosity of the articular surface, sclerosis, and eburnation caused by direct bone-on-bone contact (Larsen 2015; Ortner 2003).  This male’s DJD is more severe in the right shoulder, facet joints of three cervical vertebrae, lower lumbar vertebral bodies, hips, and knees.  The degeneration of the right shoulder joint is particularly marked, with significant osteophyte growth on the articular margins of the right humeral head, and extensive eburnation here and on the glenoid fossa of the scapula.  Osteophyte formation on the distal femora, more extensive on the left side, indicates degeneration of both knee joints.  The articular surface of the left patella (the only one extant) exhibits macroporosity and destruction of the subchondral bone.

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6. Severe degenerative joint disease affecting 12-10152’s right humerus. 6a) eburnation of humeral head (superior view); 6ab) osteophyte growth on margins of humeral head (posterior view); 6c) eburnation of posterior face of glenoid fossa (right scapula, medial view). Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

As was common for the elderly of Early Dilmun, this male experienced extensive antemortem tooth loss.  His mandible is edentulous, and all but five of his maxillary teeth had fallen out by the time of his death.  Moderate DJD of the right temporomandibular joint is evident.  The left side is unaffected.  Atrophy of the right half of the mandible is also apparent, perhaps caused by a preference for the non-arthritic left side when chewing.  In a forthcoming publication, we compare his skeleton with those of two other elderly males in the Cornwall collection to explore how masculinity was embodied in Early Dilmun (Porter and Boutin forthcoming).

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7. Extant cranial skeleton of 12-10152. Note antemortem loss of all teeth in mandible. Photo by the author. (Click to enlarge).

The Visual Version

The comparatively good preservation of 12-10152’s cranial and post-cranial skeleton provided an excellent opportunity to tell his story visually, through a forensic facial reconstruction.  This method had already been employed by the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project on a teenage boy from Early Dilmun with excellent results (Boutin et al. 2012), and we hoped that a facial reconstruction of this older man could provide unique insights about embodied experiences toward the end of life.

Creating a replica of the skull is the first step in facial reconstruction.  For 12-10152, whose remains are very delicate and brittle, stereolithography—scanning the skull with lasers to create a digital file—was the best option.  Dr. Sabrina Sholts (now of the Smithsonian Institution) obtained multiple scans of each portion of the fragmented skull with a NextEngine 3D laser scanner. After she processed the data on a laptop, the resulting digital files were sent to GoEngineer in Santa Clara, CA, where they were “printed” three-dimensionally in plastic.  I brought these plastic cranial bones to the studio of forensic artist Gloria Nusse (San Francisco State University), where she and I worked together to rearticulate them into a model on which the face could be reconstructed.

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8. Printed components of 12-10152’s skull, before and after re-articulation in Ms. Nusse’s studio. Photos by the author. (Click to enlarge).

When the plastic skull replica was ready, Nusse attached tissue depth markers at standard cranial landmarks.  Next, she used oil-based modeling clay to simulate the cranio-facial muscles, with “skin” of the same material eventually added to meet the height of the markers.  Once the basic form of the face had been completed, Nusse made small adjustments to the shapes of certain features, such as the eyelids and lips, and used a sponge to texturize the facial skin.  She carefully incorporated skeletal features distinct to 12-10152 into his visage: for example, the atrophied and edentulous nature of his mandible gave his lower face a sunken and asymmetrical appearance.  Nusse collaborated with Porter and me to create the hair and eye color, hair style, and dress for 12-10152’s reconstruction.  Our decisions were informed by texts and iconography from ancient Mesopotamia (which are lacking from early Dilmun), as well as a survey of publicly available photographs of modern Arabian Gulf citizens.  The resulting reconstruction has been displayed with that of the teenage boy in an exhibit entitled “From Death to Life in Ancient Bahrain,” which has traveled to several university museums in California.

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9. Facial reconstruction of 12-10152 by Gloria Nusse, on display at Sonoma State University. Photograph courtesy of Alexis Boutin. (Click to enlarge).

The Narrative Version

The final way that I tell 12-10152’s story is in fictive narrative format, which is informed by the Bioarchaeology of Care and Bioarchaeology of Personhood models.  Having described the Bioarchaeology of Personhood in print before (Boutin 2011, 2012), I provide just a few highlights here.  Essentially, I have taken Clark and Wilkie’s (2006) concept of an Archaeology of Personhood and adapted it to focus on the relationship between human skeletal remains and embodied experience.  These models feature a less ethno- and temperocentric emphasis on individuality than other (bio)archaeological approaches to identity.  One of the only constants is the passage of time, which is marked bodily by aging.  Although age should not be privileged over other axes of personhood (e.g., gender, class, ethnicity, etc.), it is age that undergirds their fluidity over the life course.  So the Bioarchaeology of Personhood attends to the stories that skeletons tell us about how their personhoods were embodied across the life course.

In addition to telling these stories in traditional academic language and scholarly venues, I also write fictive narratives about the skeletons I study.  This allows me to draw together socio-historic contextual data, clinical research on health and illness, and bioarchaeological analysis in a way that provides a more humanizing view of past personhoods.  But no matter how well-substantiated, these narratives are always the products of my imagination.  They could be told in different ways by different authors, depending on which lines of evidence s/he chooses to prioritize.  For this reason, the qualifying term “fictive” (after Wilkie 2003) is essential.  I have also found the Bioarchaeology of Care (Tilley 2015) to be an extremely useful heuristic tool in creating fictive narratives based on the Cornwall collection.  I particularly appreciate how its focus on the provision of health care and support foregrounds the notion of community: each and every life course plays out in concert with those of others to which it is inextricably linked – mothers, husbands, children, neighbors, dynasts, etc.  What follows is an excerpt of a fictive narrative about 12-10152’s life course, focusing on the care and support that he may have required during old age.

The heat and dust rose in waves from the road as the young men padded by, their arms full of recently harvested dates.  I envied them in more ways than one.  “Grandfather, your stew is ready.”  It’s been many years since I was able to shimmy up the date palms, let alone chew my favorite date nut treat.  But even the few teeth left in my head are enough to enjoy my granddaughter’s fish-and-vegetable stew (as long as she cooks it long enough and I remember to chew on the left side).  Finding my walking stick with my left hand and heaving myself up with a grunt, I make my way into the house.  A wince and a groan as I raise my right arm to take the bowl from my granddaughter.  Ah well – if you live long enough to see your great-grandchildren, some aches and pains are to be expected.

The End

The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project aims to maximize the interpretive possibilities of the human remains that we have the privilege to study.  Telling 12-10152’s story in various ways reminds us that identities are always multi-faceted and that there is no one “right answer” to how bioarchaeological evidence can be interpreted.  Another example of this approach can be seen in the multiple stories that we have told about a young woman with disabilities (12-10146) from the Cornwall collection.  These include an osteological analysis of her skeletal pathologies (Boutin and Porter 2014), a narrative telling of her embodied experiences in the recent Bioarchaeology of Care session at the 2015 SAAs (with a manuscript in preparation for International Journal of Paleopathology), and a full-body reconstruction by Ms. Nusse planned for 2015-2016.  Documentation and analysis of the Cornwall collection will conclude over the next couple of years, with the results to be published in a book entitled Embodying Dilmun: The Peter B. Cornwall Expedition to Eastern Arabia and Bahrain.  Will this be the final word on life and death in ancient Dilmun? As the saying goes, the best stories never end.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Boutin, A.T. 2012. Crafting a Bioarchaeology of Personhood: Osteobiographical Narratives from Alalakh. In A. Baadsgaard, A. T. Boutin and J. E. Buikstra (eds.), Breathing New Life Into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 109-133. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. 2011. Written in Stone, Written in Bone: The Osteobiography of a Bronze Age Craftsman from Alalakh. In A.L.W. Stodder and A. M. Palkovich (eds.), The Bioarchaeology of Individuals. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 193-214. (Open Access).

Boutin, A.T. & and Porter, B.W. 2014. Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun: Ancient and Contemporary Tales from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In B.W. Porter and A.T. Boutin (eds.), Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 97-132.

Boutin, A.T., Nusse, G.L. Nusse, Sholts, S.B. & Porter, B.W. 2012. Face to Face With the Past: Reconstructing a Teenage Boy from Early Dilmun. Near Eastern Archaeology. 75(2): 68-79.

Bibby, G. 1970. Looking for Dilmun. London: Collins.

Clark, B. & Wilkie, L.A. 2006. The Prism of Self: Gender and Personhood. In S. M. Nelson (ed.), Handbook of Gender Archaeology. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 333-364.

Cornwall, P.B. 1943. The tumuli of Bahrain. Asia and the Americas. 42: 230–234.

Cornwall, P.B. 1944. Dilmun: The history of Bahrein Island before Cyrus. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Harvard University.

Cornwall, P.B. 1946. On the location of Dilmun. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. 102: 3–11.

Crawford, H.E.W. 1998. Dilmun and its Gulf Neighbours. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Højlund, F. 2007. The Burial Mounds of Bahrain: Social Complexity in Early Dilmun. Moesgaard: Jutland Archaeological Society Publications.

Larsen, C.S. 2015. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behavior from the Skeleton. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Littleton, J. & Frohlich, B. 1993. Fish-eaters and Farmers: Dental Pathology in the Arabian Gulf. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 92:427-447. (Open Access).

MacLean, R. & Insoll, T. 2011. An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Ortner, Donald J. 2003. Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. 2nd edition. San Diego: Academic Press.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. 2012. The Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project:  A first look at the Peter B. Cornwall Collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 23: 35-49.

Porter, B.W. & Boutin, A.T. Forthcoming. The Elders of Dilmun: A Bioarchaeological Analysis of Masculinity from the Peter B. Cornwall Collection. In L. Gregoricka and K. Williams (eds.), Life and Death in Ancient Arabia: Mortuary and Bioarchaeological Perspectives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Potts, D.T. 1990. The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, Vols. 1 & 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tilley, L. 2015. Accommodating Difference in the Prehistoric Past: Revisiting the Case of Romito 2 from a Bioarchaeology of Care Perspective. International Journal of Paleopathology. 8: 64-74. (Open Access).

Wilkie, L.A. 2003. The Archaeology of Mothering: An African-American Midwife’s Tale. New York: Routledge.

Guest Post: Review of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind in Beckenham, Kent, by Jessica Sajovie

4 Jun

Jessica Sajovie is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but is currently a London-based writer responsible for Diverting Journeys, a blog dedicated to irreverent reviews of museums and other curious destinations around the world, particularly (due to a limited travel budget) those in London and Southeast England.  In addition, she volunteers with a local history project, researching the First World War and its impact on Merton.  Jessica holds an MA in Early Modern History from King’s College London, with a focus on 18th century Britain and the history of medicine.  Her other interests include collecting vintage cookbooks and Pez dispensers shaped like American Presidents, a never-ending quest to find blueberry cake doughnuts in London, and reading books on ill-fated maritime expeditions and lurid titles picked from the historical “True Crime” section at the library.  She also enjoys classic rock.


Though I’m keen on almost all museums (the possible exceptions being particularly dreary local affairs, or anything sport-related), medical museums are a particular favourite of mine.  Over the past few years, I’ve blogged about a number of them around Britain (the Gordon Museum of Pathology, the Royal London Hospital Museum, Dr. Jenner’s House , the Royal Berkshire Medical Museum, and many others, if you feel like digging around my blog), and elsewhere in the world (even in places as far-flung as Thailand) but being a homebody at heart, I was excited to discover that a new medical museum had opened right on the outskirts of London – the former Bethlem Hospital Museum, which was recently revamped and re-opened as the Museum of the Mind.

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The entrance of the Bethlem Hospital museum in London.

Bethlem Royal Hospital has been around in one form or another since AD 1247, making it the oldest mental hospital in Britain (although it started strictly as an almshouse, and only began to be used for mentally ill patients in the early 14th century).  It was initially located in Bishopsgate, just beyond the old City of London, but was moved to Moorfields in the late 17th century, which is around the time it began to acquire its tumultuous “bedlam” reputation (the name of the hospital had been shortened to “Bedlam” for centuries, but it was only in the 1600s that the word began to be used as a synonym for chaos), as the hospital encouraged paying visitors, and gawking at the “lunatics” became a popular day out for the wealthy.  In 1815, the hospital moved again, this time to Southwark (what is now the Imperial War Museum), and due to a damning report about conditions in the hospital, Bethlem gradually developed more humane treatments for its patients, and put an end to the sight-seeing. Finally, in 1930, Bethlem moved out to its current location, in Kent, where the museum is located today.

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A detail of one of the entrance statues by Caius Gabriel Cibber in the museum highlighting the representation of mental illness via the shackles.  This is a continuing theme at Bethlem Hospital as shackles and chains were often previously used to subdue patients.

Firstly, some practicalities.  The Museum of the Mind is not too far from Croydon, so most Londoners should be able to make their way out there using a combination of trains and buses (or the tram from Wimbledon…if you don’t hate it as much as I do; ugh, it’s so slow, and the unfortunately named “Therapia Lane” creeps me out).  I chose to travel by car, which in retrospect may have been a mistake as it took about an hour to get there from Southwest London, but at least there was ample parking in the visitor lot at the hospital, which is a short walk away from the museum (and I had the freedom to sing along (poorly) to all my favourite classic rock songs in the car, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in the tram without getting weird looks).  The museum is normally open Wednesday-Friday, and the first and last Saturday of the month, and admission is free.

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A patient’s creative representation of mental illness.

My first impression was that it was like a small-scale Dr. Guislain Museum (a fabulous museum in Belgium that is located in a working mental hospital and provides a comprehensive history of psychiatric medicine, in addition to art galleries featuring works by people suffering from various mental illnesses), as it incorporated both museum space and art galleries with works by some of its service users.  I started with the gallery space on the ground floor, which was compromised of two rooms: a display area and a workshop whose walls were also lined with pictures.  A two or three paragraph description was provided for each piece; I particularly liked an artist with a penchant for photographing crows.  The workshop seems to be frequently used for various classes, as there was one starting up when I was in there viewing the art (and purchasing a Dan Duggan print), and since I was asked if I wanted to join the class (which I awkwardly declined, as I didn’t have time and totally lack artistic talent anyway), I assume at least some of them are offered free of charge.

The stairwell leading up to the first floor is flanked by the famous statues Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness (by Caius Gabriel Cibber, father of the much-maligned Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, though I have to say Alexander Pope’s constant mockery of the younger Colley livened up the 18th Century Literature classes I took in my undergrad days) which stood atop the gates of the late 17th century hospital, and truly demonstrate Restoration-era conceptions of madness, as the faces of the figures are so contorted that they scarcely look human.

Statues flanking the entrance stairs.

Raving Madness and Melancholy Madness by the artist Caius Gabriel Cibber at the 1st floor stairs in the museum.

There’s also an old donation box where visitors back in the sight-seeing era of Bethlem’s history were encouraged to leave money (although the treatments at the hospital have radically changed, the box is still in use for its original purpose, and they gladly welcome any donations).

The first floor is divided into a museum and another art gallery, which hosts temporary exhibitions.  The one I saw, which ran through May, featured the paintings of Bryan Charnley, who had schizophrenia, and “use[d] visual metaphor and symbolism to vividly illustrate the physical experience [of schizophrenia]” (taken from Bethlem’s website).  Many of his paintings featured his girlfriend, who struggled with depression herself and attempted suicide multiple times, eventually resulting in her paralysis, and thus the overwhelming impression I had of his art was one of poignancy.

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A Bethlem Museum of the Mind poster set in the historic hospital grounds.

The actual museum is fairly small, and is split up into several sections.  Unlike the Dr. Guislain Museum, this was far from a comprehensive history – being more a brief overview of changing attitudes towards mental illness over the years, and the ever-evolving treatments at Bethlem, as well as providing some perspectives from some of its service users.  The museum does make an effort to draw in the visitor by including lots of eye-catching displays (like a wall full of apothecary bottles) and a few interactives (some videos, and a computer where you could learn more about various diagnoses), but it wasn’t as interactive as one might expect from a brand-new museum, and the displays weren’t quite enough to distract me from the lack of content.

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A detail of the various concoctions and medicines used in the course of treatment for the individuals who stayed at Bethlem Hospital.

That said, I found the small collection of restraint devices used in the past fascinating, albeit disturbing, and I was also captivated by the before-and-after photographs of Victorian patients at Bethlem (the historical signifier of insanity apparently being unkempt hair, if these pictures were anything to go by).  I believe the hospital had something like a 47% recovery rate in the Victorian era, though with the lack of effective medication, you have to wonder how many of those “recovered” people should have even been placed in Bethlem in the first place (given the Victorian zeal for labelling anyone who didn’t quite adopt society’s mores as “insane,” I would imagine it was a fair few).

This section also contained even more art from former patients, and although many pieces were quite gloomy in nature (perhaps understandably reflecting the mental states of the artists), I was charmed by the many cat paintings of Louis Wain, who was briefly a patient at the hospital (his diagnosis is widely disputed, and is listed as anything from schizophrenia to Asperger’s…all that is really known is that he suffered from mood swings and was occasionally violent, although you really wouldn’t know it from his cheerful pictures).  Fortunately, postcards of his pieces are available at the gift shop (because everybody loves cats these days, right?), so you can take a little piece of Wain’s art home with you.

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A small selection of Louis Wain’s cat pictures.

Although I could tell that a lot of effort had been put into making the museum visually appealing, I do think it just needed to have more content.  The historical objects were my absolute favourite part, and I think the museum could be vastly improved by including more history, and more artefacts, because even though many historical psychiatric treatments are hard to stomach nowadays, they are a vital part of our past, and I think it’s really important that people learn about them just to see the strides medicine has made within the last century or two.

Although they offer classes and lectures, and the art displays do change from time to time, for me, one visit here was enough, as it just wasn’t extensive enough for my tastes, and didn’t really add anything to my understanding of psychiatric medicine (even the history of Bethlem itself was lacking, with more detail provided in a timeline at the top of the stairs than in the museum itself).  I really think the focus here was on the art, so if that interests you, you may enjoy the Museum of the Mind (and some of the artists were very talented, so their art was well worth seeing), but if, like me, you’re looking for something that skillfully combines history with some art, then I’d urge you to go to Ghent (if you can) to see the Dr. Guislain Museum, as it goes into so much more detail.

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A selection of the vials and bottles that the hospital used to store and use in the medicine collection.

In conclusion my score for the Museum of the Mind is 2.5/5 (and if anyone knows of a better mental health museum in Britain, please do let me know in the comments!).

Please Note

All photographs in this guest entry are by Jessica Sajovie, if used elsewhere please contact Jessica on her personal blog for permission.

Further Information

  • The Bethlem Museum of the Mind details the story behind the museum and the role that the hospital played in its own history.  The site also highlights upcoming exhibitions and the collections that it holds (including the wonderful artwork produced by some of the patients and its archive).  The museum blog, with regular updates on both the exhibitions at the museum and issues that affect the museum, can be read here.

Book Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.

22 Jul

The British Museum in London is currently playing host to the Ancient Lives, New Discoveries exhibition, from the 22nd of May to the 30th of November 2014, which focuses on the innovative use of non-destructive CT scanning to digitally unwrap and investigate eight individual mummies who spread the span of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese history.  It is a unique opportunity to explore the individual bodies and mummy styles, from a naturally preserved desiccated corpse from 3500 BC, right up to the late richly decorated and individualised Roman period mummies of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and the early Christian burials of Sudan from the 7th century AD.  Taylor & Antoine (2014) have produced a publication (priced at £19.99) in conjunction with the current British Museum exhibition and it is this that shall be reviewed here, rather than the exhibition itself.

But first we are going to quickly delve in the tantalising world of the mummy in archaeology.

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The reader friendly yet relatively in-depth 192 page publication by Taylor and Antonio (2014) whets the appetite to learn more about Egyptian and Nile cultures. The front cover displays the painted case of  Tamut and the CT of her body, Tamut was a priestess from Thebes circa 900 BC.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Thinking About Mummies

The mummified remains of humans retain a unique position in the popular perception of past civilizations, offering as they do a face to face fleshed representation of the human past.   In the fleshed state the historic or prehistoric mummified individual helps to represent this version of the human past in an immediate biological projection, rather than through a secondary non-biological artefact, i.e. the individual is present.  This representation however works in a variety of ways.  The mummified person is, of course, the physical remains of an individual who had once lived, yet they also often actively represent the values of the culture that they came from (through the interpretation of the mortuary and funerary evidence and deposition contexts on a part of the archaeologist).  The modern person who views or interacts with the mummy also projects their own views and feelings onto the mummified person by, for instance, their thoughts of displaying the dead (Alberti et al. 2009).  Added to this is the fact that mummies are often seen as mysterious and filled with a silent potent dread, forever linked in the popular cultural mind with the supernatural wolf man or vampires of the Hammer horror films for instance, or remain linked with the so-called mythical curse of Tutankhamen.

In short, the mummified remains of human beings are often emotive physical remains.  Yet they remain popular with both members of the public in museums and with archaeologists and physical anthropologists in studying the remains of past individuals and populations.  The preservation of soft tissues (including skin) can often highlight cultural practices or pathological evidence that do not survive in the skeletal record or remain undocumented in the written record (Panzer et al. 2014, Taylor & Antoine 2014).

Mummification Briefly

It also must be noted here that there are generally two processes of mummification that take place with human remains which are (a) active mummification of remains as practiced by humans, where the body of the deceased is prepared and preserved before final funerary deposition, and (b) accidental mummification, when the body is preserved through the luck of the burial environment.  Examples of natural preservation include the fascinating Pazyryk kurgan burials in the Altai, who have some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoos, and the western European bog bodies of the Iron Age, whose soft tissues are preserved in acidic bog and marsh environments.

The word mummy is itself a broad term, encompassing not just the classically bandaged Egyptian mummies but also the high altitude mummy bundles of the Inca, the Altai burials, and Tarim mummies of China, amongst many other known examples across the world.  We think of these exotic locations when we think of mummies, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the mummification of composite bodies (elements of individuals pieced together to form one and left above ground) took place during the British Bronze Age at a variety of locations (Parker-Pearson et al. 2005), and it may possibly have been a widespread mortuary phenomenon.  The work by Parker-Pearson and others (2005) is throwing light onto a practice that has, so far, been relatively invisible in places that do not have a favorable climate or burial conditions to preserve mummified individuals intact.  The purposeful mummification of the body then was a widely practiced process in both prehistoric and prehistoric contexts, practiced for a variety of reasons but it is often linked with the values held of an afterlife, of keeping the body as whole, lifelike and as safe as possible from decomposition (Alberti et al. 2009).

Many mummies from ancient (and not so ancient) Egyptian contexts were often used in corpse medicine (and as paint) in the late European medieval period and many more were excavated, transported and unwrapped in the 17th and 18th centuries during the gradual development of scientific inquiry.  It was in the 19th century that, in Europe, the unwrappings of mummies in both public and private contexts took off, as archaeological expeditions uncovered further named individuals at various sites and recordings were made of the anatomical aspects of the individuals that were unwrapped and dissected (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 17).  It should be noted however that many surviving mummies in collections from this period often have little to no documented provenance or contextual information regarding their find location and often placed in sarcophagi that are not from the same period (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 155).

Two important milestones in Egyptology stand out from this period.  The first was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which allowed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic text and thus the history of Egypt, which sent the European public into a tailspin of ancient Egyptian frenzy allowing many museums to build up substantial collections which were not always legally acquired.  The second was the advancement of medical science and the discovery and invention of the X-ray in 1890.  Mummy unwrappings continued but have become rare in recent decades, carried out only when there is a real need to and often only by a multidisciplinary team.  It is the use of X-rays and the development of CT scanning in the 1970’s (or CAT scan, computerized axial tomography) that has allowed non-invasive exploration of fragile mummies to produce 3D models that has really taken off, alongside the development of non-invasive biogeochemical sampling of mummy wrapping materials and mortuary substances (Panzer et al. 2014, Parker-Pearson et al. 2005).

Regardless of this wealth of knowledge and investigation, the ancient Egyptians themselves never fully documented the process of mummification in any records that have survived.  New techniques and on-going investigations are pushing back the boundary in understanding the origin and context of mummification however, as Jones et al. (2014) highlight in recent research in which the advent of purposeful Egyptian period mummification has been pushed back to over a thousands years before previously thought through study of the linen wrappings and resins used during the preservation process.  As Fletcher & Buckley (in Vogels 2013) highlight the fact that mummies are often still misunderstood and little studied in the archaeological record and it is, they state, very possible that mummies thought to be naturally preserved may well have been embalmed or treated on purpose for the preservation of the body, particularly in South American contexts.

Ancient Lives

The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries publication aims to highlight just what can be found using the latest in digital imaging technology on a selection of 8 human mummies from along the River Nile area.  The British Museum archive holds a total of 120 mummified individuals altogether, collected stage by stage since the museums foundation in the 1750’s, whilst the majority of the mummies highlighted in this publication were collected in the 19th century (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 13).  The period of intentional mummification by the Ancient Egyptians probably took place around the 2nd to 4th dynasties (3000 BC) right up until the Roman period of the fourth century AD.  The individuals under consideration span the Predynastic period (5500-3100 BC) right up until the Medieval period of the 7th century AD, a clever chronological approach in understanding the longitudinal aspects of mummification in ancient Egypt and northern Sudan.  The publication mixes the naturally mummified and the purposefully mummified, with the naturally preserved bodies of Gebelein Man B (3500 BC) from the Predynastic period and the anonymous 7th century AD tattooed medieval christian woman from Sudan both book-ending the publication.

If you picture mummies you see Tutankhamen, his ornate golden mask adorning his young body.  It may be a tired paradigm of Egyptian archaeology but this publication makes it clear that there was much more going on with regards to mortuary behaviour and funerary styles than is normally appreciated along the banks of the River Nile (Meyers 2014).  Thus the cross-section of individuals studied here spans not just a wide chronological time but also includes male and female adults and juveniles of different ages.  Alongside this the individual all come from different social groups and communities from villages, great temples and cities along the spread of the River Nile.  What this publication highlights then is the both the great variety in mortuary behaviour within the practice of mummification, but also the individual stories of the persons under study (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 2).

The 8 individuals under study, in publication order, are:

1. Gebelein Man B (Male, adult, Gebelein, c.3500 BC).

2. Unknown Man from Thebes (Male, middle/older adult 35 years and above, Thebes, c.600 BC).

3. Tamut (Female, adult, Thebes, c.900 BC).

4. Padiamenet (Male, middle adult 35-50 years, Thebes, c.700 BC).

5. Tjayasetimu (Female, juvenile 7 ± 3 years, Thebes or Fayum area, c.800 BC).

6. Roman Period Male (Male, adult, Thebes, 1st to 3rd century AD).

7. Roman Period Juvenile (Male, 2 years ± 9 months, location unknown, c. AD 40-60).

8. Christian Woman from Sudan (Female, young adult 20-35, Fourth Cataract Sudan, c. AD 655-775).

Although I will not discuss each and every individual above as it really is worth reading the book or visiting the exhibition if you can, I will highlight the Roman Period Male and Gebelein Man B as these are two mummies that really caught my attention.  They also represent two different approaches in the mortuary and funerary treatment of the individual and the society that they came from.  The Roman period male, below, is a particularly unique individual, stylized heavily to capture what the person looked like during his lifetime.

roman

The painted face of an unusual Roman period mummy dating from the c.1st to 3rd century AD. The adult male individual has several interesting features such as individually wrapped toes and fingers, padded thighs and breast area. It is likely that this is to represent the man as he was during life, possibly obese. The black bands on his cheek are a standard stylistic representation of a beard. Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Before the mummy had been CT scanned it was assumed for many years that the individual was a female due to the nature of the packing of the thighs and breast area.  Analysis of the skeleton highlighted that he was in fact an adult male, who had a lot of unusual dental wear by the time he died.  His incisors, canines and premolars showed heavy wear yet the molars have hardly any, although many of his molars had been lost ante-mortem.  This is suggestive of a change in the way this individual ate, using his front teeth as molars to crush and grind his food (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 144).  The way that this individual has been represented as a living individual on the front of his wrappings is a standard of the Roman period mummification, although many mummies also have encaustic life-like portraits painted on wood, often incorporated onto the bandages and packing of the mummy (the examples such as the Fayum portraits are well-known).

New Discoveries

It becomes evident quite quickly when reading the publication just how important the use of non-invasive scanning and imaging techniques are in the study of mummified individuals.  Not only are the bodies themselves not disturbed but they can be digitally stripped back layer by layer, from the bandages to the bone to unveil the person underneath as last seen by the embalmers and mortuary workers who prepared the body and decorated it.  As such the method highlights not just the soft tissue and skeletal anatomy but also the fabrics, packing and artefacts used and located on and within the mummy.

It can also highlight ante-mortem and post-mortem damage to the mummified remains, as well as the mistakes of the embalmer.  Padiamenet’s body, an adult male temple door-keeper from the 25th dynasty (c.700 BC), displays evidence that his head had become detached from his body during mummification.  The scanning of his body highlighted two poles inserted into the chest are used to support the head, with evidence of the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae remaining slightly misaligned (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 105).  Alongside this his coffin had to be extended, with linen wrap covering his protruding feet.  Cartonnage cases and coffins were often mass manufactured, only personalised as and when the individual died.

One of my personal favourites of the mummies investigated here is the naturally mummified body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male who died around 3500 BC in the Predynastic period.  One of 6 natural mummies in the British Museum collection, Gebelein Man B  was buried in a cemetery in Upper Egypt dating to the middle Predynastic period and lived in an era before Egyptian unification when chiefdom’s ruled the area.  The area in which he was buried suggests that Gebelein was a relatively important local settlement who practiced mixed subsistence of agriculture (cattle, sheep, and goats) with the fishing, fowling and collecting of wild fruits and berries (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 36).  The burial site of Gebelein Man B have provided the only evidence, or expression, for religious belief as the body was placed in a formal grave, with evidence for the crouched body having been placed between mats and probable deposited with offerings which have subsequently been removed by grave robbers (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 38).

gebelein man b skelly

The skeleton and body of Gebelein Man B, an adult male and a natural mummification from c.3500 BC.  Notice the semi-circular unknown artefact towards the bottom of his torso and the fracture of the right femur and ribs, likely due to post-mortem movement or excavation.  Fractures tend to break in a characteristic way when the person is alive (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 31).  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Gebelein Man B lived during a period of change in which the introduction of writing was eventually introduced, but no name was recorded for any resident of Gebelein, thus this individual, unlike many in the book, remains nameless.  His body is remarkably preserved for a body that has survived for over 5500 years, with his beard, nails and hair still in evidence.  The teeth are lightly worn, the presence of fusion lines in the long bones and the pelvis (pubic symphysis) all highlight that he was in his early twenties when he died (Taylor & Antoine 2014: 33).

Although the majority of the soft tissues have been preserved, the major organs have shrunk due to the desiccation process which must have been rapid to allow for such extensive preserve ration of his body.  When mummification became intensely practiced in the Dynastic period of Egyptian and northern Sudanese history the organs were often removed, preserved and kept in canopic jars separate to the body, so the preservation in-situ of Gebelein Man B’s viscera may offer a rare chance to sample human health during this period.  Perhaps most  interestingly is the preservation of foodstuffs in both the stomach and the colon, which could allow analysis of the foods consumed during Gebelein Man B’s lifetime.

gebelein man b skelly belly

Gebelein Man B (c.3500 BC) stripped back from the above image to reveal the soft tissues (in blue) still present in his cranium and torso.  The tissue highlighted in his pelvis is likely to be remains of his last meal.  Image credit: British Museum 2014.

Importantly Taylor & Antoine (2014: 39) highlight that whilst Gebelein Man B was a natural mummification, it should not be noted as a precursor to the artificial mummification that was practiced later.  Although re-cutting into a graveyard and noticing the preserved burials may have influenced generations of the population, at all times during the prehistory and historical span of this book people of lower status were buried in simple pits.  The long mortuary and  funerary rites involved in depositing the dead alongside deeper graves to protect bodies from grave robbing may have been two processes that influence the uptake in artificial mummification of individuals from around 3000 BC onwards.

The book does a fantastic job at introducing the importance of mummification to the ancient Egyptian and north Sudan cultures.  Today it may seem unusual, and at odds with the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage of depositing a body in the ground as soon as possible mentality, that this was a period of time where it was important that the body was prepared properly, over long periods of time, to maintain the individual identity of the deceased (Vogels 2013: 11). Yet it is an endlessly fascinating period of time that has captured the heart of many archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the general public.  Ancient Lives, new Discoveries will, no doubt, do the same.

Conclusion

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if there was some variation within the same period for at least some of these individuals highlighted here.  It was a question that went unanswered in this publication, but I did feel that the book highlighted that the archaeology of mummification had much more to offer, especially in the realm of non-invasive imaging.  As such the publication is an invigorating read, wrote in a straightforward and easy to read manner that doesn’t skip on explaining the techniques used in the approach to understand the individual mummies skeletal biology, artefacts found with the bodies, and burial or deposition context of the individual.

This contextualisation of the individual is a smart approach in being able to engage an audience to understand that these mummies are individuals with their own life history.  I did feel that perhaps a larger contextual approach on funerary and burials rites could perhaps elucidate further information on a general population scale, however this was a minor niggle.  I was impressed at the use of the clear and precise terminology and the overall style of the publication.  The images in particular are clearly and precisely presented, and it is a joy to study the cross sections throughout the book, offering as they do, an unparalleled view of the ancient mummies.

It is wrong, though, to think that the mummification of human remains is something that was done purely in the past.  Recent research led, in part, by Buckley & Fletcher (2013: 12) has led to the actual mummification of a recently deceased person to explore the actual embalming chemicals and methodology used by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body.  Alan, who donated his body to archaeological science, has already provided a wealth of knowledge on the actual mortuary process of embalming a human body the ancient Egyptian way by highlighting that a natron salt bath was the most effective way to preserve a body during the act of mummification (Marchant 2011).  Yet there are still many mysteries sounding the actual step by step method and role of mummification in the cultures of ancient Egypt and northern Sudan but this publication, and the exhibition at the British Museum, go some way to (digitally) unwrap the secrets that they hold.

Acknowledgements

I thank Hattie Clarke of the British Museum Press for providing the images for this post and for quickly answering  any questions that I had.  I also thank Loretta Kilroe for providing helpful comments on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan.

Disclaimer

A copy of the British Museum publication Ancient Lives, New Discoveries was provided for the author to review.  No monetary transaction took place.

Further Information

  • The Ancient Lives, New Discoveries British Museum exhibition in London, England, is now open to the public until the 30th November 2014 with ticket prices at £10.00 for adults, £8.00 for students and children going free (other discounts are available).  Learn more about the 8 individual mummies at the British Museum website here.
  • An enlightening interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen Buckley, who are both a part of the York Mummy Group, on mummification and the Mummifying Alan project can be found here at The Post Hole journal.
  • The journal Papers in Anthropology, issued under the European Anthropological Association, have a new open access special edition out (Vol. 23 (1) 2014) which focuses exclusively on mummy studies and mummification.  Click the title above to learn more.
  • Head over to Loretta Kilroe’s blog, Cake and Ceramics, here to learn more about the daily life of an Egyptologist and to learn about her other projects on the go.

Bibliography

Alberti, S. J. M.M., Bienkowski, P., Chapman, M. J. & Drew, R. 2009. Should We Display the Dead? Museum and Society. 7 (3): 133-149. (Open Access).

Jones, J., Higham, T. F. G., Oldfield, R., O’Connor, T. P. & Buckley, S.A. 2014. Evidence for Prehistoric Origins of Egyptian Mummification in Late Neolithic Burials. PLoS ONE(8): e103608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103608. (Open Access).

Marchant, J. 2011. Egyptian Mummification Method Resurrected in the UK. New Scientist. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Meyers, K. 2014. Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Fascinating Look Into the Life and Death of Eight Ancient Egyptians.  Bones Don’t lie. Accessed 12th June 2014. (Open Access).

Panzer,  S., Peschel, O., Haas-Gebhard, B., Bachmeier, B. E., Pusch, C. M. & Nerlich, A. G. 2014. Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of  a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Diseas and Ritual Homicide. PLoS One. (2): e89528. (Open Access).

Parker-Pearson, M., Chamberlain, A., Craig, O., Marshall, P., Mulville, J., Smith, H., Henery, C., Collins, M., Cook, G., Craig, G., Evans, J., Hiller, J., Montgomery, J., Schwenninger, J-L., Taylor, G. & Wess, T. 2005. Evidence for Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity. 79 (305): 529-546.

Taylor, J. H. & Antoine, D. 2014. Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories.  London: The British Museum Press.

Vogels, R. 2013. Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings – An Interview with Joann Fletcher and Stephen BuckleyThe Post Hole. Special Edition. 1-16. (Open Access).

A Capital Visit

14 Sep

Ah London, the capital city.  I was just a day tripper but I was greeted by the usual spectacle: the cacophony of car horns, the multitude of legs pounding the pavement and the incessant drizzle of the rain.  It all helped to provide a fine backdrop to this most hectic of cities.  It was the first visit for me to that bastion of the bibliophile, the British Library, a mere stones throw from King’s Cross.  Primarily here to view the ‘Propaganda‘ exhibition, I was left with a tangible taste of excitement upon seeing a copy of the Magna Carta (who knew there were 4 copies surviving?).   I was further left in awe whilst viewing the actual hand writing of Henry the VIII, of a letter sent to friends from Sir Isaac Newton in the midst of a probable mental breakdown during his mid 50’s, and on being able to read a note wrote by Darwin when answering his mounting correspondence and queries after the publication of ‘On The Origin of Species‘.  The detailed drawing of the dimensions of the human body by Albrecht Dürer, and the doodles of ideas and architectural fancies by Leonardo, on display were certainly worth the train journey down alone and it was hard to believe that these diagrams were over, or nearing, 500 years of age.  The propaganda exhibition was good (worth a look certainly, just bring some money), but it was these historic pages upstairs in the free to enter Sir John Ritblat Gallery that fired my imagination.

It was great to be able to read Elizabeth the I’s delicate but iron script, of the two examples juxtaposed next to each other: a letter she wrote from her days a young princess to a royal friend sitting quietly next to a death warrant she signed as Queen, both with the same elegant swaying ‘z’ of her signature.  Furthermore the exhibition made me realise the value of the written word, of the official documents and the personal papers that we leave behind, of our own letter trail that lasts long after our own deaths.

But also of the non-physical words we read each day, of the digital.  This blog will leave no material or physical self behind once it has gone.  I may have to print out copies of the posts themselves for my own future reference.  (I have also briefly considered printing the Skeletal Series posts out and making them into some sort of mini-manual to be posted out for free for any interested people, after they have been revised/edited of course).  But this is a tangent for another post, on the value and longevity of blogging.  Of course I could not leave the Library without first grabbing a new work of literature to read, and, true to the theme of the propaganda exhibition, I chose to indulge in some Soviet literature in the form of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit*.  Although not published in the Soviet Union during Platonov’s lifetime (1899-1951) due to his views, the book, and his canon of work, have gone on to acclaim despite his sidelining during the Soviet years.

After leaving the grand British Library we ambled over to the Wellcome Trust’s permanent exhibition entitled ‘Medicine Now‘, located at the Trust’s base on Euston Road.  A vibrant mix of art and science, the exhibition introduces challenging and rewarding concepts in the field of human biology, particularly in the individual perception of the body itself.  The exhibition itself, though small, makes the visitors interact with the displays themselves, actively encouraging participation and learning.  Science itself is intensely creative, whether in research or in it’s application, and the exhibition helped to demonstrate this most important of facts repeatedly.

So if you find yourself on a wet and gray day with a few hours free in central London, I’d highly recommend you check out the British Library and the Wellcome Trust for the free exhibitions on offer.

* I have since finished reading ‘The Foundation Pit’, and I highly recommend reading it.

Museum of London’s Online Database Archive for Bioarchaeology

16 Mar

As research will shortly commence on my chosen topic for the dissertation component of the MSc here at Sheffield, I realise I will need standards and comparisons to compare skeletal remains, and in particular the expressions of pathological disease processes.  Communications with my previous lecturer at the University of Hull has highlighted the collections based at the Museum of London, which have a broad range of skeletons from a range of historical time periods with all relevant data available online.

The Museum of London’s Centre for Bioarchaeology provides numerous on-line resources for its own London based skeletal collections alongside detailed and valuable comparative data sets for researchers.  Via a quick registration, and a read through of their human osteology method statement, the user can have access to cemetery records dating from the Roman, Medieval and Post-Medieval skeletal collections from London, housed at the museum itself.  It is a veritable wealth of information including demographic, age and sex distributions in each of the cemeteries recorded and pathological/disease processes identified and photographed from the skeletal material.

Particularly useful for myself are the photographs depicting various pathologies on the the skeletal elements as they depict comparison points for individuals I hope to use in my own study.

As numerous known and unknown skeletal collections are gathering dust, hidden in museums or departments long forgotten, it’s important to remember that there are collections out there that are working hard to digitise their information and make it freely available to researchers.  In the future at some-point, I intend to make a little list of skeletal collections here in the UK.

A Poorly Reduced Fracture of Right Femur, Anterior View, From The Lower St Brides Cemetery, London, Dating From The 17th – 19th centuries. Site Code: FA090 Context: 1200 Frame Number: 1.

The above is a example of a pathology found in an individual, in this case the context of 1200, who was found in the Lower St Brides churchyard.  The Lower St Brides churchyard was founded because the original, linked to St Brides near Fleet Street, had became overcrowded during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is thought that the population buried at Lower St brides came from a low socio-economic background (Kausmally 2008).  A breakdown of the 544 individuals analysed (out of of an excavated 606) can be found here, alongside a breakdown of the demography of the population uncovered and the age and sex estimates.  Interestingly, around 4.2% of the individuals uncovered had evidence for surgical procedures including craniotomies, alongside blade marks on ribs and vertebrae, which is highly suggestive of autopsies carried out on the individuals (Kausmally 2008).

With the rise of the internet as a valuable tool in archaeology, both enabling widespread discussion and swapping of data sets and information, it is worth reminding ourselves of the inherent wealth of the nature of skeletal populations.  As long as they are recorded, photographed and stored properly, skeletal populations can reach vast audiences by being digitized.  Valuable comparisons can be made in and between collections, and as Kausmally (2008) states that collections, such as the Lower St Brides, are crying out to be analysed in detail with other similar populations.

Online Sources:

Kausmally, T. 2008. Farringdon: St Brides Lower Churchyard.

Museum of London Centre for Bioarchaeology & Database

‘Removing Bodies From Display Is Nonsense’ New Scientist Article By Søren Holm 16/04/11.

19 Mar

Here is the link to the article in the New Scientist magazine regarding the display of human remains in museums, and as used for scientific study.  I discussed the matter from a British archaeological perspective in an earlier blog , but as this is the first article outside of a dedicated archaeological magazine that I have come across, I copy and paste the article in full below:

Removing Bodies From Display is Nonsense’ By Søren Holm

The removal of long-dead human bodies from view in museums for reburial is based on a warped notion of respect

WHEN I was 10 years old I saw the mummified body of the 4th Earl of Bothwell, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, on display in a church in Fårevejle, Denmark, during a school trip. I still have a clear memory of that day as it kick-started my interest in Scottish history. Some years later the body was removed from public display at the request of Bothwell’s descendants, and recently there have been calls for its repatriation to Scotland.

The Earl of Bothwell’s body isn’t the only troublesome human body around. There is increasing pressure in many countries to remove bodies from public displays in museums or from archaeological laboratories in order to repatriate them to their place of origin for reburial.

In the US, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) gave tribes extensive rights to demand repatriation of human remains that were culturally affiliated to their group. A 2010 amendment to the NAGPRA regulations extended these rights to culturally unaffiliated remains as long as these were found on tribal lands or areas of aboriginal occupation. US museums will now have to relinquish control of many more scientifically important human remains to tribal groups.

In the UK, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement in 2008 stating that human remains exhumed during archaeological excavations must be reburied within two years. Archaeologists can apply for the time limit to be extended, but nevertheless there is an expectation that all human remains found by archaeologists will eventually be reburied, thus ending any scientific use.

Does all of this official concern for long-dead bodies make ethical sense?

No one disputes that the bodies of the dead should be treated with respect and in a dignified manner. And no one disputes that bodies of indigenous people have often been removed from their place of burial in ways that resemble theft.

If a body is identified, like that of the Earl of Bothwell, there is no question of whether it should be treated with respect and dignity. What we do to Bothwell’s body can affect his reputation, and if we treat it in an undignified manner it may also harm his living descendants.

But most bodies of interest to archaeology are anonymous. If they become identified it is only through the hard work of archaeologists. This means that there is no reputation to affect and no descendants to harm. Issues of respect and dignity do not disappear, but they take on a different meaning.

For a body that was not stolen from an indigenous group the relevant question becomes: “Are any of the things we are doing to this body showing a lack of respect?” We can only answer this question based on our own understanding of respect. It is easy to come up with examples of actions that show a lack of respect, such as playing football with a skull. But none of these examples relate even remotely to the kinds of scientific exploration archaeologists perform, or to what goes on in modern museums.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

What, then, about a stolen indigenous body? Here we again need to distinguish between identified and anonymous bodies. Descendants may have a strong claim to have their “grandmother” repatriated, but it is much less obvious that a culturally affiliated group’s claim for repatriation of an anonymous body is of the same strength.

What’s more, the anonymous body is part of many histories, not just the history of the group it originally belonged to. In 2009, the decapitated skeletons of 51 young Viking men were discovered in a mass grave near Weymouth, UK, during road works. They are part of both British and Scandinavian history. Even if we could determine exactly where in Scandinavia they came from 1000 years ago, a claim to have them repatriated seems without foundation.

The ethical argument becomes even more problematic when we are discussing the removal of a body from scientific exploration, whether for reburial or otherwise. The production of scientific knowledge is a very significant social good and our understanding of the past relies on the ability to analyse and re-analyse a number of different archaeological remains. The range of techniques for analysis change continually and re-analysis of old remains can often lead to significant changes in the way we understand history.

Removing the possibility of re-analysis by reburial or other means therefore has very significant and real costs. Unless it can be shown that reburial is necessary in order to prevent even greater harm or loss, or perhaps to rectify some great historical wrong, reburial cannot be justified. This means that reburial is only very rarely justified, and that it is undoubtedly unjustified in cases where archaeologists excavate long-dead, anonymous bodies.

Just as our forebears drew religious comfort from the bones of the saints, without these saints ever having consented to this use of their bones, we can legitimately draw scientific knowledge from the bones of our forebears.

Søren Holm is a professor of bioethics and director of the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, UK. He is also a part-time professor of medical ethics at the Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway.

The comments section is quite revealing towards modern attitudes to views about the modern body.  A recent book detailing recent changes and reviews towards human displays in public is also enlightening (Short review here).  The book, from Dr Tiffany Jenkins from the LSE, is very revealing regarding the current state of human remains in British museums:

“Dr Jenkins commented: ‘The profession is over-reacting to the claims of small minority groups – such as the Pagan organization Honoring the Ancient Dead. Curiously, the profession do not take into account the feelings of other Pagan groups who advocate the use of human remains in research and display, such as Pagans for Archaeology. This reflects the unease within the sector with researching and displaying human remains.

‘Most remarkable of all is that human remains of all ages, and which are not the subject of claims-making by any community group, have become subject to concerns about their handling, display and storage, expressed by influential members of the museum profession.

‘This is not driven by public demand, but professional insecurity. Unfortunately it will penalise the millions of people who enjoy learning from the display of human remains. It will also impact detrimentally on the research environment, making it more difficult to study this important material.”

What are your thoughts about the displays of human archaeological material being displayed to the public?  Is there much difference between that and the display of the ‘plastinated’ bodies of Body Worlds so championed by Gunther Von Hagens?  Shouldn’t there be a place in the world for education about human anatomy and biology which can engage with the public?  This is an emotional debate, one which has had many legal rammifcations throughout various countries in the dealing with and public viewing of the dead; both from archaeological samples and mummified remains (the most famous example being Vladimir Lenin).  The French historian Philippe Arés (a summary of his work is written here), in particular, invigorated the study of death from an historical viewpoint.  His book, Western Attitudes Towards Death, has highlighted trends in attitudes towards death from the early mediveal period.  It is a good starting point in trying to understand how we have arrived at where we are today.

I shall leave it here for now, but a later post will deal with anthropological investigations and changing cultural viewpoints of the dying and the dead.  I will also dicuss viewpoints from various cultures about how a body is used after death.

I reiterate that the above article, copied in full, is from the current New Scientist magazine, and as such the author (Søren Holm) should be recognised as the writer of the piece, and quoted as such.

Sources:

Professor Søren Holm’s article is located here: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928030.100-removing-bodies-from-display-is-nonsense.html?full=true

The review about Dr Tiffany Jenkins’ book is here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2010/10/mummies.aspx