Throughout my working life every job I’ve held has involved ‘dealing with the public’, a phrase often found in job descriptions and something I have always actively enjoyed, meeting people and chatting with them, sharing views and experiences, and learning from them. Equally, I don’t mind when it gets a bit tricky. Indeed, one job I previously held in the NHS required me to regularly deal with complaints, either in person or over the ‘phone – usually with no prior warning – during my boss (a hospital director)’s frequent absences. I relished these opportunities to get to the bottom of people’s issues and take action to put things right where necessary.
Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in some archaeology open days during which I lay out a skeleton and remain on-hand to talk with visitors about that particular individual or the study of human remains and mortuary practice in general, whatever comes up. During these events I’ve had visits from a fair few members of the public now and I’ve noticed that their responses broadly fit into three categories – not, I should stress, based on any kind of formal study, but informally on my first-hand observations and impressions.
The most common type of reaction I have witnessed is that is of interest and fascination. Classes of primary school children are particularly enjoyable visitors, I find: loud and bursting with enthusiasm. Buoyed by their study of prehistory at school I’ve witnessed the awe of a row of children gazing at the skull of an actual Iron Age person. They ask so many questions (usually simultaneously): “Is that a real skeleton?”, “What’s that bone there?”, “What’s her name?”, “How old is he?” and some hang around for the entire visit asking more questions, considering the answers and then asking more. It really is a joy to behold! Equally rewarding is the reaction of adult visitors who are genuinely interested and want to talk about where the individual was found, how you can work out their sex and age, how long ago they lived, and so on and so forth. My favourite comment recently was from an Egyptian visitor who said they thought it was great to see a skeleton on display as it’s educational and shows that “we’re all the same underneath”.
Although naturally quite a squeamish person, I have never had issues with human skeletal remains myself, however, it is a fact that there are people who do have a problem and would rather not see them. To this end, there is always a notice outside the room I am based in stating that there are human remains inside so that visitors can make an informed decision about whether they wish to see them or not. I am always situated separately to the rest of the archaeological stands so that the human remains can easily be avoided. Despite the warning sign outside, I still notice the occasional person recoiling a little when they see the laid-out skeleton and when this happens I leave them be so they don’t feel any pressure to linger or interact. I think there are various reasons for this type of reaction, one being that death generally is a taboo in our society and not something we’re very open about. Another is that things going on in a person’s life at the time or previously, such as serious illness or bereavement for example, may trigger an understandable emotional response. I’m sure there are other reasons too as anything to do with death is, of course, emotive by its very nature. I am also very aware that in general people don’t often have access to human skeletons so they may be seeing one for the first time when they wander along to my table. Sometimes people just stare at the skeleton for a minute, deep in thought, saying nothing. Interestingly, an elderly visitor recently remarked that it used to be that people actually expected to see human remains on permanent display and, as such, it was the accepted norm whereas it does not seem as common these days.
The third type of response I have witnessed is from those who are unhappy with the notion of human remains being excavated or displayed at all and would like to make this point. I suppose, for me, this harks back a bit to that previous job of mine and I see it as an opportunity to find out where they are coming from and to talk over the issues. Some people make a connection between the laid-out skeleton and deceased loved ones of their own who have been buried and they feel uncomfortable for moral, cultural or religious reasons with the concept of burials being disturbed, and I can certainly appreciate this point of view. Others don’t agree with human remains being on display at all. One visitor quite openly said to me (as they briefly waited with their interested friend) that they just didn’t want to see skeletons. For my part, I have taken these opportunities to explain that the human remains in the particular collection I’m working with were excavated a long time ago and are prehistoric and therefore not relatable to people living today. I have also expressed my view that rather than leaving the human remains boxed away in storage, as they have been for decades, I feel it actually affords these individuals more dignity to find out about them through osteoarchaeology and research and to tell their story as far as possible.
The subject of public mortuary archaeology is one that continues to be discussed (see Further Reading, below) but for this brief blog I have purposely focused purely on my own personal experience specifically relating to the temporary, uncased, display of human remains in an open day setting. My feeling is that it’s a complicated topic to address and it’s difficult to find an approach that works for everyone. I hate to offend people and I understand and sympathise with those who would rather not be exposed to human remains. However, overall I feel the interest I have witnessed from the majority of visitors to my display to date, both adults and children, makes it seem very worthwhile, particularly in terms of education, breaking down barriers and encouraging discussion. Although I am unable to quantify how many people choose not to enter the room due to the warning sign outside, equally I don’t know how many are in fact encouraged to enter by virtue of the same sign. In my view, visitors are being given an opportunity to observe archaeology at its most intimate, to share in the knowledge that we can glean from human remains and learn a bit about the processes involved in this, and to understand better the lives of our ancestors and hence ourselves as human beings. And so long as the feelings and needs of those who are uncomfortable with human remains are properly taken into account and the human remains themselves are treated with dignity and respect it seems okay to me – but I’m very much open to talking it over.
Suggested Further Reading
Giesen, M. 2013 Curating Human Remains: caring for the dead in the United Kingdom, Woodbridge: Boydell
Mays, S. 2010 (2nd ed.) The Archaeology of Human Bones, London: Routledge
Sayer, D. 2010b ‘Who’s afraid of the dead? Archaeology, modernity and the death taboo’, World Archaeology 42(3), 481-91
Williams, H. and Atkin, A. 2015 Virtually dead: digital public mortuary archaeology, Internet Archaeology 40. http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue40/7/4/index.html