Visiting the Dead: Archaeology, Museums and Human Remains

The British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition has been a rollicking success. It’s been lauded by most critics and the public are evidently lapping it up. But it’s not perfect. As I mentioned in the comments on Anna’s review, I entirely agree with almost everything she says about it: shame about some of the presentation choices but the objects themselves are fantastic. The one note of disquiet Anna did raise about the items on display concerned the plaster casts of the dying Pompeians themselves. Here’s what she had to say about them:

In the final section, after a timeline of events and a case containing items found with some of the victims’ bodies, there are three sets of casts of victims: a woman from Oplontis, cast in resin; the seated man from Pompeii; and a family group, parents with their two children. Obviously you can’t talk about Pompeii and Herculaneum without talking about the human tragedy behind the preservation of all these wonderful things, and seeing the victims of the eruption brings it home in a way that no object or text panel can that these were real people – but that’s the problem: effectively, you’re watching real people’s death agonies, and displaying them spot-lit on a plinth just seems uncomfortably ghoulish. I’m not really sure what the alternative is – realistically, there was no way the casts were going to be left out, and indeed there are some pretty good arguments for including them. I just can’t think of a way of doing so that doesn’t still leave me feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing.

I completely understand where Anna’s coming from with this, but I have to admit this was the one area where my response to the exhibition seemed to be largely at odds with that of my fellow Classicist visitors. I didn’t find the bodies particularly upsetting or uncomfortable. I found the anatomical details revealed by the resin cast interesting in a detached kind of way, but for the most part I didn’t really feel much about the ‘bodies’ at all.

This got me thinking. I’d like to believe I’m fairly well-adjusted and normal. I might tend a bit towards the traditional stereotype of the emotionally undemonstrative Englishman, but I don’t think I’m particularly lacking in empathy at any basic human level. Reflecting on my reaction – or lack of it – to witnessing the preserved death agonies of these poor Pompeians, I can only conclude that it’s my archaeological experiences that are responsible here; that working with ancient human remains on a fairly frequent basis has desensitised me somewhat to what they represent. Now this is important, and worth blogging about, not because of my own emotional state, but because of how it connects to two bigger questions: how do (and should) archaeologists relate to the fact that sometimes the objects they are working with also used to be people; and what are the rights and wrongs of using such material in museums and other public displays?


Everyone’s seen crime dramas on TV. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the way pathologist characters are often presented: eccentric, odd and, above all, well-practised in the blackest of humour to offset the grimness of their morbid task. I don’t know any real pathologists, but that stereotype’s not a million miles away from some of the things I’ve seen with archaeologists and human remains. That’s not to say that the remains aren’t treated with respect: we’re always very careful about that. But sometimes humour’s necessary. Without it, spending days or weeks working on the dead would be a bleak and depressing grind of tragedy. ‘Hang on’, you may be thinking. ‘How are dead bodies funny?’ Well here’s an example from my own experience.

When I used to work as a commercial archaeologist, I was once spending a fairly typical work-day in the finds-processing office, cleaning soil off human bones. I don’t remember what kind of site they were from, but they weren’t all that old. Still well-preserved, mostly intact and robust. The problem was that the long bones of the leg were slightly bigger than the bowls of water. I was having trouble dipping the femur in to moisten the dried-on soil. I tried it one way and then another. Moved it round. And suddenly the absurdity of the image struck me. I was sitting in front of a steaming bowl of murky liquid, effectively stirring it with a human thigh-bone. Images of witches and cauldrons flashed through my imagination and I burst out laughing. Not at the dead person, but at the strangeness of my own interaction with them. That’s a fairly minor example, and less funny written down than it felt at the time, but I could fill a much longer post with examples of the ways the weirdness of working with human remains is a source of humour. Skulls with missing labels forgotten in the back of fridges; worries that skeleton-dust has got into your sandwiches, and so on.

Black humour’s a bit of a distancing technique, a way of acknowledging and defusing the absurdity of the situation, but archaeologists also often do the reverse and play up their human connection with the remains they’re working on. A particularly common way is by giving them a name. We’re familiar with this in some of the most famous archaeological human remains: Ötzi the Ice-man, or, further back in time, Lucy the Australopithecus. But I’ve also seen it on everyday excavations in southern England. You can take two views on this practice. One is that it’s disrespectful and unscientific – you’re imposing a name, and, to a certain extent, a personality on a person whose real identity you can never know. Particularly if the name’s slightly jocular, it’s not hard to see why that could be a problem. The other view is that, whatever its problems, at least it avoids the dehumanising and objectifying effects of the alternative: simply referring to the remains by an identification number. It helps those working on the remains to relate to them in some way as a person rather than a thing. Personally, I can see the attractions of both views. Since I’ve never had the chance to excavate a human burial, I don’t know what I would do in that situation. I suspect I’d probably stop short of naming, but it’s hard to know.

The point is that like TV pathologists, doctors and probably any other professionals who encounter death as part of their daily business, archaeologists often develop a range of ways of dealing with it. Some may seem eccentric, some may at first glance seem slightly disrespectful; but they’re a necessary and natural human response to mortality. And they mean that even if we’re not always conscious of it, we approach the issue from somewhere different to most of the public.

Which brings me back to the question of museum displays. What’s the point of exhibiting human remains and why’s it acceptable rather than ghoulish? Do archaeologists and museum professionals whose attitudes to death have been made unusual by working with remains on a daily basis really have the perspective to judge? Needless to say, there’s been an awful lot of thought and debate about this topic, and most major museums will have given extensive consideration to the ethical issues involved. You can read the BM’s policies here, the Museums Association has a whole page of articles and discussions, and there’s a brief audio clip making the case for exhibiting human remains on the Wellcome Collection website here.

One reason the BM document gives for maintaining collections of human remains and displaying them is that:

The study of human remains provides one of the most direct and insightful sources of information on different cultural approaches to death, burial practices and belief systems, including ideas about the afterlife. The worldwide context of the Collection should be protected, because it provides an opportunity to look at the diversity of human ideas about death and the human body across cultures of vastly different times and places.

No one, I think, would seriously dispute this. Human remains can tell us a huge amount about the past, about ancient attitudes to death, burial and religion; about lifestyle, diet, dress and pathologies; about any number of things which are at the heart of archaeological investigation. There is a genuine public educational interest in making these things available for view, both by researchers and the wider public. The main point of ethical consideration surrounds how museums should take account of the wishes and beliefs of modern people who believe they have a stake in the matter. On the one hand that could be as simple as a museum visitor who feels they have a right not to see the dead if they don’t want to; on the other there’s the much more complex issue of people and groups who view remains as belonging to their ancestors. The issues of repatriation and the ability of modern interest-groups to identify with – and thus have a say over – the long-dead are complicated, political and delicate. In general, many museums use chronology or cultural tradition to decide whether their dead can reasonably be claimed by a particular group. It’s just as bad – if not worse – to allow remains to be destroyed in burial rites of a culture not their own as it is to continue to exhibit them in a museum.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m fairly comfortable with the way most museums treat human remains in general. They consider the ethical issues and claims with great care and weigh them against the public interest arguments in favour of making extremely informative and often fascinating material viewable. There’s obviously a difference between an ancient skeleton or mummy whose beliefs about the body and the afterlife may only be sketchily known, and a hundred-year-old person whose name and culture might be known, and whose descendants may very well still be around. But most British museums are all too aware of that and treat such matters sympathetically.

There is, though, a question of narrative, and this brings us full circle back to Pompeii. I’ve argued that it’s the scientific and educational value of human remains which justifies their inclusion in museum displays. But I can’t deny that for many people they also exert a strong emotional power. They personify the past, humanise it. Amid the endless displays of things, that’s valuable, it reminds us that the past was populated by real people. But this can also be misused for cheap impacts and to tug on the heartstrings. And this is where I think the Pompeii exhibition runs into trouble. There is a legitimate scientific value in the Pompeii casts. They can preserve details of clothing, bodily appearance and so on which help us reconstruct what ordinary Pompeians looked like, how they went about their daily lives, and the facts surrounding how they died. Perhaps more importantly, they also play a very important role in the history of modern reception of Pompeii, in how the site’s been approached by generations of scholars and the public.


But the British Museum exhibition’s focus isn’t on these things that we can learn from the bodies. Instead the casts are used as the final full stop to the ‘Romans are just like us’ narrative that pervades the exhibition. They’re used almost purely emotionally, to tug at the heartstrings and evoke sympathy; and because they’re famous and visitors will expect to see them. They’re not about informing or educating, but about meeting market expectations and delivering a poignant emotional experience. So I think, belatedly, I share Anna’s misgivings. Unlike her, I think I can see ways of including these casts that wouldn’t be ghoulish, sentimental or gratuitous, but the more I reflect on it, the more I feel this wasn’t one of them. Of course, these aren’t human remains at all in the true sense, only casts, but I do think they approach death in a very emotional, voyeuristic, and rather commodifying way, rather than an objective and educational one. And that is cause for discomfort.

5 thoughts on “Visiting the Dead: Archaeology, Museums and Human Remains

  1. Thanks – you’ve articulated a lot of the issues about this much more effectively than I managed to! Interesting, though, that we still come to a similar conclusion by completely opposing routes, because for me it’s treating human remains as objects that I find most problematic. I think you have to strike a balance between all the completely valid educational reasons for displaying them, and sensitivity about objectifying them. Or maybe that’s the real problem with the Pompeii exhibition: not so much objectification, but in eliminating the educational aspect and going too far with the ‘these are real people’ aspect, it comes to seem ghoulish, precisely because you don’t get the sense of all the non-ghoulish/emotional/etc reasons for displaying them. Now I think I’m ending up contradicting what I said two sentences ago, so I’m going to stop commenting here before I get even more confused about what I think about this.


    • Going back to the Pompeii exhibition a couple of weeks ago, I found myself unable even to glance at the casts–I was struck by a strong feeling of disgust at the whole thing. I think I’ve isolated what bothers me: we know little of these people beyond their gruesome deaths. If we had names and stories to go with the remains, perhaps it would be more comfortable; as it is, they are reduced solely to their final agony. I should certainly not wish the only thing the world knew of me be that I died horribly.


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