Death and Burial at the Pitt Rivers Museum Day Four

The West Kennet Long Barrow is an impressive burial chamber, and one of the many ancient  sites that comprise the prehistoric complex of Avebury in Wiltshire.

Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow
Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow

During the archaeological excavations of The West Kennet Long Barrow in 1859 and then again in 1955-6 by Thurman and Piggot respectively, the remains of around fifty inhumations were discovered. The remains were disarticulated and a number of bones, predominantly leg bones and skulls were missing.

Theories abound with regards to the missing limbs and we shall never know the answer, some speculate that the bones (post the decomposition of the flesh) may have been used ritualistically whilst others argue that the missing bones may have been carried by family members perhaps as a memento mori or as means of keeping family together in both physicality and spirit. I am not an archaeologist so I can offer no insight, however the latter theorem provides an interesting consideration in terms of museology.

There has been a hotly debated topic over many years regarding the display of human remains in museums, arguments ‘for’ relate to their educational benefits. The British Museum states in it’s policy document concerning human remains 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’. The arguments ‘against’ quite rightly relate to human rights.  I can see the merit of both arguments.

Today, stood in front of a vitrine in The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford I made notes and looked at grave goods excavated from the grave of a six week old girl from Luckendorf, Nr Orbin, Saxony. The grave was excavated in 1883 and inside was found a variety of items including a needle with black and white thread, a comb, thimble, gloves, a spoon scissors and a miniature pan, jug rolling pin and mangling board. These items are fascinating and tell us so much about the society into which she was born but the fact remains that a child was exhumed and the goods removed. Therefore it has to be questioned are the artefacts associated with the dead, the items with which they were interred as contentious as the display of human remains? For me personally if I were to argue ‘against’ the display of such items and indeed human remains I would place myself in a paradoxical position, I did after all visit the Pitt Rivers Museum knowing what I would see and indeed visited the museum specifically to view it’s collection relating to the treatment of death and burial across many cultures.

The Victorian attitude to death was much different to our contemporary view. Our neolithic ancestors, if we accept the premiss at the beginning of the blog also did not view human remains in the way we do now, keeping some remain of their ancestor with them connected them to their past and tightened the familial bond and sense of community. If we consider the example of mourning jewellery crafted from the hair of the deceased I have to wonder if the Victorians were so different to our neolithic forbears. Indeed the relationship of contemporary society with the museum and it’s displays are a connection to our mutual histories.

So whilst the Pitt Rivers Museum collection remains a hotbed of debate, from my perspective my visit there was a multifaceted experience, I garnered the information I needed from it’s displays but also was given museological food for thought.

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