The 5,500 year-old skeleton of a man excavated in 1863 from a long barrow close to Stonehenge. Now on show next to Swedish forensic sculptor Oscar Nilsson’s reconstructed bust of the man
Image: The Heritage Trust
How do our readers feel about the question of reburial – as in the reburial of human remains from archaeological excavations?
Last year saw the reburial issue highlighted in Britain as perhaps never before. On the 4 February 2013 the University of Leicester confirmed that the human remains found in August 2012, under a car park close to Leicester Cathedral, were indeed those of Richard III. Richard’s remains will eventually be reinterred, no doubt with due ceremony (although exactly where has yet to be decided). In contrast, and with some controversy, a 5,500 year-old male skeleton, excavated from a long barrow close to Stonehenge in 1863, went on show at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre in December last year. Also in December 2013 the Wallingford Museum in Oxfordshire, England, was in the news for its decision to rebury the remains of 500 medieval and Saxon residents of the town in a formal and moving ceremony arranged by the Museum and local archaeologists (see our feature here). And again, last October, the Mildenhall Museum in Suffolk, England opened its doors to a refurbished gallery dedicated to the remains of a 5th century Anglo-Saxon warrior discovered at Lakenheath in 1997 (see our feature here).
Human remains are on show in many museums, both in Britain and elsewhere, but why? Do they really add anything to our understanding of the person displayed before us or are they just there to titillate and attract visitors? Is it acceptable to put on show the remains of a 5th century Anglo-Saxon warrior but not the remains of a 15th English century king? Is it acceptable to put on show the remains of a man who was familiar with Stonehenge 5,500 years ago but not the remains of a soldier familiar with the fields of Flanders 100 years ago? Does ‘social standing’ or the timespan between them and us make a difference? Do their belief systems and ours make a difference? Does it really matter one way or the other?
Much can, and is, gained from the examination of human remains, and the knowledge those examinations produce helps immensely in the understanding of the past and the people who occupied it. It seems a very long way however from gaining such knowledge to displaying its source in a museum case – ie treating the remains as if they were no more than other relics from the past instead of the remains of a human being who once lived, worked and perhaps influenced that past. Should our Anglo-Saxon warrior, a human being buried with love and respect and surrounded by the objects he most cherished, now be displayed in a glass case or should the wishes and beliefs of those who buried that man continue to be respected?
We’d like to hear your views on the question of reburial – especially if you’ve worked with human remains or you belong to a culture, or follow a belief system, where their display is considered unacceptable.