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A Conversation With The Past from CLASP videos on Vimeo.

We’ve discussed the question of displaying and/or reinterring human remains before (please see our The question of reburial… feature) but this 2014 video about the debates and decisions concerning the re-interment of Anglo-Saxon remains excavated at Whitehall Farm throws a slightly more sensitive (and perhaps more sensible) light on the issue. As Moss (one of our members) says, “There has been an interesting discussion elsewhere about the reburial of nine Anglo-Saxon skeletons. The group have obviously discussed the implications of what is taking place. You may find the vicar slightly intrusive, but she keeps Christianity at bay. Fifteen minutes long, but a thoughtful approach by all concerned…”

Click on any of the links above to watch the video.

 
 
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.
 
 
 
The Wallingford Museum
 
The Wallingford Museum in Oxfordshire, England is, as the Museum’s website describes –
 
…a colourful, delightfully intimate and family friendly local history museum, housed on two floors of this medieval oak-beamed building in the heart of Wallingford in Oxfordshire, a Thames-side town founded in the ninth century by Alfred the Great. From the Museum’s windows, you can see the remains of the great ramparts of Alfred’s planned town.
 
Wallingford Museum was in the news at the end of last year for its decision to rebury the remains of around 500 medieval and Saxon residents of the town in a formal and moving ceremony arranged by the Museum and local archaeologists (report here). The decision stands in contrast to the somewhat contentious one by English Heritage to display the 5,500 year-old skeleton of a man found buried in a long barrow near Stonehenge and now on show in the main gallery of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre.
 
 
 
 
The newly extended Mildenhall Museum
 
In March 2012 we focused on a BBC News, Suffolk, report announcing that the Mildenhall Museum was, “…set to double in size to help display the remains of an Anglo-Saxon warrior and his horse.” Last Wednesday, two of our trustees went along to the Museum to see the result –
 
It was the first day the Museum was open to the general public. The new automatic door (providing easy disabled access) swung open and we were greeted by three volunteers eager to show us the newly renovated interior, a renovation made possible by grants from Forest Heath District Council, Suffolk County Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Mildenhall Parish Council. The spacious reception area (with small shop) leads in one direction to the new community and education room, while the other direction leads to the first, ground floor gallery displaying fossils and flints from Mildenhall and the surrounding area. Passing the lift (again providing easy disabled access) and the stairs there is a replica Victorian Wash Day and Kitchen gallery showing all manner of household objects from the period.
 
 
The New Community and Education Room
 
The first gallery, on the first floor, contains Romano-British displays of objects from the period, as well as replicas of the stunning Mildenhall Treasure found near West Row in the 1940s (see our earlier The Mildenhall Treasure by Roald Dahl feature here). The replicas are of superb quality and the fact that they can be viewed in such a quiet and unhurried atmosphere is a real pleasure. The original Mildenhall finds are now in the British Museum.
 
 
The Romano-British Gallery with replicas of the Mildenhall Treasure on the right
 
What we had really come to see however was the new gallery dedicated to the remains of a 5th century Anglo-Saxon warrior which was discovered at RAF Lakenheath in 1997. The warrior was found with his sword, shield boss and spear (along with his horse which had been sacrificed at the time of the warrior’s burial) and the partial remains of a sheep by the warrior’s left knee. A bucket was found near the horse’s head and is thought to have contained feed for the animal, while the sheep may have been an offering of food for the warrior in the afterlife. We were not disappointed with the new gallery; not only are the remains beautifully exhibited, but so too are objects found in the grave, the excellent explanation panels on the walls, other items from the Anglo-Saxon period and a video detailing the warrior find and its excavation.

 
The Anglo-Saxon Warrior Gallery
 
 
Close-up of the warrior, his horse and armour, and the skeleton of a sheep 
 
The Mildenhall Museum has been tastefully and professionally refurbished throughout, and although for us pride of place went to the Prehistoric, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon galleries, there is so much more to see and enjoy there. Admission to the Museum is free (although donations are welcome) and parking at one of the nearby super stores is possible. For Museum opening times, and further information, please go to their website here.
 

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