Remembrance through the use of human remains in archaeological collections

Guest blogger, Alice Rose, Documentation Assistant at the Hull and East Riding Museum, explores human remains and remembrance in museum collections.

Museums and collectors often do not discuss the human remains they care for.  This is due to the complex ethical debates surrounding the excavation, collection and storage of these remains.  In this post, we want to consider our approach to these collections through an example from Hull and East Riding Museum’s Mortimer 100 project.

The project focuses on one of the founding collections of the museum and also its collector, John Robert Mortimer (1825-1911).  During his lifetime this corn merchant and pioneer archaeologist collected many significant prehistoric objects.  These were obtained through field survey as well as excavations in the Yorkshire Wolds, including prehistoric barrows.  The collection was purchased by the Hull Corporation (later Hull Museums) in 1913.  Although some documentation and conservation work has been done on the collection, it has never been completely accessioned or documented.  One of the aims of the Mortimer 100 project is to improve the documentation of the collection and increase its accessibility.  In turn, through the documentation process, some objects emerge which cause surprise, shock and provoke thought.

KINCM1942.344.4_006 human bone dagger
Dagger made from human bone recovered during Mortimer’s excavation of a Bronze Age barrow burial. Photograph copyright Hull and East Riding Museum, used with permission.

This Bronze Age dagger is one such object.  In J.R. Mortimer’s publication (Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire, 1905) he describes it as ‘a dagger-like instrument, 10 inches long, made from a human thigh-bone.  This instrument – in having been made of human bone – is probably unique’.  The dagger was found in the base of a Bronze Age grave which also contained an inhumation, and on excavation the dagger appeared ‘as if accidentally dropped into the grave’.  If we accept that this dagger is made from human remains, it challenges our current views regarding Bronze Age culture including concepts of memorialisation, the ritual of death and their approach to the human body.

Many of the Bronze Age burials excavated by J.R. Mortimer in East Yorkshire show a cult of the individual.  Even though there are multiple inhumation burials in a barrow, which sometimes contain more than one individual in a grave, each individual is articulated in their own space.  Burials are often accompanied by a pottery vessel such as a beaker or food vessel.  The trend towards individuals buried in graves, with grave goods, suggests a society which respected the individual and the physical body after death.  Therefore the human bone dagger appears incongruous within the context of this society.

A small amount of research suggests that the dagger is unique and that other museum collections do not contain a similar object.  However, could our present-day sensitivity towards human remains be affecting our search?  Many museums do not put details of human remains in their collection online due to sensitivity surrounding human material in collections.  Therefore, there could be another human bone dagger in a museum collection but it cannot be found easily.

One possibility is that the dagger was made from human bone in error, that the creator did not realise it was human bone.  However, in the Bronze Age natural resources were regularly used to create tools.  Therefore, it seems unlikely that the maker of the dagger was unaware of its source, especially as animal bone was a common and easily obtainable resource.  This might suggest that the dagger had a specific and special purpose, and that the individual who was used to make the dagger might have had a specific reason for being used in this way post-mortem.

This suggests multiple stages of memorialisation.  The individual is remembered during the creation of the dagger by its producer, with each stroke.  The individual is also remembered through people’s interaction with the dagger when it is used, as the result of a belief system where the individual is not only physically but also spiritually embedded within the materiality of the dagger.  In turn the deceased individual influences the living, due to the shape of the dagger which will influence the way in which the dagger is held and used.  Furthermore, the bones were developed and shaped by the individual’s life, so the reflection and influence of their life continues even after their death.  This concept draws on ideologies from more recent anthropological studies of ‘head-hunter’ cultures where individual’s traits can be retained within their remains.  For example, if the individual was brave, wise or strong this trait would be passed on to whoever carried or used the dagger, transported through their physical remains.

In opposition to this, it is possible that through the process of making the dagger the individual was actively forgotten.  So through the creative process, the person is detached from the living and their identity or personhood becoming both physically and conceptually an object.  They are transformed from a ‘he’ or ‘she’ to an ‘it’.

The Victorian archaeologist, John Mortimer, did not posit ideological debate regarding the dagger.  However, he was sceptical regarding the origin of the dagger’s bone.  At the time he was active, archaeology was in its infancy as a discipline with a competitive circuit of practitioners and academics that were ready to discredit a fellow archaeologist at any opportunity.

It is also evident from reading Mortimer’s publication, especially regarding his approach to excavation and archaeology, that he was a man of scientific rigour.  This quest for scientific proof is probably why he decided to take a Bronze Age human femur from the same barrow where the dagger was found and create a replica of the dagger from it.  This practice seems somewhat irregular to the present-day museum worker or collections manager, as through the creation of the replica dagger Mortimer destroyed material from another part of the excavation.  Furthermore, there are multiple ethical issues to consider, including whether human remains should be exhumed at all from an archaeological context.

KINCM1942.344.4a_001 replica bone dagger
Replica dagger made by Mortimer from a human femur which he had excavated from a Bronze Age burial. Photograph copyright Hull and East Riding Museum, used with permission.

Yet, why does Mortimer’s treatment of the second human femur jar with our present-day sensitivities towards human remains and death?  During the Victorian period, Mortimer and his contemporaries would have had a different approach to death.  It is likely that death would have been normalised, through high infant mortality rates combined with increasing death rates as a result of urbanisation through industrialisation.  Therefore Mortimer probably viewed his experiment with the human femur as a legitimate, ethically  sound and scientific approach to resolving the issue of whether the Bronze Age dagger was made from human bone.

In turn, is Mortimer’s scientific approach significantly different to our approach to human remains in collections today?  It is unlikely that any curator or collections supervisor would permit the carving of a human femur into a dagger.  However, it is likely that they would allow sampling of human remains within their care for destructive isotope analysis, radiocarbon dating or DNA analysis.  All of these techniques are destructive and irreversibly alter the state of the human remains, even if only a small quantity of bone is taken.  Yet, it is often deemed that the scientific gains outweigh the loss of the human remains.

Through sampling we are able to reconstruct the individuals and communities who lived in the past.  In turn, surely this reconstruction through academic analysis of the evidence can be argued to be a remembrance of the past and the interpretive displays of museums their memorial.

One might try to argue that these scientific methods provide definitive ‘answers’ to investigations and are solid methodological practice i.e. once a skeleton has been sampled it will not require sampling again for the same information.  However, one only needs to observe the advances in radiocarbon technology to realise that this is not the case.  Radiocarbon dating used to require a large quantity of bone, now it does not.  It also has been found that many dates from the early practice of radiocarbon dating are inaccurate; therefore repeat sampling has been necessary resulting in the further destruction of human remains.

So what does this case study tell us about approaches to human remains and the past?  It demonstrates that throughout time human remains have been used after death.  In some cases, such as the dagger, they are functional.  In other cases, such as Mortimer’s replica dagger and present-day archaeological science they are used as a tool to provide us with insight into the lives of the people of the past.  Yet in turn, through this use those individuals and their communities are both memorialised and also remembered.

Alice Rose is a documentation assistant at Hull and East Riding Museum, working with archaeological collections.  Her current project is the Arts Council England Designation Development Funded ‘Mortimer 100’ project which aims to document, conserve and increase accessibility to the Mortimer Collection including its associated paper archive.

The Mortimer 100 project is based at Hull and East Riding Museum.  It is an Arts Council England funded project, through the Designation Development fund.   If you would like to find out more about the Mortimer 100 project, please take a look at project posts on the Hull Museums blog:


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