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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Morbid Reflections

By Rachael Sparks, on 26 September 2011

My father-in-law recently died, and as the funeral approaches I find myself looking at archaeology’s preoccupation with death and burial with somewhat different eyes.

Roman Inscription 2010/207

I’ve faced the remnants of death before, while excavating ancient Near Eastern tombs, but its been an old, dusty, archaeological sort of death where the individual is reduced to a collection of different bones, carefully labelled and bagged. Their humanity is long gone, and any traces of personality linger only around the objects found in their grave.

The fact that this was someone else’s ancestor, somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son doesn’t really register, because after all, it’s nobody you know. It’s easy to retain a sense of scientific detachment when the past is far distant and geographically removed from your own personal sense of ancestry.

It’s a very different matter when your personal sense of ancestry is connected to  burial goods or human remains that somebody equally detached has decided to remove for the purposes of ‘scientific enquiry’. Hence the many calls for repatriation that have faced collections at UCL and elsewhere.

I expect I’d feel the same way if it was my great-great-grandmother sitting in an acid-free box in museum storage. Although for the record anyone is welcome to study my own remains when the time comes, once any useful organs have been removed. Petrie had similar feelings, which is why he left his head to the Royal College of Surgeons. While I don’t have similar claims to carry the brain of a genius, I’d like to think of myself continuing to further the cause of object-based learning in some future medical institution, albeit in the role of a specimen rather than an instructor.

Archaeologists love death. Not because of any sense of morbid fascination with our own mortality, but because death leaves such a strong physical marker of past human behaviour, at a time when people’s feelings and humanity are at their strongest. The physical remains of death are not really about the deceased, but about those closest to them and the way in which they cope with loss.

As for the assemblages on which we have based so much of our understanding of past cultures, let’s not forget that these things carried a heavy emotional charge the last time they were used. And let us never forget the people behind the things.

There is a poignant reminder of this in a marble tombstone, brought to England from Rome sometime in the Victorian period and now part of the Institute of Archaeology Collections (2010/207).

It’s a small grave marker, with a simple Latin inscription reading: ‘To the shades of the departed: Julia Cominia lived for 1 year and 31 days’. No more comment, but a world of grief encompassed in those few words. Just as today, there was probably some comfort in following the rituals of death and leaving a physical marker of someone’s passing.

It reminds us that the past is perhaps not such a distant place after all.

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