British

Archaeology

The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008

Contents

news

Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2

features

The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website

letters

your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia

spoilheap

An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

spoilheap

One man and his bog (and the consultation committee)

Back in 1984 the police X-rayed half of a peat-stained human corpse. It would later come to be known as part of Lindow Man, a 2,000-year-old bog body from Cheshire: but faced with the usual paperwork, in a flash of inspiration the pathologist named him Pete Marsh.

Staff at the British Museum's inquiry desk have heard many inventive variations – Limo Man, Kipper Man and Man in the Toilet are among my favourites. If the poor bloke knew. Of course, he doesn't. As the clown in Hamlet might have said, he is no woman nor man: "One that was a man; but, rest his soul, he's dead".

Conversation, then, is inevitably a bit one-sided. But we do our best. Among the many voices raised about the fate of human remains, Manchester Museum's is one of the more challenging and frequently heard – as it should be if it is to fulfil its vision of becoming "the leading university museum in the world by 2010".

We now have the opportunity to see the museum put rhetoric into practice, with a year-long exhibition that opened in April. Lindow Man: a Bog Body Mystery naturally features the eponymous corpse, loaned by the British Museum in its third and longest such visit. The show's title suggests a reluctance to part entirely with traditional values; and a staff member wrote excitedly on the exhibition blog after the first weekend, "Karen on reception toldme told me how it had gone... about 750 people... and an amazing £1500 spent in the shop each day": human remains attract punters. So why do we see on the posters, not a bog body, but a Care Bear?

At a consultation meeting last year the museum invited "archaeologists [seven], museum curators [nine], community representatives [five], members of local archaeological societies [three] and Pagans [12]". The latter, who let's face it, represent one of the smaller constituencies (archaeologists and curators stand for us all) should have been pleased to be there – and to see their names heading all the lists.

We are told the meeting ended with broad agreement: to "reflect how much we do not know", to be sensitive, to "explore alternative points of view" and "what Lindow Man means to people", and to air claims for "repatriation". Apparently who he was – how, why and when he died, and the world he knew – were less discussed. And, by all accounts, that is what you will see and hear.

Jonathan Schofield, writing in Manchester Confidential, was hoping for "a tip-top exhibition...about the iron age in Britain". What he saw was a toy bear (given to a child in hospital at the time Lindow Man was found), and a show "almost entirely devoid of information or balance". His piece provoked strong comment (see tinyurl.com/6plcjt). Pagans are "best qualified to hold a special connection to Lindow Man", says Pagan Girl. She also says, "we bend over backwards to accommodate the minority spiritual views of other countries all the time" – so lets give voice to "the ancient religion of our own land". What demons do we unleash?

Manchester has recently placed online a list of its 1,397 human remains, a curiously satisfying document: every museum should have one. But it is exploiting Lindow Man for cultural debate.His presence is barely necessary, perhaps accounting for the hidden profile in the exhibition. Indeed, Emma Restall Orr, a prominent consultee, Druid and one of seven taped voices whose opinions you can hear in the gallery, left the opening event feeling she'd "witnessed an assault"; she wants to rebury him, so it is safe to say she would probably wish he was not exhibited at all.

There is of course a place for considering these important issues: but a long loan of a crowd-puller like this was an opportunity to tell people about the past, to provoke historical argument (one can't help feeling that that may have been what the BM had in mind). Not only are there extraordinary stories, but some important ones remain controversial. How, why and precisely when Lindow Man died are all unresolved: this exhibition could have pioneered new research, generating headlines and engaging a new public.

So let's hear it for the archaeologists, those who seek to give a voice to people from different times and cultures, not by patronising or insulting them, but by asking questions. And consulting in the only meaningful way, in which – through hypothesis, analysis and debate – views are unreservedly adjusted as ideas and knowledge change. After all, we come to honour Pete, not to bury him.

• See Letters (this issue)

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