Deathly days out: Forensics at the Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

How did the first crime scene investigators find clues? What can an autopsy tell us about a person’s last moments? If a body is stuffed into a suitcase, can maggots still get to it?

These questions and more are answered in a brilliantly morbid exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London (billed as the destination of choice for the “incurably curious”). Forensics: the Anatomy of Crime takes you on a journey over five rooms from crime scene to morgue, to laboratory and courtroom, exploring the many unusual ways forensics experts uncover evidence.

Of course, we at Deathly Ponderings just had to go along! It was utterly fascinating, and provided a rare look at real forensic items and techniques as well as historic photographs and archive material of some of the Victorian era’s most grizzly murders.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

Bizarrely, the first thing we saw was an oddly-adorable dolls’ house. On further inspection, it was a mini model of a crime scene, known as a “nutshell study”: a brutal diorama used to teach criminology students in the skills of observation and inference.

The personal highlight for me was the “morgue” room, with specimens of skulls and brains with bullet wounds, and an original marble dissection table from the 1920s. You can sit and gaze at this slab while listening to the squelchy hacking sounds of a recorded autopsy, which makes for quite an unsettling experience.

Videos throughout the exhibit examine some of the questions about the forensics process, including one from the ever-wonderful Carla Valentine of St Bart’s Pathology Museum.

Image: Wellcome Collection

Image: Wellcome Collection

As well as forensics, the exhibit looked at how people respond to death, with sculptures inspired by victims of genocide and the intriguing Japanese art of Kusōzu, delicate paintings showing the body of a young woman in various stages of decomposition.

I don’t want to give too much else away, because this is an exhibition full of fascinating little details and you really need to experience it to get the full sense of being immersed in the world of forensics for a couple of hours. While you’re at the Wellcome Collection, the exhibitions on the other floors are also definitely worth checking out: I recommend the room of miscellanea from Henry Wellcome’s personal collection, including shrunken heads, preserved mummies and Napoleon’s toothbrush.

The exhibition is free and open Tuesdays-Sundays until 21 June. If you’re going to the Digital Legacy Conference looking at death and grief in the digital age, the Wellcome Collection is just around the corner, so you can do both!

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Death in Cambridge: Medieval hospital burial ground unearthed

In my professional life, I work for Cambridge University doing media things. This story came up this week, and I thought it had relevance to our deathly interests. Enjoy!

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Archaeological investigations have discovered one of Britain’s largest medieval hospital cemeteries, containing over 1,000 human remains, when excavating beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College. One of the largest medieval hospital burial grounds in Britain, containing an estimated 1,300 burials, once stood on the site of what is now part of St John’s College, according to a report published in the latest issue of the Archaeological Journal.

The report marks the first public release of evidence gathered by an archaeological dig beneath the Old Divinity School, conducted as part of the Victorian building’s refurbishment in 2010-2012. The report reveals that the complete skeletal remains of over 400 medieval burials were uncovered by a team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, along with “disarticulated” and fragmentary remains of what could be as many as 1,000 more individuals. Images from the dig are available on the St John’s College website HERE.

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Death in Cambridge: the Duckworth Laboratory

As soon as I saw this video, I knew we had to feature it as a Death in Cambridge post. I had no idea that the Duckworth Laboratory even existed! It is part of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies and contains amazing collections including skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies and much more besides. Sadly it is not open to the public as a museum, but it is still an incredible research resource. In this video, you can watch Dr Ronika Power from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology take you on a behind the scenes tour of this hidden deathly treasure:

Sunday Sundries 6

As you may know, we’ve been away for a bit, but we’re getting back into our regular posting schedule again now. So here’s what we found online this week:

The Huffington Post discusses why cremation is more popular than ever in the US. There are a number of factors contributing to this change in funerary practice, including the fact that as people become more mobile, the traditional ‘family plot’ is becoming less relevant. Changing religious practices also seem to play a role, with less social pressure to have a traditional Christian funeral. Check out the article, it also has a lovely infographic!

"Sylivia" at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

“Sylivia” at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle. Image from Strange Remains.

The Tumblr “Strange Remains” has a great post looking at some of the more bizarre ways human remains have been displayed over the years, not just in museums but in curiosity shops, restaurants and even public bathrooms. Given the controversy of displaying human remains even in more traditional museum settings, it’s eye-opening to see how people’s attitudes to corpses-on-display can be so different. Quirky or distasteful? What do you think?

In weird news, my favourite story of the week has to be the man who was arrested and fined in Portsmouth, UK, for pretending to be a ghost in a local cemetery. Oh dear, that’s my weekend plans gone then!

If you’re in the UK (or can do some sneaky stuff online) you can watch the new series “The Beauty of Anatomy” on BBC iPlayer. The first episode discussed the legacy of the ancient anatomist Galen and how his ideas held sway until Leonardo da Vinci and others began to practice human dissections.

If you can’t view that, but still want a cool anatomy fix, the first edition of Vesaluis’ famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica is available as a digitised copy from the US National Library of Medicine. Seriously, check this out. It’s some of the most beautiful and interactive digitisation of a text I’ve ever seen!

And finally, I leave you with this charming and very funny animation about a couple of very dedicated undertakers:

 

Death in Cambridge: Egyptian burial care

Rather that highlight one particular artifact in this Death in Cambridge post, I wanted to show several. I think these items really show how the Egyptians engaged their dead in the burial process.

First up: the eyes

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These are an absolutely fascinating addition to the Egyptian box coffins and the accompanying labels describe that the motif is used so that the deceased can see out of the coffin. This is just one of many instances where the dead are seen as an active part of the process.

Next: the Shabti

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According to the signage, shabti (shawabti or ushabti) were small figures that were placed in tombs to ‘answer the call’ to perform various tasks on behalf of the deceased such as tilling or irrigating the land.

There are a wide assortment of types, such as the ones pictured, ranging from wooden to limestone version, with one even made out of faience which is a type of crushed quartz which is then glazed.

Following on from there: The burial of Khety

14029012112_d8da657ee6_kThese wonderful (if a bit blurry…working with an iPhone here) figures were found in the burial tomb of Khety in 1903.  The models are carrying out a mixture of tasks, such as running a granary and butchery in order to provide food and drink for Khety in the afterlife. Just off to the left-hand side, there are boats waiting to take Khety on a trip up the River Nile.

Finally: don’t lose your dead!

We’ve seen the stock image that represents a morgue a thousand times. A random pair of feet with a toe tag on them, making sure the deceased does not become separated from their documentation. This is by no means a new thing. The Egyptians used toe tags too, to ensure that their dead are accounted for.

14029207102_028f207c7e_kThese small wooden tags have the parentage, titles and age of the deceased written on them in demotic Greek and Egyptian. The ones pictured were for a pair of women. Tags were used to identify the deceased as cemeteries were often some distance from the family home of the deceased and so mix-ups could happen. So, definitely not a modern phenomenon by any stretch as these wooden tags date from around 30 BCE to 200 CE.

All of the items featured here are housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum as part of their extensive Ancient Egypt collection. I highly recommend a visit.

 

 

Sunday Sundries 4

18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

It’s Sunday again, which means time for more deathly nuggets found on the interwebs this week!

First up is The Conversation Project, an excellent site filled with downloadable resources to help people talk openly about their wishes for end-of-life care. The Project website says:

“Too many people are dying in a way they wouldn’t choose, and too many of their loved ones are left feeling bereaved, guilty, and uncertain.

It’s time to transform our culture so we shift from not talking about dying to talking about it. It’s time to share the way we want to live at the end of our lives. And it’s time to communicate about the kind of care we want and don’t want for ourselves.”

Do check them out and download a Conversation Starter Kit to help you have ‘the conversation’ with your loved ones.

Next, LiveScience has an image gallery of the anatomist and artist Gunther von Hagens recent work, the Animals Inside Out touring exhibition. I got to see this in London and it was breathtaking. Gunther uses ‘plastination‘ techniques to preserve the muscle, tissue and even blood vessels of animals (and humans) and turns them into scientific exhibits that are also works of art.

While on the topic of animals, here are nine touching epitaphs that ancient Greeks and Romans wrote for their deceased dogs. Just goes to show that the companionship of pets really is timeless.

Here at Deathly Ponderings, we’d also like to congratulate the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, which has opened this weekend. I hope to be able to visit there one day!

Right, that’s about it for another week. Let’s leave you with this rather wonderful creation of artist Thomas Kuntz, a hand-cranked automaton of a skeleton playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, because why not?

 

Image credit: 18th century Scottish gravestone featuring Memento Mori. Image from Martyn Gorman (CC2.0)

Death in Cambridge: the Arbury Lady

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.

-Sylvia Plath

In 1957, Sylvia Plath wrote the poem ‘All the dead dears‘, inspired by a visit to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where she viewed the coffin and skeleton of a Roman lady exhumed locally. Due to lack of space, the Roman tomb was taken off public display in the 1980s. In 2012, the Museum had a large-scale refurbishment and restored the remains to their original setting.

The Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The face of the Arbury Lady. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The body is of a Roman British woman from the 4th century CE, aged around 40-50, encased in a large coffin of stone lined with lead. She was found by builders working on a housing estate in Arbury, north Cambridge, in the early 1950s and has become known as the Arbury Lady.

Not only one body was found in the coffin, however. The skeletal remains of a mouse and a shrew were entombed with the lady, and there is evidence that they were gnawing on the body, especially around the ankles. The Museum have thoughtfully displayed the rodents with the Arbury Lady, preserving this fascinating detail of post-mortem activity.

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Shrew and mouse bones. Image credit: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Sarah-Jane Harkness, outreach officer at the Museum told the Cambridge News about how the Arbury Lady continues to inspire fascination and connects local people with their past and history

“A schoolchild was fascinated to find out the coffin had been discovered in his own street, in his neighbour’s garden. It is bringing history to them in a way they can understand – it gives it continuity.”

The Arbury Lady is displayed very respectfully in a large side-gallery away from the entrance desk and gift shop areas of the Museum, and visiting her always seems very peaceful, even during busy days. I find her very moving, and it really does feel like connecting with a real person rather than just an exhibit.

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has many more fascinating and deathly items to explore, and is well worth a visit!