Waking The Dead - The Art Of Archaeology At Gloucester Museum

By Rory Trust | 05 August 2005
Shows a photo of a model of a human skull.

Heads up... time to learn the art of forensic archaeology. Photo: David Rice/ Gloucester Museum & Art Gallery.

Trowel in hand, Rory Trust packed his kneeler and headed for Gloucester to get a taste of forensic archaeology.

Have you ever wondered just how archaeologists manage to paint such a detailed picture from a few old bones? How do they determine a person’s age, what their profession was and even what their last meal was from examining remains that are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old?

Dead Reckoning at Gloucester City Museum & Art Gallery reveals the hidden secrets of forensic archaeology. Running until September 3 2005, visitors can try their hand at being a forensic archaeologist and see just what they can discover.

“We wanted to get the feeling of a lab,” explained Lisa Donel, Community Heritage Officer at the museum. “There are lots of things for people to see and play around with. For something like this people should be able to try it and get close to things.”

Shows a photo of a recreated stone coffin, half open with a model of a human skeleton inside.

The display is based on a burial unearthed in the local area in 1995. Photo: David Rice/ Gloucester Museum & Art Gallery.

The exhibition is loosely based around the excavation of a burial site in Quedgeley, Gloucester, in 1995. It reconstructs the burial site and coffin and people can go through the same process as the real archaeologists did to try and learn more about the person buried.

The reconstruction aims to be as accurate as possible, and the objects found in the original burial are on display. Visitors are encouraged to examine them and hints are provided as to what exactly you should be looking for, along with detailed explanations of what it all means.

The whole forensic process is presented in this way and after having a go at each technique the process and results are explained. As some of the original objects are fragile, replicas are used, although great care has been taken to ensure everything is as accurate as possible.

Shows a photo of a model of a human head, half of which has been built up to show a face and features, while the other half is exposed to show how layers of features are built up by forensic archaeologists.

The exhibition aims to show the painstaking process by which archaeologists uncover the layers of the past, to build them up again. Photo: David Rice/ Gloucester Museum & Art Gallery.

“Although they may not be able to touch the actual object there is an equivalent which they can handle,” including a replica of the skeleton itself, said Lisa.

The exhibition covers all aspects of forensic archaeology, from the initial uncovering of the burial site, to carbon dating and DNA testing. Each process is explained in simple terms and there is a variety of illustrative and interactive material to help.

Shows a close up photo of the face of a mummified cat.

Archaeologists have been known to dust off the odd mummified cat... Photo: David Rice/ Gloucester Museum & Art Gallery.

“The idea was that it should cover every age group. On our opening people were staying in the exhibition for 40 minutes, looking and trying everything out,” said Lisa.

The subject of the exhibition was actually selected by the people of Gloucester, so there is no surprise that there is such an interest in it. Dead Reckoning is also something of a first in museum terms because of the large number of people involved.

“Everybody in the museum has worked very hard to create this, not just curators,” explained Lisa. “Front of house staff, the historic environment team, volunteers and people on work placement have all helped enormously.”

Dead Reckoning is arranged in an extremely approachable and user friendly way. The variety of activities and range of fascinating information ensures visitors of any age will need a good amount of time for uncovering all there is on offer.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Rory Trust is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South West. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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