Mice and coffins: Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology reopens

By Ben Miller | 29 May 2012
A photo of a skeleton inside a stone and lead coffin with its mouth wide open
© MAA, University of Cambridge
Reopening: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, Cambridge

When a dig for a housing development in the Arbury area of Cambridge during the 1950s found a coffin containing the body of a middle-aged woman from Roman Britain, her corpse wasn’t all archaeologists would find inside the lead and stone tomb.

The remains of a mouse and a coffin were also in there. One or both of them had nibbled at the woman’s leg.

“Every one of the objects tells not just one stories, but many,” reflects curator Mark Elliott, who had the joy of reopening the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, one of Cambridge University’s most eye-catching museums, on May 25.

A photo of two indigenous tribal masks inside a glass case inside a museum
The museum has acted as a base for teaching and research for 125 years
© MAA, University of Cambridge
“Because we have so many, but can only show a few, each one has been specifically chosen for the stories they tell, the knowledge they contain and the secrets they reveal. This is the world in Cambridge.”

The coffin was immortalised in a Sylvia Plath poem, All the Dead Dears, written while she was studying at the university.

It’s hard to imagine a museum more disposed to poetic inspiration. The most far-flung object, a Maori trumpet made of Triton shell, was collected by Captain Cook in New Zealand 239 years ago, travelling more than 11,000 miles to stand alongside other artefacts assembled by Cook and his crew during their first day on Australian soil, representing the first Aboriginal items collected by Europeans.

The rarest object is a Sufi Muslim snakes and ladders board, and the most contentious might be Benin bronzes seized during British raids on Nigeria at the end of the colonial war.

“If it got to the stage of someone submitting a repatriation request that we weren’t expecting, we would feel that we weren’t doing our jobs properly,” admits Elliott.

“That said, some people do want specific objects returned, and it is now widely accepted that human remains should, in many cases, be sent back to the groups concerned.

“We don’t hold anatomical collections, but like most European museums we have returned objects.”

For all the tough decisions to be made, the £1.8 million refurbishment has allowed certain precious objects to go on public display for the first time, or to return after decades in storage.

They’re as singularly exotic as you might expect. A sculpture from the Azande people of Sudan, a village guardian figure from Bali, a sculpture of the wife of a Nicobar islands chief and a brick from the city of Babylon (stamped with a 1,300-year-old footprint) are among them, not to mention Iron Age torcs and a Romano-British beaker decorated with scenes of naked women driving chariots pulled by penises.

Conversely, the museum spotted a century-old sign language plate the length of a running track from its entrance, unearthed during preparatory work for the city’s John Lewis store in 2006.

“They take us from the other side of the road to the far corners of the inhabited earth,” says Elliott prophetically.

“They allow us to look back into the past and take that past with us into the future. Everything in here was made by somebody, somewhere, at some time across the span of human history. There’s an awful lot people can get from these objects.

“Museums are places where things happen – they’re not just dusty places where the objects go to die.”

  • Open Tuesday-Saturday 10.30am-4.30pm (closed June 5 2012). Admission free.

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