Manchester Prepares For The Appearance Of Lindow Man

By Alice Kershaw | 23 February 2007
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a photograph of the squashed and leathery remains of man

Lindow Man will be returning to Manchester Museum in April 2008.

Alice Kershaw looks at some of the issues facing Manchester Museum as it prepares to display the remains of Lindow Man for the third time.

Manchester Museum has announced plans to exhibit Lindow Man, the naturally preserved body of an Iron Age man, from April 2008 until March 2009.

It will be the third time the freeze-dried bog man - discovered in Wilmslow, Cheshire, in 1984 and currently an exhibit at the British Museum - will have been on display in the city. But this time Manchester Museum is developing proposals that will reflect a wide range of different perspectives on the display of the human remains.

Through a series of public consultations the views of archaeologists, curators and Pagan groups are being sought - all of whom have very different views on Lindow Man.

The sensitivities surrounding the display of human remains as museum exhibits can be paralleled with the difficulty of writing about them; should Lindow Man be referred to as an object - an ‘it’, or as a person - a ‘him’?

Whether or not the remains, carbon dated between 2 BC and 119 AD, cease to be a person on death, as archaeology assumes, or continue to retain personhood, as the Pagans believe, is central to the debate about the nature of the forthcoming exhibition.

a photo of a entrance way arch to a Victorian Gothic builidng

Manchester Museum, part of Manchester University, has been at the forefront of the debate about how to handle human remains. © Manchester Museum

“We have objectified him into an ‘it’,” admits Bryan Sitch, head of humanities at the Manchester Museum, “perhaps because it's easier psychologically to do so. But personally I can't help feeling the remains of a human body are different from a bronze pot, a flint arrow or an Iron Age sword.”

It is precisely this tension that has led to debate about how Lindow Man, and indeed other human remains, should be displayed. According to Bryan, one of the purposes of the exhibition is to “explore the 'vexed subject' of how we treat human remains”.

This is something the university is well placed to tackle. In November 2006, in conjunction with the Manchester Museum, it hosted a conference entitled ‘Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice’.

The conference was jointly organised by Piotr Bienkowski, deputy museum director, and Emma Restall Orr, head of the Druid Network and founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD). The conference heard opinion from both sides of the debate, including academics and scientists who value human remains for the scientific information they contain, and from those who take a more holistic or even spiritual approach.

Restall Orr’s Druid Network believes the remains of ancient Britons are tribal ancestors who need treating differently to standard museum objects. In her essays on the subject she refers to Lindow Man unfailingly as a ‘him’, as ‘young man’ and as an ‘ancestor’. She calls for him to be permanently returned to the North West, and repatriated to his 'tribal landscape'.

a photograph of a mummified body in a coffin

Manchester Museum's Ancient Egypt Galleries contain several examples of preserved remains. To date UK museums have received no formal representations for the return of Ancient Egyptian human remains. © Manchester Museum

She is asking this question in the light of a wider debate on repatriation of human remains to their places of origin. During the days of Empire human remains were sometimes acquired under dubious circumstances. British colonial authorities were thought to have collected skulls and bones of indigenous peoples for display in British museums, causing great distress to communities involved. These collections can be an affront to the customs of peoples who have their own beliefs about how bodies should be treated after death.

In January 2007 nine tattooed heads, or toi moko, held in the University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum since the 1820s, were handed over to staff from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Another recent ongoing case has seen the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre take the Natural History Museum to court in an attempt to limit testing on the remains of 17 Aboriginal people already earmarked for repatriation.

Elsewhere newspaper reports have suggested the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford may be considering the ethics of displaying its famous South American shrunken heads, whilst in St Edmondsbury in Suffolk a panel has been set up by the local council to consider the return of a scalp and a book bound in human hide – the remains of a local murderer held at Moyse’s Hall Museum.

Each of these cases is very different, with each having its own set of circumstances and sensitivities. Government guidelines on repatriation indicate there should be a provable continuity of beliefs, customs and languages. The proof sought by these guidelines is, however, still based upon the scientific language of anthropology and archaeology.

a photograph a man standing next to a series of grey boxes

A recent repatriation of remains - in this case Maori tattooed heads - took place in January 2007. Kau Matau (elder) Ku Ku Pa from Te Papa receiving the 'toi moko' from the Aberdeen Museum. © John McKenzie McIntosh, University Of Aberdeen

According to The Human Remains Report, issued by the Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections (HRWG), most requests for repatriation have been from North America, Australasia and the Pacific, with no submissions for return coming from Egypt, despite large museum holdings of human remains from this country.

In the main, scientists seem to want these objects to remain within British Museums due to their importance to science, as they can reveal information about DNA, evolution and the spread of diseases. They believe that it is in the public interest to retain such collections.

According to the report of the HRWG, increasingly museum practitioners believe the views of the originating communities should be afforded the same status comparable to scientific communities. Science cannot simply dismiss the beliefs of other groups.

The guidelines focus on the repatriation of remains under 1000 years old, allowing indigenous peoples to claim back the remains of their ancestors. They focus primarily on non-British remains, as these have proved to be the most contentious.

Restall Orr talks of how, for Pagans, "it makes no difference how long ago someone died. We are their living relatives." She goes on to describe how Pagans aren’t concerned with the religious affiliation of their ancestors, but feel that all remains from the period are in need of care. Whether or not Lindow Man was a Druid, and debates about the circumstances of his death focus on this aspect, the Pagans would essentially feel the same about how his remains should be treated.

a photograph of a skeleton in a museum display case

A skeleton in the Ancient Egypt Galleries of Manchester Museum. © Manchester Museum

Bienkowski says that the debate surrounding Lindow Man is not so much about ‘rights’ as about respect for religious sensitivities and respect for alternative world views which are different from the scientific world view.

In his paper read at the ‘Respect’ conference he described how "'research potential’ takes precedence over ethical recognition of the intentions of past human beings." These tensions and misunderstandings between differing worldviews have previously resulted in the the scientific viewpoint taking primacy in the debate. Now museums must explicitly seek out consent and consultation with communities related to the dead.

The body is important both to museum curators and modern day Pagans and the debate about how Lindow Man should be displayed throws up questions about cultural sensitivity, rights and respect for other beliefs and perspectives. It questions the holding and display of human remains for the purposes of scientific enquiry and research in the light of repatriation claims from abroad and now from within Britain itself.

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