Buried on Campus picks through the bones at the Grant Museum of Zoology

By Ben Miller | 26 April 2012
A photo of a section of pavement cordoned of by police digging up the ground
© University College London
Exhibition: Buried on Campus, Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London, until July 13 2012

The Grant Museum of Zoology’s collection is renowned for its anatomical wonderment, but curators usually have to delve several continents further than their own campus to pinpoint their artefacts.

Buried on Campus, as the title suggests, revolves around a selection of bones found under University College London’s main quad two years ago, literally unearthed by constructors in a set of almost 7,000 fragments belonging to at least 84 individuals.

Hundreds more came from animals, with on-site forensic anatomists and anthropologists speculating that they came from a Victorian teaching collection of the type used to train wannabe scientists today.

“Although only a preliminary examination has been conducted, the findings so far are comparable with the practice of modern day anatomical dissection and skeletal preparation,” reckons Dr Wendy Birch, one of the experts who has investigated the remains.

“Not only is this a fascinating glimpse into the history of medical teaching at UCL, but this collection is being used again to teach current medical, forensic and science students.”

Telltale annotations and cuts on these bones, made by scalpels and saws, betray their original academic purpose. Beyond that, organisers say a “significant proportion” of the specimens show “clear evidence of disease”, affording them further classroom interest.

The real giveaway, though, was a Bovril jar (confirmed by the delicacy’s parent company) found among the bones, dismissing grimmer early suggestions that the site was a 14th century plague pit.

On the exhibition’s part, it’s a chance to show a complete human skeleton – comprising bones from several different people – and reveal how forensic teams determine the age, sex and health of individuals, as well as the signs of diseases such as arthritis and rickets.

“It’s a unique opportunity for a university museum to raise the issue of how human remains have been involved in teaching,” reflects Jack Ashby, the Manager of the Grant. “The museum is and always has been a teaching collection.

“I hope it will make people think about what we can learn from collections like this. It has such an interesting story.”

  • Open Monday-Friday 1pm-5pm (also 11am-4pm May 12). Admission free.
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