Death on Display: The Dead in the National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology

Five Examples of the Displayed Dead

In March 2022, I visited the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, Dublin. This archaeology museum is free to the public and is well worth a visit if you are ever in Dublin. The human remains are displayed very well in the museum, being securely laid out behind glass and lit very well. The bog bodies exhibit in particular is laid out excellently. I remember visiting this museum as part of my undergraduate modules when I was studying at UCD. Here are five examples of how the dead are displayed in the museum.

Clonycavan Man, Co Meath.

Date: c. 392-201 BC

The bog bodies on display in the museum are perhaps the most evocative of the dead featured. The display of the bog bodies is done in a respectful manner, with visitors able to bypass viewing the remains if they wish. Clonycavan Man is featured in the Kinship and Sacrifice Exhibit, which also features the other Irish bog bodies. Clonycavan Man was found in 2003 and is believed to be a murder victim, with possible indications that he was mutilated as part of a ritual killing (his nipples are missing for example). He also seems to have suffered a deep head wound that may have been the cause of his death. A reconstruction of the face of Clonycavan Man further humanises him – a ‘face put to the name’, as well as the discussion surrounding his ‘gel’ hairstyle which consists of resin. The hair and skin of Clonycavan Man is visible, although they have changed to a brown colour due to the anaerobic conditions of the bog, but his features are still very visible regardless. I highly recommend visiting this exhibit if you are ever in Dublin – they are a fantastic resource to engage in conversations about death and the display of the human body.

Replica of Clonycavan man
Clonycavan man

Viking Burial, Memorial Park, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 9th Century

An almost fully intact skeleton is on display in the Viking Ireland section of the museum. The skeleton dates to the 9th Century as was found in 1934 at Memorial Park, Island bridge, Dublin. The burial is labelled as belonging to a warrior, as a dagger and sword were found with the skeleton. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much other information accompanying the burial, which may have been due to a lack of information being gathered and recorded at the time of discovery. Furthermore, members of the public are not told whether the burial is male or female, something not known to the untrained eye – it is simply implied by the ‘warrior burial’ label. The ‘warrior burial’ label was also critiqued by Howard Williams on his blog (link in sources section).  The skeleton is dimly lit with partial reconstruction done on some elements of the skeleton. The glass case makes sure the remains are secure and cannot be touched by members of the public, and the darkness of the exhibit does allow one to appreciate the fact human remains are on display. Should these skeletal remains be presented in the same manner as the bog bodies? I.e., in a small, labelled section away from public view? These are the questions one should ask as a viewer – how much of human remains is too much for the public?

Viking burial

Burial 24, Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara, Co Meath.

Date: c. 2000 BC

Burial 24 contained an inverted encrusted urn and an inverted vase – the urn contained the remains of at least one adult, and a burnt flint knife was also found with the remains. As there is work going on in the museum at the moment, the entrance is now through the Hill of Tara section where this burial is located. You almost pass it by as you enter the museum. The exhibit shows fantastic finds through the centuries at the Hill of Tara. What is interesting about the cremated remains is that one would likely not realise you were viewing human remains unless you read the label on the exhibit. Do people pass by these remains without realising they are passing a part of someone? It would be interesting to do observations of visitor interactions with all the exhibits containing human remains and see how different ‘types’ are reacted to.

Cremated remains seen in the centre

Human Skull, John’s Lane, Co Dublin.

Date: c. 10th Century

As part of the Clontarf 1014: Brian Boru and the Battle for Dublin exhibit at the museum, I will be focusing on the human skull found at John’s Lane, Dublin. The skull itself is place in a glass case with an accompanying label stating the skull is from a young man, and that a large wound to the side of his head may have been fatal. What is unsettling about the skull, is the fact it is placed as though found with a ‘slave chain’ that was recovered from a completely different context. It gives the impression that this individual was from the slave trade, despite not being found with the chains – I remember mentioned the issues with this display as a case study as part of my undergraduate visit. It may be that the placement of the chain is to provoke a reaction from the viewer. The chain was found in Roscommon and may have been made for a slave or hostage.  Although the placement is obviously to illustrate what it would have been like for someone to wear such a device, it does make one feel slightly uncomfortable knowing the man displayed with the chain was not a wearer in life. A question of identity and post-mortem bodily integrity comes to mind.

The skull and chain display

Ptolemaic Mummy, Provenance unknown (Egypt).

Date: c. 300 BC

There is a large number of objects from Ancient Egypt at the museum, with the Egyptian collection found in the upper galleries. Most of the items on display were acquired from excavations carried out between the 1890s and 1920s. There are a few mummies on display, but for this blog post I will focus on the Ptolemaic Mummy of unknown provenance which dates to c. 300 BC. Unlike the Leeds City Museum, there is no sign outside the exhibit warning people that human remains are on display. This may be because unlike the mummies in Dublin, the Leeds mummy is unwrapped (He was unwrapped by the surgeon TP Teale in the 1820’s), and his facial features are on display and very prominent to the viewer. The mummies in Dublin are still wrapped – providing a ‘layer’ between them and the viewer. The unknown provenance of the mummy is likely due to the retention of the remains outside of Egypt from a dig over 100 years ago – post excavation records were likely not as detailed, particularly during a time when colonial attitudes were rife. The mummy in question is displayed very well with as much information as possible attached to the exhibit – they are also well lit in an area that has dimmed overhead lighting. A great way to show respects but also highlight to artefacts of importance.

One of the mummies on display


The Archaeology of Quarantine: Four Examples of Disease Quarantining in the Archaeological Record

As I am writing this blog post, I am coming out of self-isolation after contracting Covid-19. It was frustrating but necessary, and we were lucky to be in comfortable surroundings with heat, water, food, and electricity. But quarantining to prevent the spread of disease is far from a modern concept. This blog post will explore the archaeology of quarantine by examining four case studies.

Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, Venice.

In the 15th century, Venetians inflicted with plague were subjected to periods of quarantine on the islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo. Venice was first struck by the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, and these islands show archaeologists the measures took to avoid mass infection. At the start of the 15th century, Vecchio was used for isolating sick Venetians, and Nuovo was used for ships to remains in quarantine for 40 days until docking in Venice. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni, which means 40 days. Archaeologists have examined the buildings left on both islands and have found that there was a system in place for infected and non-infected individuals and an area for cargo to be stored and aired out. The skeletal remains of inhabitants on the island revealed to archaeologists that people of all classes were struck with illness, as diets ranged from meat consumption associated with the rich and a grain diet associated with poorer members of society. Graves were opened numerous times to add more bodies of victims, illustrating extent of the pandemic and the mass graves needed on the island.

Lazzaretto Vecchio.

The Lazzaretto Station, Philadelphia.

Inspired by the Venetian Lazzaretto’s, the Lazzaretto Station was established in Philadelphia in the 18th century. Lazzaretto comes from St Lazarus, the saint associated with those afflicted with leprosy. The Lazzaretto Station was moved further down river from Philadelphia after the yellow fever outbreak in the 1790’s. The station has 500 hospital beds, an area for quarantine, an area for staff as well as a cemetery. As in 15th century Venice, any ships with a sign of illness were to stay quarantined for 40 days. The caption had to answer questions upon arrival and crew/ passengers were inspected for signs of illness. The quarantine season ran between June and October, and it is thought that up to 1 in 3 Americans had an ancestor come through the Lazzaretto Station. Although no extensive archaeological excavations have been carried out at the site many buildings still stand. The limited archaeological evidence suggests the site had been home to the Native American Okehocking tribe as far back as 1200 BCE and the site of a 17th century Swedish colony. The still standing building was threatened with redevelopment in recent years, with activists stepping in to prevent the site being knocked down. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970’s and is considered one of the oldest surviving quarantine hospitals.

The American Lazzaretto today.

Kamau Taurua, New Zealand.

Kamau Taurua/ Quarantine Island was the site of a quarantine station between 1861 and 1924. The site was used for two major quarantine phases – during the 1870’s and during the First World War. Over 40 ships and around 9000 people quarantined at the island, and over 70 known people are buried on the island in a cemetery. The last ship to quarantine at the station was in 1902. During WWI, the island was used to quarantine and treat soldiers who were suffering from venereal disease. Between 1916 and 1919 almost 800 men were treated for syphilis and gonorrhoea. The decision to keep the men on the island was met with criticism in the press, with many questioning the need to keep the soldiers ‘out of sight’ from the general population. Rationale behind the quarantine included protection the ‘woman and children of the country’. There are ongoing efforts by conservationists to preserve and restore some of the original buildings, including the Married Quarters. Several middens on the island show evidence of occupation hundreds of years ago by the Māori. Today, the island can still be visited. You can stay overnight, participate in walking tours and ecological activities. There have been many archaeological surface finds on the island, comprising of glass, pottery vessels, clay pipes, a pocket watch, bottle stopper and a bullet cartridge.

Quarantine Island seen in the 1880’s

Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island, New York.

These two artificial islands were created in the 1870’s off the coast of New York to tackle the outbreak of disease. They were commissioned by the federal government, and all ships coming from regions associated with infectious disease were expected to drop their anchor at the islands for inspection. The ship would be boarded by an inspection officer and if any sign of disease was present onboard, then the passengers would be sent to Swinburne Island for treatment. Bu the 1890s, the facilities on Swinburne had grown to numerous hospital wards (mainly for the treatment of yellow fever and cholera), a mortuary, and a crematorium. Hoffman, much like Quarantine Island off New Zealand, became a place to treat venereal disease in WWI soldiers. Both islands were decommissioned in the 1920’s. The islands are not open to the public today but are home to nesting birds and other wildlife. Vascular fauna has been sampled on the island, and the remains of the buildings are still visible from the shore – the archaeological investigations have been limited, but it is fair to say that there is great potential for future excavations to reveal more about quarantine in the past.

Swinburne Island is seen from Chopper 880 – July 10, 2013 (credit: Tom Kaminski / WCBS 880)


Quarantine Island, Port Chalmers – Nearshore islands – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Veneto – The Land of Venice – Il motore di ricerca degli eventi a Venezia e in Veneto

Check It Out: NYC’s Abandoned Swinburne Island – CBS New York (

Preservation of the Lazaretto, America’s oldest surviving quarantine center, finally gets underway – WHYY

Public interactions with human remains: Sedlec Ossuary

I had the privilege of visiting Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago. The ossuary is in Kutna Hora and is known as the ‘bone chapel’ or the ‘chapel of bones.’ Between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals are thought to be on display – all the remains are skeletal. The ossuary has a long history that stretches back as far as the 13th century. An abbot scattered soil from the Holy Land on the site and it became a desirable place to be buried in the region. Thousands of people were buried there before they were moved to a crypt after the cemetery became too full. Many of the deceased were victims of the Black Death or were killed during the Hussite Wars. It was around the 16th century that exhumation of the bones begun.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the so-called macabre art was created from the remains. A local woodcarver called Rint arranged the bones in an artistic manner in 1870, before signing the wall with the bones themselves. Rint bleached the bones and created the famous bone chandelier, a coat of arms, candle holders and large bone pyramids. The resulting artwork attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and even in the short time I was there in the off season I could not help but observe the different reactions to the remains.

I was travelling with a group of archaeologists, who are all well acquainted with skeletal remains but still understand the respect that needs to be shown towards these displays. Upon entering the ossuary, we were told not to take any pictures. This is a recent rule that had to be enforced in January 2020 as many who visited the site were asked to take photos in a respectful manner and did not comply. A press release from the ossuary stated that many were taking derogatory photos, inappropriate selfies and were touching/ manipulating the remains for a picture. Now, you must apply for permission to take photos in the ossuary at least 3 days in advance of your visit with reasons outlining your intentions regarding the distribution of the media.* I was intrigued to see if everyone followed the rules as we entered the chapel.

The reactions to the remains were polarising, even though there was only a small number of visitors at the time we went. One young couple were taking pictures pretty much straight away, with the young woman posing with her hand placed on the bones of the candle holders whilst her partner snapped the image. They were not reprimanded by any staff members as there was not many working there on the day we were there, but it was shocking to see a blatant disregard for the rules straight away. Touching of the bones is forbidden and outlined on the ossuary website. The bones were used as a prop in a picture, exactly how was described in the press realise.

One woman started laughing loudly at the site as she turned to leave, stating ‘this is not for me!’ Another rule outlined on the website is to keep the noise down to show respect for the dead. It was likely this woman was very uncomfortable and didn’t know how to react to the remains. I heard the rest of her group say outside that they weren’t ‘expecting whatever that was!’ and that they expected the bones ‘to have been ground up and used as cement rather than displayed’ (both comments have been edited for clarity). Obviously, the group were not keen on the visit, and did not research the site properly before visiting.

As an archaeologist who studies the dead, it was hard not to cringe at some of the reactions of others at the site, but we must understand that not everyone will grasp the fact that these disarticulated remains were once people and are not objects. The fact that the remains have been arranged in such a manner may make it difficult for those who do not often come in contact with the deceased not to see them as objects, or perhaps become extremely uncomfortable with display. However, we must encourage those who intend to visit the site to research it before hand and become acquainted with the rules – something which evidently didn’t happen on the day we visited. The defleshed body can often leave us far removed from the deceased, as skeletal remains are not something we see every day, but we should always treat them with respect – whether they are arranged in a manner you do not agree with or not.

If you are interested in human remains and studies of death, then I would definitely recommend a visit to the ossuary. You can find the list of regulations in the resource list below – just remember the ‘chandelier’ or ‘candle holders’ were/ are human and should be treated as such.

(*Images used in this blog post were taken by an archaeologist before the ban on photography was introduced.)


Irish Women and Death Series: The Last Witch Killing in Ireland in 1895

When we think of the women murdered for being witches, we often associate these killings with events that happened hundreds of years ago – the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 usually come to mind for example, or the reign of terror committed by the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins in the middle of the 17th century. However, it was in 1895 the last ‘Witch killing’ was committed in Ireland. Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and members of her family/community in County Tipperary, Ireland. The trial of her murderers was a media sensation at home and abroad, coinciding with the debate surrounding Home Rule in Ireland at the time. The murder of Bridget is not an isolated incident of a woman murdered for being different at the hands of a man. Religion, superstition, oppression, and patriarchy are key themes surrounding the incident as well as post-mortem bodily integrity. In this blog post, I intend to tell the story of Bridget’s murder, as well as the links between her murder and the death folklore that was prevalent in Ireland at the time, some of which still lingers today. We also see an amalgamation of pagan superstition and the Catholic religion – both were used as a weapon of oppression that justified her death to the man who committed the murder, despite the fact they are often thought to be separate entities and that the Catholic church condemned the old oral mythological stories. The killing of ‘witches’ in the past usually stemmed from a fear of the women accused, with the topic of women and death often unsettling, and provocative.

Bridget (Boland) was born in a small village in rural Tipperary in the late 1860’s. She became a dressmaker, and eventually married her husband Michael Cleary in 1887. Michael worked as a cooper, and the couple lived comfortably as Bridget also independently ran a small business selling eggs as well as dressmaking and hat making. The slate roofed cottage they lived in was modest, but in comparison to other homes in the area at the time it was very comfortable. Angela Bourke’s excellent book ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story’ tells us a little more about Bridget’s personality. Many described her as sexually attractive and stylish, with a very strong personality. Her attire was commented on – instead of wearing the traditional shawl around her head like many 19th century Irish women, Bridget wore a black straw hat adorned with ribbon and feathers. Bourke also attests to the fact that hen keeping may have caused men to feel resentment towards independent women, with the henwife or ‘cailleach na gCearc’ in oral stories depicted as wise and cunning, with strong associations with the supernatural. Interestingly, ‘cailleach’ is also used to refer to a ‘witch’ in the Irish language. On top of Bridget’s eccentricities, she was also childless. Herself and Michael had been married for seven years when she was murdered, and it was unlikely they were childless by choice – many who believed in fairies often stated that women who went with them often returned infertile.

Bridget Cleary

One week in early March in 1895, Bridget caught a chill whilst out collecting payment for eggs. She took to her bed, likely suffering from pneumonia or bronchitis. A local storyteller and avid fairy believer by the name of Jack Dunne visited her at home. Dunne and Michael in conversation with each other likely allowed for the development of the fairy and witchcraft narrative. The location at which Bridget had caught a chill was close to a local ringfort or fairy fort, an archaeological dwelling that was often avoided in Irish society as it was thought to house the Fae who should not be antagonised. Dr Crean was the local medical doctor, and he treated Bridget for bronchitis and ‘nervous excitement’ often associated with women. A priest was also called to administer last rites and deliver communion as concern mounted for her health. However, her family became increasingly convinced her deposition was associated with the fairy folk or the work of the devil, and a local ‘witch doctor’ was consulted by Michael and the adamant Dunne. The ‘witch doctor’ was Denis Ganey, and he provided herbs to be administered. It was now the belief that Bridget was no longer herself, rather she was a changeling who had taken her place as the real Bridget had been taken by fairies. A group of male relatives held Bridget down in bed and force fed her the herbs boiled in milk. They were reported to have screamed ‘Take it you, witch!’ as Bridget resisted the mixture. Her face was burned with a hot iron poker to force her to swallow the ‘medicine’ and the contents of a chamber pot were thrown on her. Both iron and urine were thought to deter fairies and other supernatural beings. The men shook her and held her down, shouting and asking, ‘Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’ Interestingly, the dousing of urine, aggressive shaking of women by men, and the involvement of fairies, were often associated with difficult childbirth and death in labour. Bridget’s ordeal suffered for days, and it was evident that religious elements were also part of the driving force behind the violence. As well as local superstition entangled in the narrative, prayers were also said, and holy water was also used to douse her body. Bridget was both devil and fairy, witch, and woman – a manifestation of all things feared at the time. Things escalated the night of the of 15th/ 16th March when Bridget was finally dressed and out of bed. A small crowd had gathered in the house consisting of relatives and locals. Although it seemed the ‘fairy illness’ had passed, Bridget was still weak from bronchitis. When she did not answer her husband straight away when he questioned who she was, he pushed her to the floor, accused her once again of not being his wife, and tried to force feed her bread. Holding his knee on her chest, he stripped her clothing down to her chemise and stockings – Bourke attests to the sexual elements of the violence against her. Michael then held a hot poker to her face before her chemise went up in flames. It is here where things are a bit hazy. Either Michael knocked his wife unconscious by hitting her head or initially setting her alight with the poker rendered her unconscious from shock. This may have killed her, but after she initially lost consciousness (whether dead or not) Michael doused her in oil numerous times and set her alight again. She may have been burned alive (immolated) or she was already dead when set alight with the oil (likely kerosene). She was 26 or 28 years old at the time of her murder.

The cottage where the murder took place

Immediately following her death Michael was adamant it was not his wife he had just killed, stating she was a fairy imposter or a witch, and that his real wife would return to him on a white horse from the fairy fort. Cleary allegedly threatened those in the house at the time with a knife, making them swear to secrecy and help him bury the body of the ‘changeling’. She was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a shallow grave near the home before being discovered by police a week later after rumours began to circulate that she had gone missing or was ‘away with the fairies.’ Ten people were arrested in connection with the murder, many of whom were her own family members – Michael Cleary was eventually sentenced to 20 years hard labour (for manslaughter, not murder), with the others accused serving sentences between 6 months and 5 years. During the trial Home Rule was brought up as part of the narrative, and the case was used as a means to comment on the ‘barbarism’ of the Irish ‘peasantry’ (The Cleary’s were far from peasants), arguing the Irish could not possibly govern themselves when they committed atrocities such as the ‘burning’.

The post-mortem integrity of Bridget’s body should be noted in this case. Bridget was laid out for display in an outhouse under police guard as she was viewed by members of the jury. Her body was severely burnt in the lower half, with her intestines protruding along with her bones. Her face was unburnt but held a ghastly expression according to those who viewed her. The post-mortem examination concluded that she died from her burns. Although it was deemed necessary to ‘display’ her body for viewing, it still seems unsettling and a concern for her bodily integrity in death – children tried to crawl over the walls near the building to catch a glimpse of her exposed corpse.

With death and funeral culture being such a huge part of Irish heritage, it is extremely telling to learn that Bridget’s funeral was boycotted by locals and the parish church despite the fact she was an innocent victim. To not partake in assisting a Christian burial in Ireland was the grimmest form of boycott, with religious ceremonies and funerary traditions such as keening and ‘wakes’ a huge aspect of Irish society. Four police constables assisted in her burial which was done at night by the light of a lantern. A very simple, crude coffin was provided by the Poor Law Union and no hearse was used. Today, the exact spot in which she is buried is not marked by a headstone with intact writing. Her exact spot is often under dispute, but she is in a particular quadrant of the old graveyard in Cloneen marked with some sort of weathered stone near the grave of her mother. Bridget is both forgotten and remembered as her case was an international media sensation, but the fact her exact burial spot is not marked is also telling. Today, the cottage the murder was committed in is still standing and a children’s rhyme is still spoken…

‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’    

The case of Bridget’s death has several themes to unpick, with witchcraft, sexual attraction, patriarchal control, post- mortem integrity, femicide, infidelity, death culture, infertility, lunacy, hysteria, religion, folklore, and superstition all featured in the reporting associated with the case in historical and modern sources. Her death has complexities and has numerous multi layered interpretations but will remain an infamous story of a young woman and her untimely death. Today, you can leave a virtual flower on her grave (link in sources) as a touching tribute to an innocent young woman.

Area in the graveyard Bridget may be located
Another area in the graveyard Bridget may be located


Bourke, A., 1995. Reading a woman’s death: colonial text and oral tradition in nineteenth-century Ireland. Feminist Studies21(3), pp.553-586.

Bourke, A., 2010. The burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story. Random House

Coleman, S., 2006. Bridget Cleary Speaks!. Irish Journal of Anthropology9(1), pp.35-36.

Hogan, M., 2021. The Murder of Bridget Cleary. Tipperary: Unpublished essay.

The Archaeology of Assassination: Grief, Gore, and Glorification.

In this blog post I will look at three examples of assassination and the material that has been left behind from them. These objects and archaeological sites are poignant reminders of the grief the loved ones of those targeted felt upon their death, as well as the intense fear of those present when these assassinations occurred. These objects are emotionally charged, with some containing the biological material of the assassinated. Often these types of archaeological artifacts are controversial regrading their display, but they seem capture the public interest in museum settings. These examples are just some of the famous archaeological materials, sites, or ‘relics’ left behind from some of the history’s most famous assassinations. 

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1864)- Objects: The Derringer pistol of John Wilkes Booth and the lead bullet from Lincoln’s autopsy.

John Wilkes Booth entered the theatre box of Lincoln and his wife on the 14th of April 1865. This was a mere 5 days after General Lee had surrendered to General Grant, bringing an end to the American Civil War. Booth shot Lincoln once in the head using a 5.87-inch tiny derringer pistol. The tiny ‘pocket pistol’ was only armed with one shot, and the lead ball fired from the gun entered below Lincolns left ear before it was retrieved during his autopsy at the White House by Dr Edward Curtis. The bullet is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, with the pistol itself on display at Ford’s Theatre. In 1940, the War department allowed the weapon to be displayed along with other relics associated with the assassination. 

Interestingly, there is a poll on Ford Theatre’s website asking whether the murder weapon should be on display, and if so, how should it be displayed? Four presidents have been assassinated in the US (all with guns), with two of the firearms used on display whilst two are not. The Buffalo history museum currently displays the pistol used to assassinate William McKinley in 1901. Are these weapons a gruesome oddity, or are they important artifacts associated with death that should be put on display? Are they glorifying the assassins who pulled the trigger, or are the glorifying the ones who were shot by these weapons? We may never know the answer to these questions, and whilst these artifacts are undoubtedly significant historical archaeological artifacts, the loved ones left behind and their grief should always be considered in the display of such trauma related objects – in the case of Lincoln, over 100 years has passed since his death, meaning immediate loved ones have died also.

The pistol used by John Wilkes Booth (Source:
The bullet that killed Lincoln (Source:

2. John F. Kennedy (1963)- Object: The blood-stained dress of Jackie Kennedy.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy at the hands of Harvey Lee Oswald is perhaps the most famous assassination of all time. Kennedy was shot in the head on the 22nd of November 1963 as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Bullets struck both his head and neck, and he slumped onto his wife who held his head as they sped to the hospital a few minutes away. Nothing could be done to save JFK, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour after the motorcade had commenced in Dallas. One of the most iconic images surrounding the assassination is Jackie in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. Jackie kept the blood-stained suit on hours after her husband’s death. She was seen wearing it as she accompanied her husband’s body to Air Force One and as she stood beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office. Jackie was sending a clear message, stating ‘I want them to see what they have done’ – the first lady wanted the world to know what had happened to her husband. The pink suit became iconic, an outward display of glamour as well as grief. So where is the suit now?

The pink suit was brought to the National Archives for safe keeping, and Caroline Kennedy agreed in 2003 that the suit could go on display once 100 years had passed. The suit is kept in a controlled environment for preservation and will be shown to the public in 2103. What a fascinating piece of archaeology this suit is and will become, with the bloody remains of one of the most famous men of all time splattered across the garment. The suit is shown in the iconic photographs of a formidable, grieving widow. The suit will serve as a reminder of the distress Jackie must have felt having been seated next to her husband and sprayed with his blood upon the impact of the bullet that killed him. Jackie suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the incident, suffering from nightmares, suicidal thoughts and drinking problems in the time that followed. That pink Chanel suit is both a physical and emotional reminder of traumatic death and dying as well as the strength of one woman, showing that even the most powerful in the world are not immune to such tragedies.  

Jackie Kennedy in her blood stained Chanel suit (Source:

3. Julius Caesar (44BC)- Place: Curia of Pompey.

Caesar was stabbed to death by Roman Senators at the Curia of Pompey (built in 55BC) – a meeting place at Pompey’s Theatre. Led by Brutus and Longinus, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the senators after tensions rose when Caesar was named dictator perpetuo. He was stabbed on the 15th of March – infamously known as ‘the Ides of March’ in 44BC. In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) claimed to have found the spot where the assassination took place. In Largo di Torre Argentina square, Rome, a 3m wide structure was found by archaeologists. Augustus (Caesars’ adopted son) is known to have built a structure matching the description of the concrete building described by researchers – allowing excavators to confirm the significance of the site. The site was a cat sanctuary before researchers began to carry out excavations of the complex – and continues to house cat colonies today. At present, the ruins can only be observed at the street level above.

In 2022, the area the Curia of Pompey is located, known as the Area Sacra, is to open to the public as an open-air museum. Restorations will begin in the area, where the ruins of other Republican era temples are located, with the aim of opening after the Covid-19 pandemic to attract tourism. Is it wrong to use the site as a tourist attraction, knowing that this is where one of the most infamous assassinations took place? Is this an element of dark tourism? These are questions that many will consider as the structure becomes accessible to the public, but there are many other archaeological sites that ‘showcase’ assassination or public execution. Such sites may include gallows or beheading sites that can be found in many historical places across the UK. What the Curia of Pompey does is highlight and humanise the death of a world leader who has become more than a mere man in the two thousand years since his murder. Perhaps the archaeology associated with his assassination will allow the public to think more about his death, and the bereavement of his family and allies that followed.

Area Sacra where the Curia of Pompey is located (Source: Lonely Planet)


The Victorians as Dark Tourists: Mortality, Morbidity, and the Macabre.

Dark tourism is an umbrella terms that usually refers to sites, archaeology, museums, and other aspects of heritage linked to the themes surrounding death, tragedy, and destruction. It is quite difficult to define what exactly counts as dark tourism, but usually it counts places such as medical museums, graveyards, disaster sites such as Chernobyl, or murder trails (Jack the Ripper comes to mind). According to Psychology Today, the reasons people visit these sites vary. A ‘dark tourist’ may feel drawn to a site/attraction as they may be feeling curious, empathetic, nostalgic, or perhaps they have an interest in horror or simply want to educate themselves. Whatever the reason, dark tourism is on the rise in recent years (I would probably describe myself as a dark tourist)- but when we think of a past population fascinated with the macabre, who do we think of? The Victorians are usually top of the list.

Whether you think the Victorians had a morbid fascination with death and the macabre, or whether you think they were simply realistic about their own mortality, it cannot be denied the Victorians DID death to an extreme by modern, western standards. Mourning and the dead played a large role in everyday life, with much influence stemming from Queen Victoria’s 40-year mourning period of her husband Prince Albert. In this blog post, I will highlight some examples that can be used to call Victorians the ultimate ‘dark tourists’. Even though death played an important role in their everyday, personal lives (with extended mourning periods the norm and showy funerary monuments sought after), it can be said the Victorians sought out the macabre as a means of entertainment as well. These are just a few examples I have highlighted- there are many more I simply cannot fit into a blogpost.

Medical Museums

One of the most famous examples of the Victorian medical museum is that of Dr Joseph Kahn’s. In the first half of the 19th C there was a growing interest in anatomy amongst the public for a couple of reasons. One was the case of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare in the 1820s, and the other was the incorporation of waxworks to display anatomical structures. Kahn opened his anatomical and pathology museum on Oxford Street in the 1850s, and consisted of specimens preserved in fluids, as well as wax models. Initially the museum was highly praised by the Lancet, but there was some distaste shown concerning the sections showing venereal disease and embryology. Ladies were admitted separately and were not allowed to view some specimens. The museum collection toured around Britain, with separate sections only allowed entry by ‘medical men’. The tour was extremely successful amongst the Victorian population but failed to turn over a lot of financial prophet. Kahn’s downfall came with his involvement in quackery, particularly surrounded his selling of venereal disease cures on site. The medical profession began an anti-quackery campaign against Kahn, and many suggested he should have been prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 (the Kahn Museum under the Jordan’s was prosecuted in 1873). Eventually the museum closed and was broken up, but there are surviving accounts from the general public on visiting the museum. Many members of the population described their visits as a harmless day out, and it is thought that many likely learned the facts of life there as well as other anatomical aspects of the body. ‘Medical dark tourism’ is a category defined in dark tourism and describes visits to medical museums with human specimens amongst other medical related sites. It is clear many Victorians fell within this category in the same manner many do today.    

Medical Museum of Dr Kahn

The Morgue

When one thinks of death as spectacle in the 19th century- the Paris Morgue stands out. The Morgue became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris by the late 19th century – around 40,000 people are thought to have visited a day at its height. Public access initially allowed members of the public to view unidentified dead to see if they were a missing family member. However, most viewers simply went to the morgue as a means to view death up close. Cold water dropped from the ceiling to stall decomposition before refrigeration, and visitors were protected from the smell of decomp by a viewing screen. They went to the morgue as a ‘dark tourist’, and often the crowds became so large that the police had to be called to keep everything in order (This often happened if it was a child on display). Guidebooks of the time mentioned the morgue as a tourist attraction, with many vendors outside selling snacks to the visiting crowds- it sounds almost like a fairground. Many described the morgue as ‘theatre’ which often became the case when police publicly brought suspected murderers to the morgue to confront the sight of their victims on display. Victorian high society in London was aware of the morgue, attracted to the idea of death as entertainment, but afraid to engage in a typically working-class activity. Dickens wrote about the Paris Morgue in his travel writings, which London society members read about. In London at the time, a morgue opened but did not allow public access like Paris- any unidentified dead were described on paper and put up outside. Although the London morgue was not a tourist site like Paris, the London Victorian population obviously revealed in death, with public execution and Madame Tussaud’s executed criminals wax works attended by large crowds.

People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers
Viewing at the Paris Morgue

Mummy Unwrapping

In times past, a trip to Egypt would not have been complete without bringing home a mummy or a piece of a mummy as a ‘souvenir’. ‘Egyptomania’ swept across high society, with archaeological human remains at the centre of the fascination. In the mid-19th century, Egyptologist Thomas Pettigrew was interested in the cranial shape of mummies and staged public mummy unwrappings (often at the Royal College of Surgeons). Many paying spectators attended these unwrappings, with audience members allowed to sometimes handle the mummy and its wrappings. Many referenced ‘mummy dust’ that would be inhaled upon the unwrapping and handling of the remains – Dickens himself also referred to ‘mummy dust’ in his writings. It is debated how many of these mummies were unwrapped at Victorian parties, but one cannot deny the mix of archaeology, anatomy and death would have been irresistible to the Victorians if these parties did indeed take place. The Duke of Hamilton was so taken with ancient mummies that he asked Pettigrew to mummify him upon his death – Pettigrew obliged, and the duke is apparently still sealed in a sarcophagus. Pettigrew went on to become a founding member of the British Archaeological Society, with mummy unwrappings eventually falling out of favour. It is suggested that Victorians did not feel ‘shocked’ after numerous unwrappings – if you had seen one, you had seen them all (They were probably onto looking at modern specimens at the medical museum as a means to entertain their morbid curiosity). Again, we see the Victorian fascination with death as entertainment, as a mean to satisfy the ‘dark tourist’ within them.     


A ‘mummy unwrapping’


Bates, A. W. (2006) ‘Dr Kahn’s Museum: Obscene Anatomy in Victorian London’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(12), pp. 618–624. doi: 10.1177/014107680609901209.

Classen, C., 2014. Touching the deep past: The lure of ancient bodies in nineteenth-century museums and culture. The Senses and Society9(3), pp.268-283.

Martens, B. (2008). Death as Spectacle: The Paris Morgue in Dickens and Browning. Dickens Studies Annual, 39, 223-248. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from

The Archaeology of Vaccination (18th- 20th Centuries): An Examination of Four Diseases

With the recent development of Covid-19 vaccines by Moderna, Oxford University and Pfizer, there seems to be little else on everyone’s mind. Vaccination against deadly diseases has a history that can been illustrated in archaeological examples left behind. Death rates from crude attempts at ‘variolation’ (the practice of grounding up smallpox scabs for inhalation or scratching onto the skin) had a death rate as high as 30% in China during the 16th century. Refining of such techniques using inoculation and vaccination has led to a revolution in global health, with some diseases such as smallpox eradicated completely.
This blog post will examine the history of vaccines in the last 300 years, associated with four deadly diseases, by examining archaeological examples in museums. There are many more vaccinations for an array of diseases, but I have narrowed it down to four for this blog post. Although proven to be safe and effective, vaccines are becoming more and more controversial in today’s society- something that can be traced back to past societies as well.

Disease: Smallpox
Symptoms: Fever, aches, vomiting, rash, sores, and pustules that eventually scab and fall off.
Objects: Civil War Era Vaccine (Mutter Museum) and Lancets of Edward Jenner 19th century (Science Museum)

When one thinks of vaccination, Edward Jenner and smallpox usually springs to mind. Inoculation was being practiced in China as far back as 1000 years ago. This inoculation was being carried out using pus or scabs from smallpox to boost immunity against the disease. It was around the 18th century this concept began to develop in Europe. Lady Wortley Montagu seen the ‘scratch method’ of inoculation in 1721 in Turkey and used this method to inoculate her own children against smallpox. She is credited with introducing this method to London high society.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) noticed a similar practice on English farms and in the surrounding communities. Milkmaids in the countryside were renowned for having a clear complexion. This was because they were often infected with cowpox, meaning they were often left immune to smallpox (thus not having any facial scarring). Locals began to inoculate themselves with cowpox to immunize against the deadlier smallpox. Jenner adapted this method in his own practice, applying pus from a milkmaid’s cowpox pustule (these were usually on the hand) to that of a young boy in 1796. You can still see the lancets Jenner used to apply the pus to the boy’s arm, he would have used the scratching technique. He later exposed the boy to smallpox, after which no disease developed. In 1798, Jenner published his findings in a book entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; a Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox’ (Vacca is the Latin word for cow).

George Washington insisted on quarantining regulations within the Continental army in the 1770’s when smallpox outbreaks occurred, eventually crudely inoculating the army in 1777. A higher percentage of British troops had already suffered from smallpox, unlike the Americans who were more susceptible to catching the disease. Unlike Jenner, Washington was inoculating the army with the live smallpox virus- a very risky procedure instead of using a milder related orthopoxvirus. Vaccination was also being carried out in the army during the American Civil war (c.1860’s), an example of a lancet vaccination kit can be seen at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Like Jenner’s kit, it consisted of lancets for scratching. DNA testing of the blades revealed a virus used for vaccination was present, there were no signs of the smallpox virus itself.

Six lancets of Edward Jenner used for vaccination
Civil War era lancet kit for vaccination

Disease: Cholera
Symptoms: Diarrhoea, vomiting, thirst, cramps.
Objects: Glass Amboules of Cholera Vaccine 1924 and 1892 (Wellcome Collection)

Cholera is most associated with the physician John Snow, who mapped the cases of cholera in Soho, London in the 1850’s – Asiatic cholera reached Britain in 1831. This allowed him to conclude that the water supply was the source of the disease, debunking claims concerning miasma theory. Prior to this there had been numerous outbreaks of cholera in Britain, with 1854 becoming the worst year of the disease to take hold. Snow realised sewerage contamination was the cause of the disease, suggesting the removal of the pump handle in the affected area.
However, it was not until 1885 that the vaccine was developed by Spanish physician Jaime Ferrán (1852-1929). The cholera vaccine was the first vaccine to protect humans against a bacterial disease. The vaccine was developed when Ferrán cultivated bacteria from an ill person and then administered injections into the arm (not the scratch technique). He went on to develop vaccines for plague, rabies, and tetanus. Louis Pasteur is also credited with developing a cholera vaccine using chickens. He used a weakened culture to inoculate the chickens, after survival they were immune to the disease. The Wellcome collection houses a 1892 example of the vaccine that had been developed from inoculating guinea-pigs.
In the Wellcome Collection, there is an example of the cholera vaccine dating to 1924. The amboules are French (from Paris), and have the name of a laboratory that developed vaccines for the army. Because of the water-borne nature of the disease, cholera, as well as typhoid, were considered serious threats to soldiers. Vaccination was a part of an initiative to keep the army healthy. This strongly echoes the times of the smallpox outbreaks amongst American soldiers in the previous centuries – however we see the move away from the previously crude ‘scratch’ technique with a lancet.

1892 cholera vaccine example
1924 French cholera vaccine

Disease: Influenza
Symptoms: Fatigue, aches, chills, cough, sore throat, fever, headache.
Object: 1919 Influenza Vaccine (Pharmaceutical Society Museum)

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020, there has been many comparisons drawn between today’s pandemic and the Spanish Flu H1N1 pandemic of 1918. The spread of the disease was exacerbated by movement of troops at the end of World War 1. Half a billion people all over the world were infected, eventually killing somewhere between 50-100 million people- the most severe pandemic in recent history. Mortality rates were high in children under 5, the elderly and those aged between 20-40 years old (the healthy being susceptible was unique in this pandemic). Prior to the vaccine, interventions such as quarantine, hand hygiene, social distancing, and disinfecting were used to control the illness.

Vaccines had been developed for other diseases at the time of the outbreak, so it was hopeful a vaccine could be developed for influenza. A few vaccines developed around this time are now thought to have been ineffective. As the disease was viral influenza, it would not have been treated by these newly developed bacterial vaccines, but many may have prevented pneumonia from developing. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that researchers realised that influenza was caused by a virus (in the 1918 case it was influenza A strain) – it was successfully isolated in 1933. It can be said then that the 1919 vaccine example from the Pharmaceutical Society Museum was likely ineffective during the outbreak. This had been developed by the Royal Army Medical College using lung scrapings from infected patients.
The influenza A vaccine was developed in the 1930’s, followed shortly by the influenza B vaccine in 1942. In 1945 the vaccine (for both A and B) was approved for military use in the US and for public use in 1946. Both Dr Thomas Francis and Dr Jonas Salk were involved in flu vaccine research and development after Ernest William Goodpasture was able to grow viruses using chicken embryos in 1931.

1919 Influenza Vaccine

Disease: Tuberculosis
Symptoms: Cough with bloody phlegm, weight loss, sweats, fever, fatigue, neck swellings.
Object: Freeze dried BCG (bacillus Calmette-Guerin) Vaccine 1980 (Science Museum Group)

The BCG vaccine is made from a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis, close in nature to M. tuberculosis which causes TB. Bacteriologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin are credited with developing the vaccine between 1908 and 1921 at the Pasteur Institute, Lille, France – the oral dose was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1928. Calmette was a pupil of Louis Pasteur and had acquired Mycobacterium bovis from the milk of an infected cow. The vaccine was adopted in France and Scandinavia initially, with widespread distribution stalled due to a contamination that killed 75 babies vaccinated within 10 days of birth- known as the 1930 Lubeck Disaster. The vaccine eventually became widespread after the Second world war and is administered via needle into the arm today.
The Science Museum houses a set of freeze-dried intradermal BCG vaccine dating to 1980-85. Made by Evans Medical Ltd, freeze drying allowing for transportation over long distances. This would have been particularly significant at the time as in the 1980’s there was a rise in TB cases in developed countries due to healthcare complacency, movement of people from countries with a lot of TB cases, and the spread of the HIV (there is evidence of co-infection). According to the World Health Organisation, TB kills 1.8 million people every year, with one third of the global population infected but asymptomatic. Despite initial reluctance in uptake, over 4 billion people have now been vaccinated against TB, making it the most widely used vaccine in the world. Unlike the UK, the US has never introduced mass use of the vaccine as it is thought there are not many cases of TB in America- vaccines can be purchased privately for around $100-200.

Freeze dried BCG Vaccine dated between 1980-1985

Arnold, C., 2008. Necropolis: London and its dead. Simon and Schuster.

The Archaeology of Witchcraft in England: An Examination of a Dark History Through Five Objects

The Historical Background of English Witchcraft

Witchcraft has a long, complicated history in England. In comparison to other countries, the hysteria surrounding witchcraft came quite late to England, but prior to the 16th century it was still considered a punishable offence. The Inquisition never had a huge amount of success in English Society as there was denial in the use of torture to obtain a confession. Evidence had to be substantial in cases of maleficia, with confessions needing a large amount of support to be accepted. Henry VIII was the first monarch to introduce a statute to deal with Witchcraft. This was passed in 1542 and only saw one suspect arrested under the Act until it was repealed by Edward VI in 1547. It was Elizabeth I who introduced more substantial legislation in 1543, which seen the beginnings of ‘witch mania’ in England with the cases of the Chelmsford and St Osyth Witch trials.
It was with the 1604 Act introduced by James I that we see a real shift in societal attitudes. This Act is thought to have been the basis for the Salem Witch Trials, and this Act saw the biggest mass execution in this era of hysteria. The 1640’s saw the exasperation of this hysteria with the rise of the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins. Although torture was outlawed as a means of obtaining a confession, Hopkins used methods such as sleep deprivation, diet restriction and enforced walking to entice an accused witch to confess. Hopkins also stated that pricking and a witch’s mark were substantial evidence of witchcraft. The infamous method of swimming was also used by Hopkins, but this was outlawed in 1645. Victims were overwhelmingly women, usually poor and resented by their communities.
The 1604 Act was finally repealed by George II in 1736, it is thought that at least 1000 people were executed for witchcraft between the years of 1542 and 1736. Although witchcraft was not illegal after this time, communities still accused individuals of practising, including a woman called Ruth Osbourne who was stoned to death by locals in 1751. There have been isolated cases of witchcraft in the last few centuries, with a revival in interest particularly in the last 50 years after Parliament removed the last references to witchcraft in the statute book in 1951.
The archaeological material remaining from the eras of suspected witchcraft and persecution are fascinating pieces of paraphernalia. Between 2018-2019, the Ashmolean Museum held the exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, which displayed numerous archaeological objects associated with the theme of magic. That exhibition is the inspiration for this blog post, which asked viewers to examine their own beliefs and rituals through the examination of the presented objects. This important aspect in English history should remember its victims by showcasing what material has been left behind. I have chosen five archaeological objects to discuss- a scratch on the surface of the wealth of material available.

  1. The Discovery of Witches book by Matthew Hopkins, 1647, British Library.
    The book written by the infamous ‘Witch-finder General’ described the details of his profession. Hundreds of women were executed during his ‘reign of terror’, and Hopkins was on a mission to destroy the ‘works of the devil’. Hopkins made a substantial sum from his persecution, moving from town to town with his entourage charging for their services. He is thought to be directly responsible for the deaths of 300 women over a two- or three-year period in England, directly taking references of his dogma from King James’ Daemonologie. The Discovery of Witches pamphlet was published in 1647, the same year that Hopkins met his end in unknown circumstances. We can see parallels with this pamphlet and the infamous witch hunting treatise Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of the Witches written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in the 15th Century
The Discovery of Witches
  1. The Reigate Witch Bottle, c. 1685-1720, South London.
    The Reigate witch bottle was found buried under a house in South London. It contained urine, nine bent pins into an L-shape, human hair (likely eyelashes), wool and grass. In this example, the stopper was still in place and the bottle itself was made of glass. The use of glass was unusual as most witch bottles from the time in England were durable, brown, and bulbous- usually German-made Bartmann vessels according to MOLA. Most of these types of vessels are found beneath the floor of a house, up a chimney or under a threshold. The purpose of the bottle was to assist against a witch you believe had bewitched you. The bottle contained a ‘prepared cure’ against the witch before being sealed and was sometimes thought to explode once the witch who had bewitched you died. These bottles are a great archaeological example of the hysteria amongst the general population concerning witchcraft. The use of witch bottles in England is thought to have been introduced from the Netherlands, and their use was still quite popular up until the late 19th century (particularly in parts of East Anglia where jam jars of urine were often thrown into fires).
Reigate Witch Bottle
  1. The ‘Witch Pits’, c.1640- 1970, Cornwall.
    Archaeologist Jacqui Wood discovered a series of pits near the Hamlet of Savelock in 2003. The find revealed several pits thought to have been used by local women over numerous generations in Cornwall dating back to a coven in the 1640s and used as recently as the 1970s. The pits contained offerings of birds (notably swans and magpies), animal bones wrapped in twine, eggs, pebbles, claws and even a part of a cauldron. The symbolism associated with the birds and the eggs indicated some sort of fertility ritual that may have been carried out to increase the chance of pregnancy or marriage. The offerings may have coincided with the feast of St Brigid of Kildare (1st February), the Irish Saint of new-born babies and has often been referred to as the first abortionist in Ireland. She also has strong links to the pagan practices associated with Springtime. The finds highlight that witchcraft was still being used by women even in times when it was highly risky, and that it was passed down through the generations, so the traditions were not lost.
One of the Witch Pits containing a swan
  1. The Deviant Burial of Meg Shelton or the ‘Fylde Hag’, 1705, Lancashire.
    In the grounds of St Anne’s Church in Woodplumpton is the grave of Meg Shelton, an accused witch that was thought to use her powers to steal from the locals. The grave consists of a boulder, and it is alleged she was buried under it in a vertical position as to stop her escaping. Accounts state she had crawled out of her grave twice before the boulder was placed on top of her. This is an unusual burial found in England, particularly since it is on consecrated ground. Many accused her of shape shifting into different animals, it was even said she walked with a limp after transforming into a rabbit. She was found crushed to death between a barrel and a wall. The case of Meg highlights the accounts of accusations involving recluse women in local communities. Archaeologically, her grave is an interesting case. The boulder is only three feet by two feet as it is thought her grave was very narrow for her to be buried headfirst, a burial of indignity as well as practicality in the eyes of the accusers.
The grave of Meg Shelton
  1. Poppet Doll found in South Devon, 1909-13, Displayed for the Spellbound Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
    A poppet doll was found in an Edwardian style black dress with a stiletto through the face in South Devon. The doll is quite late in age, dating to the early 20th century, showing witchcraft was still being practised. Poppet dolls were made to represent a person and were used to cast magic against them or to aid them in times of difficulty. The obvious aggressive act depicted in this case shows the poppet was intended to harm the individual, often penetration of the head with a nail or sharp object intended to cause the person to go mad. Poppets or ‘image magic’ were often made from clay, wax, wood or, as with this case, in the form of a rag doll. Some witches were thought to add ingredients such as fresh grave soil, cremated human bones, spiders, or any piece of biological material from the person they intended to target or protect. Pins, nails, or thorns were stuck into the doll to cause harm. Into the heart would cause instant death or the doll being buried in the ground would cause a slow, painful death. In 1960, a poppet dating to the 18th century was found in Hereford in offices. The name Mary Ann Ward was attached to the skirt of the doll.
Poppet doll from South Devon

Dell, C. (2016) The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History. Thames and Hudson: London.
Lipscomb, Suzannah (2018). Witchcraft. illus. Martyn Pick. London: Ladybird Books.
Mackay, Christopher S. (2009). The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (1 volume). Cambridge University Press.
Pickering, D. (1999) Cassell Dictionary of Witchcraft. Brockhampton Press: Great Britain.
Russell, J.B. (1999) A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. Thames and Hudson: London.

The Depiction of Embalming in Art: From Pharaohs to Presidents.

Embalming has been carried out for thousands of years by different cultures all over the world. An array of techniques concerning the practice have been described by scholars and doctors from each of these time periods, but selection of artists have depicted this practice as well. Embalming cannot be called a common subject matter in the field of art history- but nevertheless there are still examples that survive today. As part of this blog post I will discuss five works of art that depict the practice of embalming, a topic I do not believe is widely discussed through the examination of such materials. I will attempt to cover different embalming techniques as well as different time periods and locations in their examination.

Papyrus of Hunefer, Egypt- c.1275BC. and New Kingdom Tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt- c.1250BC.

Numerous depictions of funerary rites and embalming are depicted in Egyptian papyri, on sarcophagi and other objects. I have chosen the Papyrus of Hunefer from the British Museum which shows the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The embalmer is depicted wearing a mask of Anubis (the god of embalming) and the mummy is being reanimated by the priest so the deceased could speak in the afterlife. We also see an embalmer depicted during the mummification process wearing a jackal head in the New Kingdom tomb of Sennedjem. The deceased in the papyrus is depicted as already ‘mummified’ by the embalmer before the final step of the ceremony takes place and the deceased can be laid to rest. The embalming process would have been subject to expense- with the most elaborate process costing the most money. Organs were removed and placed in canopic jars, the body cleaned and sewn up and dehydrated with natron. The process took around 70 days.

Tomb of Sennedjem
Papyrus of Hunefer

Embalming of the Body of Christ triptych, Rotterdam, Unknown Master- c.1410.
This 15th century triptych shows the embalming of Christ- a very rarely depicted scene in religious art. In the image we see Mary embracing her son as she is supported by John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome in her mourning. The jars of oils, resins and spices used in the embalming process can be seen around the feet of Christ, with men (presumably the embalmers) handling equipment to assist in the preservation. The Bible mentions the embalming of Christ. His body was washed and perfumed with substances such as myrrh and aloe before his resurrection. However, there is no mention of organ removal and it is likely the body was perfumed for pomp and display. It is strange that the topic of the embalming of Christ is not depicted more often, as it links so closely with resurrection and preservation of the body.

The centre image depicts the embalming of Christ

The Embalming Jars of Friedrich Ruysch, Thesarus animalium primus, 1710.
The Dutch anatomist Ruysch is remembered for his development of anatomical specimen preservation and use of the arterial method of embalming. He acquired a very large specimen collection and created carefully arranged scenes incorporating human body parts and preserved animals. The scenes were intended to be an art display as well as a scientific preservation. Images of his artistic ‘embalming jars’ were featured in his Thesarus animalium primus in 1710. His collection of ‘curiosities’ notably contained infant and fetal remains posed among botanical landscapes.

One of the ’embalming jars’

Embalmed Body of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois, Engraving, 1865.
The American Civil War saw with it the popularisation of embalming methods so deceased soldiers could be brought home to loved ones. Lincoln was a huge advocate of the practice and had his 11-year-old son Willie embalmed upon his death in 1862. The same embalmer would go on to embalm Lincoln himself after his assassination. At the time, embalming was carried out using alcohol, mercury or arsenic via the arterial method, and makeshift embalming tents were often put up at battlefield sites. After Lincoln was embalmed his body went of a ‘tour’ for public display in different cities in America. This engraved illustration shows the embalmed body on display in Springfield, Illinois. The book the image came from was entitled ‘Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States : with a portrait of President Lincoln, and other illustrative engravings of the scene of the assassination, etc’ by D. Williamson and G. Bancroft, 1865.

The embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln on display in Springfield, Illinois

Embalming is seen in a lot of artistic mediums but is not a popular subject matter. Interestingly, funeral processions and anatomical dissections were quite popular related subject matters for artists- both have themes strongly relevant to death and the human body. However, this snapshot of art pieces has shown mediums in painting, illustration, and sculpture over numerous time periods in different parts of the world. Preservation of the human body is still preserved in the art and archaeological material that we can still examine today.

Gannal, J. (Jean-Nicolas)., Harlan, R. (1840). History of embalming: and of preparations in anatomy, pathology, and natural history; including an account of a new process for embalming. Philadelphia: J. Dobson.

The Archaeology of Brain Injury: Examples of Cases and Understanding from the Archaeological and Historical Record.

Examples of cases and understanding of brain injury are scattered all over the archaeological and historical record. Despite the fact brain injury is recorded as far back as 1600 BC, treatment for the condition is still limited and underfunded in medical settings today. My mother suffered from an acquired brain injury (ABI- brain injury occurred after birth) after brain surgeries for brain tumour debulking, and I became aware of the underfunding in rehabilitation and recovery. Brain injury can cause major behavioural, emotional, and cognitive changes that is traumatic for sufferers and their families. Although there are numerous types of brain injury that can be caused by an array of different conditions, I use the term ‘brain injury’ as an umbrella term in this post for the sake of simplicity.
I wrote this blog post as I have a background in archaeology and have recently been fundraising for the brain injury charity SameYou in my mother’s memory (you can donate or read our story here As I have intense personal experience with the condition, as my mother suffered from ABI for five years before she died, it makes sense I would want to delve into the archaeological record to examine cases. I will not be discussing treatment and tools used in brain surgery in this post as the subject is too large- I do however hope to do a separate post on the matter i.e. trepanation and craniotomy. The following cases are examples of individuals with brain injury or suspected injury and professional records – to highlight individual cases and general understanding of the condition in different eras.

Edwin Smith Papyrus, Ancient Egypt: c.1600 BC
The Edwin Smith Papyrus (names after the 19th century dealer who purchased it) is thought to be the oldest surgical treatise in existence. It allows remarkable insight into the treatment and understanding of brain injury in the ancient world. 27 cases of head injury are reported on by the surgeons of the time, with cases even discussing the brain, spinal cord, and cerebrospinal fluid. A sophisticated knowledge of the brain’s anatomy is presented, with surgeons recognising symptoms despite the limitations in diagnosis at the time. One particularly interesting case is thought to be the first mention and diagnosis of aphasia from a temporal bone fracture. Aphasia is the impairment of language, more specifically in speech and reading/ writing ability. This documentation predated the work of the 19th century French physician on the subject by thousands of years.

Page from the Edwin Smith Papyrus

Greek works from Hippocrates and Galen, Ancient Greece: c.400BC to 200AD
Emerging intellectual insight into neurosurgery is perhaps most accredited to the ancient Greeks. Head injuries were plentiful, with War being an everyday part of Greek life. Hippocrates mentions brain injuries from battlefield interactions and understood the location of the injury was important, with certain areas posing larger threats than others. Galen seemed to be more optimistic when suggesting treatment and recovery for brain injury sufferers and commented on seeing a severely wounded brain heal. This could be a remarkable early reference to neuroplasticity, the brains ability to reorganise itself and compensate for injury or disease.


3 adult Males, Denmark: 12th-17th century
A study done on three male skeletal samples from the medieval to early modern period examined the mortality rates of individuals effected by cranial vault injury. Many of the examples of cranial vault fractures of the time were due to interpersonal violence, and the study was a simulation to observe risk of dying with conditions associated to brain injury/ trauma. Healed cranial fractures in the samples were three times the rate found in modern Danish population, with the rate in males being four times higher than that of females (Suggesting interpersonal violence as a cause according to researchers). The healed fractures were associated with an increased risk of death, suggesting that many men suffered the effects of brain jury in past populations. It was the long-term health consequences of the injuries that caused them to die, not from the immediate blow itself- although there are still many examples of larger blows consistent with peri-mortem contact. Men with brain jury or healed head fractures were 6% more likely to die than men without- this may have been due to changed behaviour, decreased mobility etc. The study of these brain injuries and fractures was part of an epidemiological study on mortality rates, helping understand care and death in the past.

Healed head wound from Danish population

Phineas Gage, Vermont: 1848
Phineas Gage survived a horrific accident in Vermont in 1848. A 43-inch-long iron rod penetrated his left check, went straight through the brain, and exited his skull. The rod had been used to pack explosives before the powder detonated, sending the rod straight through Gage’s skull before landing 80 feet away. Miraculously, Gage walked to a cart to be brought to a doctor and was able to speak. Dr John Martyn Harlow took over the case before Gage developed an infection, from which he recovered. It was noted that Gage knew how long had passed since the accident but had difficulty counting money and estimating sizes. One year after the accident, Harlow saw Gage again. His vision was lost in one eye and he was scarred but otherwise seemed in good health. It was the changes in his behaviour and personality that Harlow noted, with friend of the patient referring to him as ‘no longer Gage’. His case was one of the first sources of evidence that suggested that the frontal lobe was associated with personality. Gage influenced theories suggesting certain areas of the brain had different functions. He died 12 years after the accident after suffering from a series of epileptic seizures.

Exhumed skull of Gage

The above examples are a snapshot into the development of understanding of brain injury from the ancient world to the 19th century. These are just a small few of the cases that have been studied and there are many more from many different time periods that are too great in number to mention. The remarkability of ancient understanding was a foundation for understanding this complex condition- studies are still ongoing and plentiful today in the medical research world.

Sources Consulted
Allen, James P. (2005). The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt. New York/New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press.