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.

Ancient Egyptian Embalming in Gaming: Assassins Creed Origins

Assassin’s Creed is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, with Origins being the tenth instalment in the series. It is a stealth video game, with this version set in the Ptolemaic period (49-47BC) in Egypt and recounting a fictional history of the rise of the disposed Cleopatra VII. As an archaeologist it was no surprise the Ancient Egyptian setting was intriguing to me, but as someone who works with an embalmer and has an interest in the practice in historical settings, the depiction of ancient embalming practices was particularly engrossing.
Players have certain ‘quests’ they must complete to level up in the game, the player takes on the role of a Medjay named Bayek and his wife, Aya. The Medjay were semi-nomadic people who are mentioned as warriors and herders in Ancient Egypt who served with the military, but their name became synonymous with policing in the Egyptian New Kingdom that it was used for any ethic background in forces of authority. Many of the quests and dialogue in the game involve interactions with the embalmers as well retrieval of bodies of loved ones.

Birth Right and The Man Beast:
In the quest ‘Birth Right’, an interaction has Bayek speak with the embalmer about three bodies that are laid out in natron salts. Natron was a naturally occurring salt in the Nile Delta. Sacks of the salts are seen as well as rolls of bandages against the walls. As the two men interact, we can see the small embalming quarters that is used for members of the public not able to pay for an elaborate burial in a village. Methods of embalming were subject to cost and it is seen that no organ removal is occurring- indicating families are opting for the cheaper options of the burial rite. A body is bound tightly in bandages on the table and an assortment of jars are placed on the table next to it. The jars on the table likely contain resins and perfumed oils used in the mummification process, the set up looks almost identical to the embalming cache found in the tomb of Tutankhamun- even though his death occurred c.1300 years prior to when this game is set. As seen in the game, the cache contained linen for bandaging and sacks of natron for dehydration. Embalming was still an important aspect in Egypt over millennia and became an important aspect of burial for all classes.

In Krokodilopolis, as part of the quest ‘The Man Beast’, rotting body parts have washed inshore from far upstream after numerous people have gone missing. Bayek tracks down the source to a cave filled with half eaten corpses and learns an embalmer is stealing them and feeding them to the crocodiles in front of spectators as part of a show. Considering the importance placed upon the rites associated with death in Egypt, this would have been considered a serious crime and unlikely have been carried out by an embalmer. Interestingly here is the mention of the god Sobek, the fertility god associated with the crocodile- there has even been examples of embalmed crocodiles in Egypt dated to c. 2000 years ago.

The Ibu or Ibw area of the Wabet

Odour Most Foul:
It is in the quest ‘Odour Most Foul’ that we see the most game play associated with embalming. Priests pray to Osiris who does not rot and ‘know corruption’. According to Ancient Egyptian beliefs Osiris was the first to be embalmed by the jackal headed god called Anubis, resulting in Osiris’ resurrection- Anubis was the god of embalmers and are often depicted wearing a jackal headdress (also seen in advertisements for the game). In Origins, Memphis is becoming overpowered by a stench and the player must enter an underground tomb to investigate after speaking to the priests. The underground tomb is filled with bandaged, mummified bodies and canopic jars. Some of the mummies are rotting beneath the wrappings, indicating fault lies with the embalmer as the wrappings are sound. The player must go to the wabet (‘pure place’) and investigate the mummification process, which differs a great deal in size from the small embalmers found in the village in the ‘Birth Right’ quest. The use of the word ‘wabet’ in the game is accurate as this was the place where purification/ mummification took place in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. The wabet often had an open court like appearance as seen on this mission. The embalmers are heard praying to the god Anubis and numerous bodies in various stages of preparation are shown in the temple. The gate to the ibu (or ibw) is shown, where the families of the dead bring their bodies. The embalmers wash down the bodies of the dead here, also an accurate use of the term at this stage in the purification process- ibw also mean ‘place of purification’ in this period.

An embalmer with the head of Anubis

The next scene shows an embalmer removing the organs of the dead, an important process in the highest class of burial, and four canopic jars are seen in front of the body- used to hold the main organs of the body. Incredibly, the four jars are the correct anthropomorphic figures, the liver was protected by human-headed Imsety, the lungs by ape-headed Hapy, the stomach by the jackal-headed Duamutef and the intestines by the falcon-headed Qebehseneuf. After the burial, these vassals were placed in the tomb along with mummified deceased body- as seen as the player first investigates the smell coming from the underground chambers.
The next step using natron as a dehydrator is shown, with the embalmer commenting of how it burns his hand. After 70 days the bodies would have been removed and returned to the families for burial- accurately, we see the human shaped, wooden cases the family would have used to transport their loved one to their place of rest. Bayek discovers that the stench from the bodies is due to Natron tainted with sand.

Organ removal with canopic jars at the foot of the bed

Despite embalming being a complicated process in Ancient Egypt, highly dependent on time period and location, Assassins Creed Origins does quite a good job of portraying mummification and the job of embalmers. The important steps in the process are outlined and it is clear that the developers have consulted professionals when depicting the scenes. This was a particularly chaotic period, with the Ptolemaic period coming to an end and the deposition of Cleopatra VII, and beliefs in mummification practices were developed and altered over time. Origins does a very good job at giving the player a picture of life an as ancient embalmer.

Sources consulted
Kipfer B.A. (2000) Ww. In: Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. Springer, Boston, MA

The Archaeology of Public Execution in 19th Century Britain: a narrative told through the examination of three accused.

Prior to the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, executions of criminals were public affairs. After the introduction of this act, executions were carried out within the walls of the prison, away from the prying eyes of the general public. In the Victorian era, hanging could attract thousands of spectators- with the events usually advertised prior and reported on in local broadsheets. Prior to 1861 around 222 crimes were considered capital offences until this was rectified by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act. The act meant four crimes were considered a hanging offence, these included murder, arson in a royal dockyard, violent piracy and treason.
The introduction of the ‘long drop’ during this period allowed for a more successful attempt at an instantaneous death. Prior to this strangulation was the only means by which death occurred when hanged. With this new ‘improved method’, the hanged would likely die from dislocated vertebrae or a rupture of the jugular vein. It is likely the accused I discuss below were not on the receiving end of this method, as it was only being introduced into England by William Marwood in the 1870’s after the concept had been developed in Ireland after the autopsy of a hanging at Galway Gaol in 1853.
The examples of the executions I have chosen for this blog post dated prior to 1868 (except for one part of the discussion), before the introduction of the act. From 1874 more measures to ensure quicker methods of hanging were introduced and the accused were treated more humanely. It is through the victims of execution that we get insights into societal attitudes to execution as spectacle, i.e. how they were treated and what remains of them in the archaeological and historical record.

William Burke: Executed in 1829, Edinburgh.
Perhaps the most infamous murderers of the 19th century, Burke and Hare are thought to have killed upwards of 16 people for the price of seven to ten pounds per body. The victims were killed for dissection and paid for by for the well-known anatomy professor, Robert Knox. The duo is most associated with the term ‘body snatchers’ and had a part to play in the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy Act that allowed legal cadaver donation to medical science to stop the illicit cadaver trade. Burke was hanged in front of a crowd of 25,000 and his body was put on public display before being donated to medical science. The famous Professor Alexander Monro tertius carried out the public dissection of Burke’s corpse. This shows that, even after the execution had been carried out, the bodies of criminals were still used as public entertainment. Hare escaped across the border into England after testifying against Burke, and his whereabouts became unknown shortly after that. Anatomy students are thought to have taken Burke’s skin to use as book binding and as other ‘souvenirs’. His death mask and skeleton are still on display in the Surgeons Hall museum Edinburgh and at University of Edinburgh, as well as a pocketbook made from his skin. The keeping of such ‘curiosities’ emphasises the fascination society had, and still has, on criminals of violent crimes. I myself have visited Surgeons Hall museum to view these types of specimens.

Death Mask of Burke
Skeleton of Burke
Skin Pocketbook

Maria Manning: Executed with her husband, Fredrick, in 1849, London.
Maria was born in Switzerland in 1821 and moved to London to work as a maid to Lady Blantyre. Blantyre was a wealthy woman, and the daughter of the Duchess of Sunderland. After having been proposed to by two men- Fredrick Manning and Patrick O Connor- Maria chose to marry Fredrick, a decision she came to regret as O Connor had been the wealthier of the two men. She lured O Connor to her home for dinner, under the pretence she would provide sexual favours, and shot him in the back of the head. The shot did not kill him, with Fredrick finished him off with a crowbar. The murder was motivated by money and jealously, with O Connors body being discovered under the couple’s flagstones by police. Up to 50,000 people are thought to have attended the hangings, with Charles Dickens attending the execution himself. Maria was considered ‘the star of the show’, with her black satin dress she was executed in sold for profit and her death mask was included in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. The Wellcome Trust has the copy of the lithograph entitled ‘The death mask of Maria Manning, the murdered: three views’ by John Lane, created in attempt to assist Tussaud with the likeness. The sexual motivations for the murder and the dominance of the female in the marriage both intrigued and disgusted Victorians. Maria was sensationalised as glamorous, and with the executions of women being particularly rare it’s no wonder her execution caused such an interest. The couple were apparently the first couple to be hanged together since 1700. The broadsheet printed on the execution is held by the British Library, these sheets were cheaply produced and sold on the streets to the masses. It is thought the Manning broadsheet printed around 2.5 million copies.

Death Mask of Manning
The Manning Broadsheet
Lithograph by John Lane

Sarah Lloyd: Executed in 1800, Bury St Edmonds.
Sarah Lloyd was no more than 22 years of age when she was executed. Her story is tragic and emphasises the importance put upon obedience in female servants at the time. An illiterate servant, Sarah was enlisted by a man called Joseph Clarke to steal from her mistress, after which he attempted to set the house on fire. Clarke never admitted to any crime, and the judge decided Sarah would be made an example of. He sentenced her to death despite numerous outcries. The local Rev Drummond petitioned for Sarah as he recognised her as a ‘helpless instrument’ who had fallen under Clarke’s spell. Clarke did not receive any punishment for his crimes. Sarah was executed in front of a weeping crowd on the 23rd April 1800, she highlighted the type of person that was the most likely to be executed – a person of lower class and with little education (Sarah wasn’t even sure of her own age, she may have been only 19 years old when executed). Her gravestone states ‘May my example be a warning to thousands’- her reported last words as she stood on the gallows. Archaeologically, this seems to be all that remains of her execution, perhaps echoing how unimportant she was deemed in society. The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis, who was executed in 1955. Like Lloyd, there was a large public outcry when Ellis was sentenced. She was a mother of two who had shot an abusive partner, David Blakely, thought to have induced a miscarriage shortly before the murder. Ellis had been to hospital multiple times for treatment of injuries inflicted by Blakely. Another woman by the name of Sarah Lloyd had murdered her elderly neighbour in 1955 by hitting her with a shovel and pouring boiling water on her- she had been sentenced to death but did not hang, even though no one petitioned for her. Ellis was not given the same treatment. As with the 1800 case of Sarah Lloyd, Ruth Ellis was not given any leniency because of her background – she was thought to provide sexual favours for men and liked to drink. Both hangings caused public outrage (though Ellis committed premeditated murder), even though they were over 150 years apart. Although Ellis does not fit with the 19th century timeline (her execution was carried out privately), her execution is a good example of how the public narrative was similar in much earlier cases towards certain accused.

Grave Stone of Lloyd
Ruth Ellis and David Blakely
Newspaper Article on Ellis

Public execution: entertainment for the masses, or a warning to others?
Archaeological material associated with victims of public execution in 19th century Britain can be interpreted in several ways. The material, whether that was the body itself or newspaper clippings etc., show that the public reaction towards the gruesome spectacle was very much based on the crime committed and the person who committed them. Hangings weren’t all we assume they were- a crowd of the poor population shouting obscenities at the accused. As with the case of Sarah Lloyd, the public did not want her hanged, and often the educated, more wealthier classes would also attend the hangings. The input of mathematicians and medical doctors in developing the more humane long drop method in the second half of the 19th century also comments on the changing attitudes towards the accused. The suffered during and prior to the execution became a concern where it hadn’t before – perhaps due to outcries from the general public and medical community alike? The keeping of ‘mementos’ from the hanged (particularly in the case of Burke) also highlights the celebrity status that could accompany the criminals. The fascination we still have with these artefacts can only comment on our own fascination with these executions- but the important question to ask is do we view them as victims or simply as criminals?

Moore, J., (2018) Murder by Numbers: Fascinating Figures Behind the Worlds Worst Crimes. The History Press: UK.
Ballinger, A., (2019) Dead Woman Walking: Executed Women in England and Wales, 1900-55. Routledge.

The Archaeology of Victorian Grief: Looking at how the 19th Century mourned their dead and how it has shaped today’s practices.

Grief is a personal experience, but it can be largely influenced by societal norms, cultural background and it is very much a product of the era in which the death occurred. Grieving practices in one society can seem completely alien to another- I myself have experienced this in the UK when I discuss rural, Irish, Catholic death and grieving practices with friends and colleagues. It seems incomprehensible to many I spoke with that we would have our deceased loved one in our family home as part of the mourning associated with an Irish wake, just as it seems alien to me that their loved one would stay in the funeral home, often for weeks, before the funeral.
Even before I started training with an embalmer, I was always comfortable in seeing a dead body as the first time I saw one was when I was eight years old. It was my grandfather, and he was ‘waked’ traditionally at home. Since then, I have seen the deceased body of numerous loved ones- including both of my parents who died young, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Although the sadness at each of their wakes was profound, it should be said that these wakes assisted in the grieving process. With sadness, there also came laughing about good times, reminiscing and family bonding. Wakes weren’t all a bad experience, and I can totally understand why someone who isn’t used to such grieving practices would find that confusing. This is something we should bear in mind as I discuss Victorian grieving. What may seem odd and confusing by today’s standards, was probably a source of comfort for those who mourned in that era. To discuss Victorian death and grieving practices I have selected four archaeological items I feel best illustrate a narrative of the 19th century for the reader. It has been suggested that the almost obsessive nature of grieving in this period was partly fuelled by Queen Victoria and her mourning for her husband Prince Albert. Victorians became obsessed with the etiquette associated with mourning and would spend a great deal of money on giving their loved one a ‘good death’. Death was frequent in society, and there was always an open conversation about arrangements and practices (by today’s standards we would probably call this a ‘morbid fascination’)- some women even included their own shrouds to wear when they passed away in their wedding dowry. The intricacies of Victorian grief and mourning could be discussed for hours on end with hundreds of objects at our disposal, but below are the objects I have chosen for this blog post for a snapshot into Victorian grief.

  1. Death Photography, often referred to as ‘Memento Mori’
    Artefact: 19th Century image of a little girl with her deceased sister.

With the emergence of photography as an everyday practice in the 19th century, it is no wonder the emerging Victorian middle class adapted the practice in their grieving. Photography was a quicker and cheaper option than portrait painting, thanks to the introduction of daguerreotype images in the 1830s. The examples of the images of this type from the time are all posed and well-staged. Some of the images show the living loved ones slightly blurred from movement during exposure, whilst their deceased love one is shown with a crisper image. Children were particularly used as subjects, as the mortality rate was so high, with families often wanting to capture all their family before burial. Children often posed with their dead siblings, as we can see from the example seen below of two young sisters. This would seem an awful thing to ask of a child to do today, to pose with their dead sibling- but children of the time were well acquainted with death and grew up with it. BBC news wrote an article on the topic of Victorian death photography- calling it upsetting, but how are/ were these images upsetting? Are they upsetting us as we view death today? These images certainly didn’t upset the people who took them, on the contrary- they helped them mourn healthily by their own standards.

A little girl with her deceased sister
  1. Mourning Jewellery, also referred to as ‘Memento Mori’
    Artefact: Mourning onyx earrings with blond hair, c. 1860-70.

Mourning jewellery was particularly popular amongst Victorian women, with hair often used in ornaments such as lockets. However, within the first year of ‘deep mourning’, no ornaments were to be worn except for dark stones such as jet or onyx. Photographs as well as the hair of a loved one was often worn around the neck, something which many people still do today (myself included, I have a gold locket with an image of my mother and a small piece of her hair). These ornaments became a strong part of Victorian grieving traditions, and many examples can still be found in museums and antique stores. They are often collected by private collectors today, continuing the trend of ‘morbid fascination’. There are even examples of mourning jewellery made from glass eyes and teeth. Many also were inscribed with Latin inscriptions and images of skeletons.

Onyx mourning jewellery
  1. Death Masks
    Artefact: 19th Century death masks from University College London.

Death masks were plaster casts made of the deceased face upon their death. Many casts were made of loved ones for families to keep after their burial- however, many were taken of criminals and the executed, used for studies such as that of emerging phrenology at the time. Death masks were often displayed in the home, with Queen Victoria having had a bust made of Prince Albert that was displayed in many of the family photographs after his death. Instead of a photograph, death masks were more of a 3D remembrance of a loved one – the mask was usually cast very soon after death so that post-mortem bloating did not compromise accuracy. The cast was usually filled with wax or metal to create the finished likeness. A grease of some sort was applied to the face before plaster bandages were used to prevent facial hair from sticking to the mixture. The examples shown below are from University College London, whilst some of them are criminals some of them are loved ones requested to be set in plaster by their family – we even see an example of a child. The child is thought to be a young musical genius and was chosen for phrenology as to try and map his traits and personality.

UCL death masks
  1. Black Clothing
    Artefact: Photograph of the five daughters of Prince Albert in mourning dress, 1861.

Today the practice of wearing black for funerals is still widespread in western grieving traditions- usually just at the funeral of a loved one. However, in the Victorian era, this was practiced in the first year after death but often extended to two- two and a half years after death. In the case of Queen Victoria, she wore black clothing in the forty years after her husband’s death until her own death in 1901- explaining why the tradition became stricter in the second half of the 19th century. Most photographs we see of the queen in the historical record show her dressed heavily in black and dark colours such as purple or grey. Women, especially widows, were expected to wear the heavy black dress and veil, also referred to as widow’s weeds. Those who couldn’t afford new mourning clothing usually dyed old garments black, with even jewellery and buttons strictly meant to be black as well. Usually the amount of black worn was lessened as time went on (the amount of time depended on the relationship with the deceased). However, in a time where death was so commonplace it was often that women spent years in black attire, as one mourning period ran into the next. The only exception to wearing black attire was when the death of a young girl occurred. Many people would wear white in the form of silk ribbons, hat bands or hoods to represent the purity of the deceased girl.
This was the only exception however, with black the most commonplace colour. Most mourning images of the time show ladies in black dress, many often have their faces concealed with a long black veil called a ‘weeping veil’. These veils were usually made of a silk fabric called crape, and often the dye could cause skin irritations and other health problems.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s five daughters in mourning clothing

Have Victorian customs shaped our grieving today?
It is fair to say that the Victorians were comfortable with the prospect of their own death or the death of a loved one. Their regimented grieving practices show a society comfortable with losing loved ones, with daily lives focused around death and its inevitability. As emphasised in the archaeological material, Victorian society were strict in their grieving and were not afraid to show aspects of their bereavement. One can question how ‘healthy’ an approach this is, but it should be said that this illustrates a variety in the way society grieved that was deemed appropriate. Echoes of the era survive today in the way we say goodbye to loved ones. Black is still worn in Western Christian funerals, open coffins are common, as is types of mourning jewellery. What we deemed strange in past and a ‘morbid curiosity’ has in fact diluted down to our present- and remains the bones of how we grieve in society today.


The Archaeology of Epidemics: Disease, Death and Dying.

Amid the current Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to talk about death and disease in a manner that is sensitive yet pragmatic. A way to understand the development of public health is to look to the past through archaeological material. However, dismissing the current pandemic as being ‘not as bad as the past’, can be a problematic approach. Yes, the 14th century Black Death killed 200 million people, but that doesn’t lessen the severity of our current health climate. On the other hand, we cannot directly compare the two, as to do so only creates an atmosphere of mass panic and hysteria. Comparing Covid-19 to a pandemic in a time of poor sanitation with little known effective medicines is dangerous and irresponsible. Both approaches have their dangers- so what should we do?

We should approach historical and archaeological material with both approaches in mind as to make sensible observations. For example, the British Society for the History of Medicine (BSHM) recently posted an article entitled ‘Can history help us in the Covid-19 epidemic?’ asking whether global health management of today can learn anything by examining the handling of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Whilst comparisons are made between both pandemics (i.e. lack of vaccine, slow implementation of social distancing), it is clear that the research of mortality rates of Spanish Flu were done to encourage quick intervention, not as a way to create panic amongst the general public. Epidemiologists are approached more and more on contributing to global health management, a responsibility with a lot of strings attached.

This post will look at four examples of archaeological material from four different pandemics/ epidemics (most were originally epidemics that became pandemics) with the hope of encouraging discussion on disease mortality without directly comparing them with Covid-19. Discussion of current public health concerns through observing archaeological material is important but should be done with an objective mind in assessing how relevant they are today.

  1. Bubonic Plague- ‘The Black Death’ (1346-53)
    Death toll: 50 million worldwide
    Mass burial ‘Plague Pit’, East Smithfield, London (1348).
    Everyone has heard of the ‘Black Death’, the catastrophic tragedy that killed 60% of Europe’s population. The bubonic plague outbreak was linked to the bacterium Yersinia pestis (though recently this has been challenged) that spread through wild rodents. With rat infestation such a problem in the past its no wonder the disease spread with such ferocity. Once fleas killed off the rat colonies they would turn to humans as new hosts. Bubo sites would often form in groin, thigh, armpit or neck (Lymph node sites) and the bacteria could spread through the blood stream to the lungs causing cases of pneumonic plague. This was only in a small number of plague cases, but the bubonic infection would kill 80% of victims. Often symptoms would only develop 5 days after infection, and another 3-5 days after the victim would die.
    In 1986 archaeologists discovered a large cemetery near the Tower of London in East Smithfield. The burial ground was confirmed to be an emergency cemetery to cope with the rising death toll, and over 24,000 people are thought to be buried at the site. Plague pits were all over Europe to dispose of victims of bubonic plague. These mass, anonymous graves can be viewed as pragmatic response to death- but what were the effects on the bereaved? Although the outbreak occurred at a time when mortality rate was high anyway, one cannot help but ponder how the population felt about their loved one buried or ‘stacked’ without the pomp associated with religious rites. The use of mass graves has been linked to infectious disease as a way to stop the spread of an epidemic- in this case however it was likely to confine the ‘smell’ which was more associated with sickness then the disease itself (i.e. Miasma Theory). Some probably went into the pits without identification, another worry for families in a time of desperation.
The East Smithfield plague cemetery
  1. Bubonic Plague (last wave in Britain)- ‘The Great Plague’ of London (1665-1666)
    Death Toll: 100,000 in London
    17th Century plague doctor mask
    The plague outbreak of 1665, was the worst outbreak of the disease since it’s 14th century outbreak. It was the summer months that caused the outbreak to swell, with many of the wealthier classes fleeing the city. Much of the poor had to stay in London to prevent the spread of infection to other parts of England – all trade was halted from the city and Scotland even closed its border with England. Infected houses were watched over and the dead were searched for at night and buried in plague pits in the same manner as the 14th century outbreak. This era of the epidemic resulted in the further rise of plague doctors. Perhaps the most iconic image of this era is the plague doctor mask. This beak-like mask was used to protect the wearer against bad smells and prevent contagion, with a wooden cane used to probe victims to stop themselves touching the infected buboes. The nose of the masks was filled with substances such as cloves, rose petals and other pleasant-smelling herbs. Charles de L’Orne is credited with creating the iconic costume in 1619, it was usually made from goat leather. Although we still see the association with disease and miasma theory, it is clear the population were becoming more conscious of the isolation of the infected. Plague doctors also carried out autopsies on the dead and listed deaths on the public register. Treatment often included blood letting and the use of leeches.
16th century German example of the ‘plague mask’
  1. Broad Street Cholera Outbreak, London (1854)
    Death Toll: 500 in 10 days on Broad Street, London
    The Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) Pump
    There were numerous outbreaks of cholera in London in the 19th century. The worst outbreak killed almost 15,000 people in 1849. Whilst cholera was a worldwide pandemic, the Broad Street outbreak is significant as we look at the investigatory work of Dr John Snow. Cholera effects the intestines and can cause death at quite a rapid pace, the first symptoms are vomiting and diarrhoea. According to the World Health Organisation, cholera still kills 100,000 people annually.
    Miasma theory (Illness from bad air/smells) was still a prevalent theory surrounding disease outbreaks, until Snow was able to prove that this epidemic was a result of contaminated water. Snow studied the patterns of death and plotted their locations on a map, allowing him to conclude that water was the source of the outbreak. The Broad Street pump was very close to a cesspool and Snow removed the handle from the pump himself after community officials ignored his pleas to intervene. Although the original pump is no longer at the site, a replica one was placed there in the summer of 2018.
Replica of the Broad Street pump- based on original archaeological example
  1. Influenza Pandemic (‘Spanish Flu’), H1N1 (1918)
    Death Toll: 50 million worldwide
    Spanish flu face masks
    Perhaps one of the deadliest pandemics of recent history, Spanish flu spread between 1918 and 1920. It is estimated that half a billion people were infected with the virus – this was about one third of the world’s population at the time. The mix of urbanisation without any known vaccine or antibiotics to prevent secondary infection, meant the virus was particularly lethal. There was quite a high mortality rate amongst the younger population, with those between the ages of 20 and 40 considered one of the most vulnerable groups, as well as those under the age of 5 and over the age of 65.
    Health initiatives of the time became strict and limiting, with quarantining and social isolation becoming the norm. Images of the time are striking in their similarities to modern populations, as face masks become more of a fashion statement than sanitary necessity. Face masks worn by women of the time could stretch down like a veil – echoing the ‘trendy’ masks we see now. Hand washing and personal hygiene also became the prime advice given by health professionals. Perhaps it is the similarities in societal anxieties and healthcare advice that allows us to make links with outbreaks of the past, not similarities in the nature of the disease itself.
Veiled Spanish Flu masks

Antoine D. (2008). The archaeology of “plague”. Medical history. Supplement, (27), 101–114.

Embalming Fluid in Archaeology: What Did We Use to Preserve our Dead? The Discussion of Four Bodies

Embalming fluid is found throughout archaeological contexts and in historical accounts, even Jesus Christ himself was ‘embalmed’ according to the Bible. His body was washed and perfumed with organic compounds, possibly myrrh and aloe, and placed in his tomb before his resurrection. Despite this process of intended preservation, it is more likely the body was perfumed for pomp as there is no mention of body cavity preservation or organ removal. Although we do not have any archaeological evidence in the case of Christ, the mentioning of his embalming is significant as it is not mentioned for all biblical figures. The preservation of his body coincides with his resurrection, a possible link to the rise of embalming in numerous historical societies that embraced religious culture. What adds more to the significance of the embalming ingredients of Christ is the fact myrrh, a resin, was brought by Balthazar to the stable in the Nativity story. To understand the complexity of intended body preservation ingredients in archaeology, I have selected four bodies to discuss the development of embalming fluid recipes.

  1. ‘Balm’ Origins – The Turin S.293 Mummy, Egypt, c. 3700BC.

Gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis indicated evidence of a ‘balm’ recipe which impregnated the textile wrappings found around the body of the Turin Mummy. The recipe was found to consist of a base of plant oil (the bulk of the balm), with conifer resin, an aromatic balsam and plant sugar. There was also evidence that suggested the mixture of resin had been slightly heated in the process. Despite the early date of the mummy, embalming fluid mixtures were already being established, with similar antibacterial agents (i.e. Resin) seen with Egyptian embalmers at the peak of the dynasty thousands of years later. Interestingly, this find suggested embalming was used over a thousand years earlier than we first thought. Like later mummies, the Turin mummy was dried out in salts with the organs removed before the balm was smothered over the remains. The removal of the organs and the antibacterial nature of the natural resin/ extracts halted microbial growth and thus allow for excellent preservation. The oils and resins applied to the body ‘sealed’ it from moisture in the air, however some fungi have been inhaled upon disturbance of mummified remains (i.e. pathogens and king Tutankhamun’s curse have been linked).

  1. Apothecaries’ Powders – King Henry VIII, England, 1547.

After the death of the famous Tudor monarch, the body was embalmed using the Tudor era recipe. The apothecary, Thomas Alsop, supplied the materials needed for his embalming process. This included cloves, various balms, oils, tox, myrrh, nigella and musk which likely cost the equivalent of more than £6,000 today. It is clear the Egyptian recipe still had influence thousands of years later, with the use of oils, scented balsams and powders used for dehydration of the corpse and protection against moist air. As with the use of bandages in mummification, Tudor corpses were wrapped in waxed cloth to further protect the soft tissue. Organs were removed often, and the body cavity was often flushed with the embalming fluid, much like the use of a trocar today. The use of a fatty oils along with resins and pleasant-smelling herbs/ spices made up most embalming fluid in different eras up to this point. The ancient recipe proved to be a worthy formula for future embalmers, with only some modifications made to account for the geographical location of natural derived ingredients and some modern updates. Sir Henry Halford recorded the exhumation of Charles I in 1813 and remarked upon the remarkable fresh appearance of his body (he died in 1648) and that was wrapped in cloth with a resin material within a lead coffin. Although the coffin of Henry the VIII stood in the same vault, the identity of his corpse was not in dispute like that of Charles’s, so it remained unopened by Halford. Halford does however remark upon the condition of the coffin which had been damaged and exposed his intact beard, but his torso showed skeletal remains, likely skeletonised from the disturbance of the lead coffin.
Descriptions of the 16th Century embalming method are mentioned by writers such as Forestus (1522-1597) and Paré (1510-1590). Both mention similar ingredients to Alsop’s materials for an aromatic powder to be inserted into body incisions (much like modern injecting) and a washing solution comprising of aqua vita and vinegar. It was around the 16th Century that anatomists such as Da Vinci (and even earlier in the case of Alessandro Giliani) started experimenting with injecting the fluid into the body. Often the fluid consisted of a wax like substance that would dry and reveal inner systems to those who studied anatomy.

  1. Arsenic and Arteries – President Abraham Lincoln, Washington D.C., 1865.

With the rise of the body count during the American Civil War came the rise of the embalming method amongst grieving families. Lincoln had his son Willie embalmed when he died in childhood from fever (the same embalmer embalmed Lincoln himself), even having him exhumed twice to see him again. Lincoln was an avid supporter of the practice and was embalmed so he could lie in state over numerous locations over a few weeks (strangely, his embalmed son was exhumed and moved with him on the ‘funeral train’ journey to be buried alongside his father). It is reported in historical documentation that Lincolns embalming process ‘held up’ on the first few stops of his final journey, with his features becoming more ‘shrunken and dark’ when they reached New York. It was the Presidents famous embalming that led the way for the practice to become the norm in modern American society. The method of arterial embalming replaced the ancient method. It was developed by the chemist Jean Gannal in the 1830’s, who initially worked an apothecary’s assistant where he no doubt became well versed in understanding various embalming fluid ingredients. The fluid used in this era was highly toxic. Arsenic and mercury were used (Cuvier is reported to have used pure alcohol), and many embalmers are thought to have died from poisoning. The toxicity of embalming fluid becomes more apparent around this time before the introduction of the ‘safer’ formaldehyde-based mixture which becomes commonplace in the 20th century.

  1. Formalin as fixative – Rosalia Lombardo, Palermo, 1920.

Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1919-1892) were the ones to discover formaldehyde (gas). Even though embalming fell out of favour for a few years following the Civil War, it is around 1896 when formaldehyde is introduced as a method of embalming. Colour preserving formulas were introduced in the 1920’s. Body preservation became concerned with restoring the natural colouring of the skin to allow for a more life like appearance. One unusual example in archaeology is the case of Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia died in Italy in 1920 from pneumonia at the age of 2. Her father sought the help of a local embalmer/ taxidermist called Alfredo Salafia to carry out her preservation. What is interesting to note is that Salafia was a successor of Trachina (1797-1837), a famous anatomist who used arsenic for arterial embalming. For this reason, it was thought for a long time that Rosalia had been embalmed using arsenic. She is now on display in the Capuchin Catacombs in remarkable condition. The recipe for the fluid used has since been found, it consisted of formalin (to stall decomposition- formaldehyde and water), glycerin (stops desiccation), zinc salts (stopped her features collapsing), alcohol and salicylic acid (stops the growth of mould). CT scans of her body shows all her organs perfectly intact and she has quickly become an iconic archaeological specimen that also emotes empathy for childhood mortality. Today, in simplistic terms, the ingredients used to make up embalming fluid usually consist of formalin (preservative), phenol (antibacterial), methylated spirits (fixative), glycerin (pliability and hydration) and water (decrease acidity), showing some remarkable similarities to ingredients used 100 years ago. Embalming fluid is also used to restore the pigmentation of the skin, with the fluid often tinged pink and used with tissue builders. I have assisted and watched the process and it is remarkable to see the pink colour appearing on the skin and the ‘plumping up’ of the features, particularly in the case of a heavily emaciated person.

Whatever ingredients went into the development of embalming fluid in the archaeological record, they all served a purpose- whether that purpose was ceremonial, antibacterial or as a means of preservation. Ingredients in the fluid and exact quantities are more important now than ever, and with the introduction of new methods such as Thiel embalming and plastination, it is clear the development of what we use to preserve our deceased is still on going.

Sources consulted

Batra, A.P.S., Khurana, B.S., Mahajan, A. and Kaur, N., 2010. Embalming and other methods of dead body preservation. International journal of medical toxicology & legal medicine, 12(3), pp.15-19.

Brenner E. Human body preservation – old and new techniques. J Anat. 2014;224(3):316–344. doi:10.1111/joa.12160

Dixit, D., Athavia, P.D. and Pathak, H.M., 2005. Toxic effects of embalming fluid on medical students and professionals. JIAFM, 27(4), pp.209-11.

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.

Halford H, Essays and Orations, 1831, London John Murray.

Jones, J., Higham, T.F., Chivall, D., Bianucci, R., Kay, G.L., Pallen, M.J., Oldfield, R., Ugliano, F. and Buckley, S.A., 2018. A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments. Journal of Archaeological Science, 100, pp.191-200.

Death’s Doll: The World’s Most Beautiful Mummy’s,resting%20place%20in%20Springfield%2C%20Illinois.