Week 5 – Museum of London & Bromley Museum – A box of human bone

Yes, that is the bone box, hidden bottom right.
Yes, that is the bone box, hidden bottom right.

It is no good, I can’t ignore the box in the corner marked up ‘Bones’ any longer. I had kind of hidden it at the bottom of the pile hoping it would go away, but as I have taken a bit of ownership of this work it is not going to go away unless I deal with it first.

This is the last proper week of my Bromley Museum/Museum of London project. Next week I will be in Tesco attempting to share some Roman archaeology with the shoppers of Orpington, so this is the last full day in the museum getting to grips with the remaining boxes of archaeology from the Roman villa site at Keston. I have quite a connection to this site now, I look on it affectionately. It is just down the road from me and yet I have never been there, I sense a pilgrimage is in order if the site is opened up next year. I don’t think you can work on the finds from one place for this long and not have a feeling for the people who lived there, a small sense of their lives and an interest in their world.

My hands have sifted through the remains of the lives that lived there for many a week, initially, earlier in the year for a 9 week project at the Museum of London archive (LAARC – London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre) and now for a shorter 6 week project at Bromley Museum. The Keston site was dug over many years from the late 1960s up to the early 1990s, there are boxes and boxes of stuff from this site. Some are kept up in the LAARC and some remain in the Bromley Museum. We have been carrying out some basic collections care, a bit of repacking and re-labelling, helping to make more space in the archive and prepare the finds ready for a new generation of researchers, volunteers and history seekers who may come and rediscover the boxes and the history contained within at some future date.

I love pot, I love glass, I love metal, things made, things admired, left behind, broken, discarded, forgotten, they come alive in my hands. I never realised I would feel like this. Never realised a scrap of unmarked pot, a twisted nail, a small shard of glass would thrill me, intrigue me and inspire me. I want to know more, I want to understand a world that seems so far away and yet, the more I have looked, the more I have realised it is not so far away at all, the links are clear to our here and now. The links are strong. Pottery decorated, an effort to impress. Who hasn’t bought tableware to show off at a dinner party. A brooch, a ring or hair pin, copper and bone. Our Roman friends keen to look their best, not so different to today. Christmas lists are no doubt being written as we speak lusting after jewellery and statement watches. Roman wall plaster, decorated with colours and patterns. Not unlike our own homes, decoration to mark us as individuals, to make a statement, to make a home.

I feel very emotional when I hold these things from Keston, I don’t know why it affects me in this way. I find this period in history fascinating, I can’t quite make out this Romano-British world. Who were the Romans sent here to push an Empire to its limit? Who were the native British having to face this new and strange threat? These clashing worlds and cultures, merging traditions, religions, fashions, politics and architecture. It is hard to unpick what was there before, what has come from foreign shores, and what grew from this new Roman Britain.

My Keston Villa- Who lived there? Were they Roman? Were they British? Where did they feel their true home was? Did generation after generation live as this site? All these questions in my head mean this site is not a chapter in history that is closed to me. To me it is fresh and new and fascinating. But there is one element of working on this site that I have been dreading. The bone, the skeletons, the remains. The burials; inhumation and cremation. I know I am going to find this hard. I have worked on bone before and I was completely surprised by my reaction to it. I found it really hard to deal with and that was only animal bone.

I knew there were a few boxes of bone from week 1 when we popped down to the store to see what we were dealing with, what kind of work load we had ahead. We brought up a box of bone a couple of weeks ago, I opened it, took one look, closed the box and buried it underneath more pressing boxes containing flint and pots. But one of our volunteers has shown a keen interest in tackling the bone, I can delay no longer. Today is the day.

Box opened, there is no going back now
Box opened, there is no going back now

Deep breath, we open the box, gloves on time to get started. It is not what I expected. Before, when we repacked animal bone we had recognisable parts of animal skeletons, thigh bone, vertebrae and ribs. The human bone we have has come from the North Cemetery, there were a number of cremations at this location, the bone we have is small chips, unrecognisable pieces, dust and disintegration. It is strange, I am not sure how to tackle it purely from a collection care point of view. The best way to re-pack and care for this material. I grab a bag, that has a few larger pieces of bone, I instantly put them into a pattern. I am not belittling this material or making light of its origin. I have done this before, it is something I do without really thinking about it. I make a bone swirl. I change what I have in my hands to a miniature piece of artwork, once transformed into something else the bone loses its human connections for me and I can re-pack it and deal with it. Put aside my natural aversion and unease with what we are doing.

Deep breath, bag number 1
Deep breath, my first bag, step 1 –
Step 2 - Bones from the bag
Step 2 – Bones from the bag
after... bone swirl, art swirl, a pattern, no longer bone
Step 3 – Bone swirl, art swirl, a pattern, no longer bone

Which ever way I look at it, this does not feel right to me. Even when I try to look at the texture of the bone, try to think of its material natural construct, biological makeup, I fail, I struggle. Every time I think I can manage something throws me.

I try to see the natural organic material, texture and construct
I try and see the natural organic material, texture and construct

A small brown envelope, teeth. The most emotive thing, teeth. I have a little pot at home, with my daughters milk teeth in. I think of that, I think of her, I think about the Tooth Fairy. I am sure the Romans didn’t have a Tooth Fairy. But suddenly a glimmer of hope. I look at these teeth and think they are in quite good condition actually, well cared for even. I am thinking for an instant about Roman diets and hygiene, a distraction. I turn a tooth over and see a large cavity. I think, wow, that must have hurt. Then I am there back again, thinking of human pain. This is no sterile thing in front of me, no artefact, this is a skeleton, a body, a life. There is death, laughter, tears and pain. It is here in my hands.

I feel like a archaeological tooth fairy
I feel like an archaeological tooth fairy
Tooth cavity - probably from too many Roman sweets
Tooth cavity – probably from too many Roman sweets

My volunteer buddy starts to deal with a large bag, we work together, small fragments of bone and dust. For a good 10 minutes we think of nothing but the work in front of us. I find it gets easier, sharing work, laughter and chatter takes away the weirdness of what we are doing. I am not sure if it is easier because nothing in front of me looks like a bone I would recognise. Is is just recognition that makes this hard? I am not sure.

Not sure where to start with this bag - weird, weird, weird
Not sure where to start with this bag – weird, weird, weird

Is it harder to tackle an inhumation, complete bone, recognisable, or this dust in front of me, remains of a cremation? I think about how the Romans felt about their deceased, why bury some ancestors and cremate others? What did the body mean to them? Something to be revered and respected, interred, untouched and unsullied. What right do we have to mar that sacred pact of death? A body given to the earths care, in peace and released from pain. But a cremation? The body perhaps just a vessel, once burnt the soul or spirit released. What does the body mean to my Roman ancestors in this context, is it nothing? Does what remains have less value or importance?

I am not sure why I concern myself so much with what the Roman inhabitants of this villa thought about methods of burial. Bone is bone is bone. Human, animal, organic matter. I try to run this through my head but I know now I am an emotional amplifier for these items, I take them and I can’t stop my thoughts or feelings. There is no doubt I am intrigued, I can see they tell us so much, I know that but still, my doubts are there.

Not artefacts, but the very essence of a life lived
Not artefacts, but the very essence of a life lived

Where do you draw the line? The line that says it is okay to dig up a body, put it in a plastic bag, put a label on it, study it, display it. 2,000 years ago? Oh, yes that is fine. 1,000 years ago. Yep, no problem. 500 years ago, okay. 100 years ago, well yes, we can do that. 50 years ago? 20 years ago? 10 years ago? last year? last month?

I can’t draw that line, I can’t decide when it is okay to dig up a body. It will always be a life lived, a mother, a father, a child, a baby. The distance of time does not dim that connection for me. It does not make it ok.

All these words, my uneasiness, my feelings that this is not the right thing to do, my doubt. Even in the face of all that, now I am sitting here writing up my last week, I know that underlying all this is the simple fact that I feel privileged and blessed to be able to do this. To touch these bones, these lives, my Roman ancestors. I am thankful because it has made me think and feel things that I have never felt or thought about before. It is good to confront doubt, to question our feelings, these things that make us human. I guess the more you do this thing, deal with bone, hold it in your hand, sort and label it, it becomes easier, it becomes a process. For me at least it will never be a process without a reaction, without a strange feeling in my heart and complicated thoughts in my head. I am glad week 5 is over to be honest, but I will never regret week 5. I hope I get to go to the Keston villa next year, I can’t wait to visit, all this work is leading me there and I get the feeling it is going to be emotional.

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