Filed under: Anniversary | Tags: Bog bodies, contested remains, controversial topics, human remains, landscape archaeology, Lindow Man, Lindow Man exhibitions, Lindow Moss, peat
It is surpassing strange to thank that it is already thirty years since the discovery of the body of Lindow Man. Peat diggers at the Lindow Moss site near Wilmslow to the south of Manchester made a most macabre discovery: a human leg turned up on their peat conveyor belt. Some years previously a local woman had discovered in mysterious circumstances and when a human head was discovered on the same conveyor belt the previous year Police arrested a local man. Although the head was shown to date from before the modern period the accused, who had confessed his crime, was charged with the murder and found guilty. So when the leg was found it was assumed that it might be the remains of the missing woman. However, it was first necessary to find the rest of the body and county archaeologist, Rick Turner, was able to trace the source of the remains back to the original excavation trench in the peat and there find a flap of skin sticking out of the side of the trench. A block of peat that the excavators hoped would contain the body was removed from the peat.
This is where Manchester Museum comes in. As chance would have it the only member of staff working that day was Velson Horie, the Museum’s senior conservator, and he gave advice and support to the recovery team. He is seen in white, top right in the photograph above. There followed an agonising wait to find out whether the body was ancient or modern, and the Police appear to have postponed an autopsy until the date had been clarified by radiocarbon-dating. This having been shown to be ancient, the Coroner ruled that the body was not a modern murder victim and Lindow Man, as he came to be known, was sent to the British Museum, which had the expertise, the facilities and funding to study and conserve the remains. Dr Ian Stead who was responsible for the BM’s Iron Age collections put together a team of experts who used the pioneering technology of CAT scanning to investigate the body.
The body was relatively well-preserved though incomplete. It had long been known from discoveries in Scandinavian peat bogs that organic remains in certain circumstances could be very well preserved. The decay of sphagnum moss creates sphagnan which has a similar effect on organic materials to tanning. The anaerobic conditions, the relatively cool temperatures and saturated conditions in the peat moss or bog all helped preserve the body, though not in its entirety. For instance, although the hands were not very well preserved, the finger nails were intact!
The body itself was preserved using polyethylene glycol (or PEG) and then freeze-dried for display in a specially designed display case. It even became possible to see what Lindow Man looked like because a facial reconstruction was created by Prof John Prag and Dr Richard Neave of the University of Manchester.
The findings of the study of Lindow Man’s body were sensational. Not only had he suffered blows to the head, there was also evidence of a ligature around the neck and a cut to the throat, although some archaeologists have questioned the evidence. To add to the heady mix there was also some mistletoe. A great deal has been made of the presence of just a few grains of mistletoe pollen but, as Jody Joy, Curator of the Iron Age at the British Museum, has pointed out, this was well within EU toxicity guidelines and wouldn’t have affected Lindow Man! The question of the significance of the mistletoe is symptomatic of the heated debates that characterised the interpretation about Lindow Man right from the start. The fact that he appears to have been naked apart from a fox skin armband, suggested to some that he was the victim of a robbery or a mugging. Others interpreted the trio of injuries as an act of human sacrifice in honour of three Celtic gods. Anne Ross and Don Robins in The Life and Death of a Druid Prince reconstructed the circumstances of Lindow Man’s death about the time of the suppression of the Boudiccan revolt against the Roman occupation. They offered the dramatic scenario of a human sacrifice following the destruction of the Druids on Anglesey and the defeat of Boudicca’s army in AD 60-1. The victim, Lindow Man, had remains of a burnt bannock or bread cake in his gut, which it was argued was evidence of the lottery by which he had been selected for sacrifice. The later refinement of the radiocarbon dating results to put Lindow Man into the early Roman period didn’t change matters because the Iron Age lifestyle continued into Roman times. One reading of the evidence would suggest he was put to death not to avert the Roman occupation but in response to it, in a violent reaffirmation of native spiritual beliefs. It is very interesting in this respect that Worsley Man, another, earlier, bog body discovery from the North West was dated to the early 2nd century AD.
This detailed study provided content for the first of three Lindow Man exhibitions at Manchester Museum. Perhaps in acknowledgement of the Museum’s support at the time of the excavation, and of the strength of local feeling in response to the removal of Lindow Man to London, the British Museum lent the body to Manchester Museum in 1987 and 1991, and most recently in 2008-9. In the 1980s Lindow Man was the subject of a repatriation campaign organised by Barbara O’Brien. The campaign featured a song sung by Lindow Primary School choir ‘Lindow Man we want you back again’. This was unsuccessful but in retrospect the materials it generated, including photographs of the visit to the recording studio, a campaign t-shirt and a copy of the somewhat cheesy song (think Grandad we love you but with archaeological lyrics), have been a boon to museology students seeking UK case studies of repatriation.
The repatriation campaign didn’t feature in Manchester Museum’s Lindow Man exhibitions of 1987 and 1991. They focused on the findings of the detailed study of Lindow Man and recreating his life and times. They proved to be extremely popular.
When the British Museum offered Lindow Man for a third loan in 2008-9 Manchester Museum was delighted to accept. The exhibition was generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Wellcome Trust. The exhibition reflected the current debate about human remains in museums and other institutions. This was the first high profile exhibition I worked on at the Museum and in keeping with best practice I organised a consultation to which a wide range of people were invited. The findings of the consultation were that Lindow Man’s body should be displayed respectfully and that different ways of interpreting the body were presented in the exhibition. We invited seven people, including archaeologists, museum curators, a member of the Lindow community, peat diggers and a pagan to each present their perspective on the body. We invited people to comment on a number of questions we posed during the life of the exhibition such as ‘How do you think Lindow Man died?’ and ‘Should museums show human remains?‘. Some 12,500 comments cards were filled in by visitors.
However, the exhibition proved to be controversial. Even though it won an award for its innovative design, quite a lot of visitors felt it looked unfinished, and again, although it won a British Archaeological Award for its presentation of the issue of human remains, some visitors did not like the multi-vocal appr0ach to the interpretation. Given that the exhibition was intended to stimulate debate about the issue of human remains, the feedback might have been anticipated but it did stimulate a very heated debate – no bad thing in a university at which students are encouraged to see topics from different points of view, but somewhat uncomfortable for colleagues who were subjected to personal comments. The exhibition and its associated events and activities attracted 190,000 people and generated favourable reviews in museum and archaeology journals. It has also been discussed in a number of articles, more in fact than any other temporary exhibition that I have ever worked on. Not to mention the steady flow of under graduate and post graduate students wanting to feature the Lindow Man exhibition as a case study in their dissertations. The various recorded interviews with contributors, some of them filmed, remain an archive of fascinating social history material for future research.
I might also add that the return of Lindow Man to Manchester was celebrated in the arts and a surprising amount of poetry has been written, quite a lot of it I suspect, in response to the presence of an offering box in the last exhibition. It is little appreciated that at the time of Lindow Man a Bog Body Mystery, Manchester Museum also hosted a temporary exhibition about photography of Lindow Moss featuring work by the gifted photographer Stephen Vaughan. And what of the future? Visitors sometimes ask me if Lindow Man is going to return to Manchester and how would we display him if he did? Some reviewers have already stated that it could be an opportunity to review how Lindow Man has been displayed, the three exhibitions providing a unique sequence showing how museological practice has experimented in displaying human remains and the differing sensitivities to the exhibition of human remains in society that can now be evidenced.
Sadly in 2008 it was too late to develop Rene Girard’s work on scape-goating in relation to sacrifical theory, bog bodies and Lindow Man, but it is a topic I have spoken about in presentations to students and the public. perhaps there would be some mileage in exploring this approach in any exhibition proposal. But that’s a debate for another day, if the possibility of a loan should arise again, and I am by no means asking for it. However, the recent commemoration of the discovery in a dawn ceremony at Lindow Moss is bound to bring new interest to earlier debates about the interpretation and meaning of Lindow Man and where he should be. This event was a follow-up to a meeting held in Wilmslow in April to present a new approach to the Moss and its management, whereby peat extraction would cease and the original landscape environment be recreated. A dayschool will be held in Wilmslow on 18th October 2014 to explore the environmental history of Lindow Moss and the legacy of Lindow Man. Let’s be grateful that Lindow Man was discovered thirty years ago. One thing’s to be sure the debate about him is going to run on and on for another thirty years.
2 Comments so far
Leave a comment