The Bodies are in the Museum

It has just been the second annual #ClassicsTober, a Classical Civilisation (and yes the subject needs a better name and wider scope) themed media prompt challenge where each day you post something you know, you’ve seen, you’ve drawn, you’ve read from the ancient Mediterranean world that fits it, that my friend Dr Cora Beth Fraser and I made up last-minute last year and decided to do again this October. ‘Sarcophagus’ was the prompt for Day 31, and I realised I’d inadvertently picked a prompt that fit rather well with the 100th anniversary of Howard Carter disturbing Tutankamun’s tomb, this same week (yesterday, November 4th). There was a very good programme on it on the previous Sunday night with Dr Janina Ramirez, and there’s a British Museum exhibition on hieroglyphs on until February, and so I was watching one, thinking about the other, and deciding what to do with the prompt, and thinking:

I have a mixed reaction to all this. It seems odd to be celebrating opening a tomb, into which one is placed for supposed eternal rest. Perhaps, as it’s been millennia, it’s ok because it’s no longer recent history and any known descendants are long-since lost in time (I think?) And perhaps, if the beliefs of the specific dead are that the body is just a shell and the soul is now in the afterlife, oblivious, then a long-abandoned body is fair game? But most of the ancient burial traditions I know of (and I am no expert, but have been teaching GCSE Classics for fifteen years and enjoy reading about Ancient Med cultures) treat the rest of the body as being important to the fate of the soul – at least at first – so far as that the body must be given rites and proper burial in order to be worthy to pass into the underworld, often with as many grave goods as possible. Does removing them from their tomb drag them out of the afterlife? Is it the equivalent of your credit card being cut up and your tab revoked while you’re kicked out of the VIP section of a club?

Disturbed, and really quite cross about being alive again…

Sarcophagus means ‘flesh-eating stone’. Is that abandonment of the body to natural process? Does that count in allowing us to open up the box and look at what’s inside when it’s done?

When I was a child, we visited the British Museum all the time – we were poor, and it was free, as well as educational. I liked the Egyptian galleries best, and frequently could be found hanging out next to the unassuming burial of ‘Ginger’, a mummified person that I liked because they appeared to have red hair, like me. (I didn’t know this was possibly due to the mummification process and thought of Ginger as a fellow bullied ginge. I was probably only six.)

Now I look back on that experience as profoundly weird. My toddler daughter currently has a ‘best friend’ who is a small, inanimate toy monkey she can hug and constantly talks to. At just a few years older, my childhood ‘best friend’ was a deceased person whose final resting place was on display in a class case in a room in a beautiful building in the middle of the city, with whom I would sit and enjoy silent contemplation every so often while giant adults bustled about around us. I had no idea he was actually known as Gebelein man, was around 19 when he died, is about 5000 years old, and was mummified naturally by the dry sand conditions in which he was buried, along with his possessions. Or that he had tattoos ( or that he’d suffered a violent death ( › vi…Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died). And, I didn’t realise that the reason he was in a museum is that he is one of the best-preserved examples of natural mummification from the predynastic era. I feel I should know all these things now, to make up for entirely taking his accessible presence for granted during his one and only afterlife.

Gebelein Man (‘Ginger’) and his grave goods

I think I have a fairly lackadaisical approach to death – it happens, it hurts those left behind, we can’t stop it (and we probably shouldn’t go finding a cure for it, harsh as that sounds) – but that is probably more from, sadly, going to a lot of funerals growing up, which were mostly open-casket and, in the Irish tradition, only a day or two after the death (so if you hadn’t had a chance to come to terms with your loss it was right there on display). None of these bodies I ever associated as being like the bodies in the museum – Ginger, or the Bog Man, or the still-wrapped mummies in the galleries. My funeral bodies were far too recent, and archaeologically uninteresting, and they were family, and not at all ‘other’ like the ones in display cases, the presence of which seemed completely normal, because adults had put them there, and they ran the museums as well as everything else, so they were probably right. Now we’re the adults and… I don’t know.

(From the C16th, whoever was excavating mummies and selling them on to Europe to be turned into paint and Quack medical tinctures also seems to have had a pretty lackadaisical approach to death. The sales of ‘Mummy Brown’ only ended in the 1960s)

A set of dues on a card, shades of brown, one labelled ‘Mummy Brown’

I’m writing this out now because I’m confused. I now teach Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, and going to museums as a child very likely has a lot to do with that. My subject is arguably half-supported by the existence of archaeologically-interesting dead people and their burials. I’m about to teach a unit on Mycenaean grave sites, the contents of which are in the Archaeological Museum at Athens (though I don’t know if the owners of the tombs are also there). But now I have to try to answer questions from my students that I never asked when I was a child, and that kids never seemed to ask when I started teaching 16 years ago, such as ‘why do we put dead people in museums?’ It’s an excellent question, and a lengthy debate.

There is definitely the stench of racism around some of the original reasons for thinking it fine and dandy to put others’ ancestors on display. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, famous for its trepanned skulls and shrunken heads, has been returning ancestral remains that had been originally used to display ‘other’ cultures as racist stereotypes ( I vividly remember seeing them for the first time: about seventeen years ago, when I was working at Blackwells and popped over to the nearby museum in my lunchbreak because I’d read in one of Pullman’s His Dark Materials books that the trepanned skulls were there and I wanted to see if it was true. It was, and I remember feeling distinctly horrified for the first time that I could come and look at human remains whenever I wished. And I didn’t know who they were. Sure, the information about trepanning was fascinating (and I think possibly links to Zeus asking Hephaestus to cut open his head when he has his Athene-sized headache) and the shrunken heads were an interesting artefact that explained that scene in Beetlejuice, and having them in a museum certainly made that information accessible… but it smacked of Victorian ‘Freak Show’: old-fashioned and exploitative. I’m glad they’ve gone.

Similarly, the first time I visited Pompeii was as a teacher with my classes, and immediately we came across the Garden of the Fugitives. If you’ve never been, the plaster cast figures are lying, sleeping, some apparently waking, by a garden wall as they possibly take a break from escaping the eruption. One is looking back as if to see what that noise is coming from the mountain now – maybe that final pyroclastic surge that froze them there in thermal shock so that their bodies would be covered in ash and their postures preserved so that later their bones could be coated with plaster and their figures reborn, as if reliving that last moment again and again. The place is both their death scene and their final resting place – they never got a proper burial. And from this reverie I was shaken by some of the students asking if they could eat their lunch yet. How were we even allowed to be here? Let alone, later, on discovering the poor chap in the cast that lets you see his teeth and skull, on display among piles of amphora in the old forum granary while we were actually spinning around and eating our lunch.

Admittedly, there is a tiny frisson of excitement for me when I see, in a museum a stack of bones, or a preserved person in a Pompeiian cast. But it’s more shock and empathy, and I feel I can’t pass by without dipping my head and thanking them for this sacrifice, like a body that has been left to science, although unwittingly and possibly unwillingly if they knew where their mortal remains had ended up. Now that we have the technology, would a photo, a scan, or a 3D model – as I believe are being made from with some of the Pompeiian casts – work just as well to make the point, if it’s absolutely necessary. Does it matter if the body were looking at in the museum is not ‘real’?

A later school trip was rather more successful in imparting a sense of decorum, and I was inspired to draw this.

On that note, ‘Ginger’ now has a whizzy new touchscreen opposite his glass box, on which you can see the 3D CT scan that was made of him in 2012. Anyone can go up to the screen and manipulate the model so that they can see every part of him, like his face which for so long has been gazing at the sand of his tomb. I could go and look him in the face if I wished. This is, of course, an amazing resource for studying the mummification of an individual and the customs of the predynastic Egyptians (and it turns out his hair was actually ginger after all), but I’m still torn: to me now he’s an old friend, and it feels like this is the last possible act of indignity that he could suffer: his entire body, albeit virtually, at your fingertips.

Trying to understand further for myself, I read a similar article from 2017 by Julia Deathridge on the UCL blog, in which I learned that in 2005 ‘the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums”outlining a code of practice for the handling and displaying of human remains”. I was a bit surprised that this had taken so long. Bodies over 100 years old appear to be largely exempt, but hopefully I’m just reading the legalese incorrectly.

I’m still confused. Archaeologists do a fantastic job of making our human past less confusing and help to create an empathy for it that allows us to see our species as beautiful and flawed. Sometimes we even choose to learn from the mistakes that are uncovered. Anthropologists and medical professionals have used ancient (and modern, and even willing) human remains to make amazing leaps in medicine and technology. Human endeavour is such that it demands human sacrifice. But, is it an understanding that after death, the body is moot?

I remain confused, but here is what I drew for #ClassicsTober. It’s more Hammer Horror than archaeology, and the chicken is just because occasionally I like to draw chickens as ancient characters , but the text (using a probably terrible hieroglyph generator) is meant to say ‘why am I awake?’

I drew a chicken illo because I haven’t done enough Greek Myth/Mediterranean chickens this year, and made it an angry Hammer Horror mummy version of Tut. Bandages fall from his wrapped body and one white eye flares out. He has climbed from his golden coffin which lies open on the left - inspired by Tutankhamun’s own. I used the fun (and probably not very accurate) hieroglyph translator ‘Fabricius’ to make him say ‘Why am I awake?’ The background looks like papyrus.
Greek Myth Comix.

Gods and Monsters in the Odyssey

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

Aristotle, Politics

Whilst studying Odysseus’ narrative in Books 9–12, my GCSE Classical Civilisation students and I attempted to put each of the characters that delay Odysseus’ journey onto a scale of beast/monster to god, as per Aristotle. Here are our results (from my site and the arguments behind them.


Hyperion’s cattle: they are representatives of Hyperion, the very sun, and, despite being killed for food, ‘the meat bellowed on the spits’, suggesting they are immortal.

Circe: we’ve put her below Hyperion’s cattle mostly for status’ sake: she’s the daughter of a titan, a lesser god though still immortal, and has an human voice’ which suggests she is closer to humanity. She has the power to use magic (pharmakon) and turns Odysseus’ crew into pigs, but the gods seem to be able to turn people (or themselves) into animals without having to use potions, suggesting she is lesser than them.

Aeolus: he is ‘king of the winds’, and ‘beloved of the gods’, but is not apparently a god himself, or at least is never described as such. He has ‘given his daughters in marriage to his sons’, a level of incest normally only reserved for gods, and lives on an isolated island ringed with a ‘bronze wall riding up from the sheer cliffs’ where every day his whole family is given plentiful meat and mellow wine’, which suggests he is quite a bit higher up than regular mortals, but still not a god himself.


Cicones: they are regular mortals. And they still beat Odysseus in the long run (his men’s fault.)


The Lotus Eaters: while they seem to be mostly human, they do not have the human quality of nostos, the need to return home. They also try to remove it from Odysseus’ men. Thus, a little monstrous.

Polyphemus: He is a cyclops, so not human, but his level of ‘monstrousness’ is negligible.

He does seem to be at least semi-‘civilised’: he is a shepherd who clearly loves his animals, talking affectionately to his biggest ram, whose regular behaviour he monitors; he may not farm or eat bread (apparently civilised behaviour, according to men) but he makes cheese, and has ‘well-made vessels’ that he carries out this procedure in.

However: he does not observe Xenia, he does not respect the gods – except Poseidon, his father, and… then there’s the fact that he eats humans. Technically, this is not cannibalism, as they’re not the same species, but they are all anthropomorphic, so it’s still very, very wrong. Especially as he promises to eat Odysseus last, as a guest-gift.

Laestrygonians: they are apparently human, and they do eat people, so they really are cannibals. And, they let their women out on their own, such as the ‘strong girl’ collecting water (RED FLAG! RED FLAG!) They are further reduced in humanity by their ‘monstrous size’, which seems to grow with each encounters Odysseus’ men seem to have no problem with the ‘strong girl’ but the queen is ‘monstrous’ and then Antiphates the king is able to pin a man down and start gnawing on him, before the rest of his cannibalistic tribe throw rocks at Odysseus fleet and spear three men on one spear ‘like fishermen’, making them sound like giants. They also do not speak: the ‘strong girl’ simply points, Antiphates’ wife only yells his name, and that’s it. A lack of developed verbal communication is surely an indicator of a lack of civilisation. As well as eating people.

The Sirens: these are actually visually monstrous, being only part anthropomorphic with human heads on bird bodies. They do have a voice and the ability to communicate, unlike the Laestrygonians, but use it to lure men to their deaths, thus making their use of voice more like the attractive scent of a Venus Flytrap. Yet, they don’t even seem to eat their prey: ‘about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling’. This wasteful act makes them seem extra monstrous and almost evil.

Scylla and Charybdis: Scylla may have a history of having been a nymph, but now she can only ‘bark’ and eat with her several heads, grabbing prey as it goes past, which also suggests a level of automatic reaction rather than thought.

Charybdis is a whirlpool. 🤷‍♀️

These creatures have no discernible human characteristics, and seem only to exist to consume.

Do you agree or disagree with my GCSE class’ choices? Is there anything we have missed?

NB: This post originally appeared on Medium and has now been moved to this site in the interests of keeping it as free content.