Morbid curiosity and archaeological human remains

Plaster cast of a victim at Pompeii

Plaster cast of a victim at Pompeii

After my trip to Pompeii in September 2014, I wrote a blog post talking about my reactions to seeing the plaster casts of the victims of the eruption in 79AD.  I was surprised by how affected I was by the casts.  I am an archaeologist, and have had exposure to human remains before, with very little emotional response, but the casts really brought a lump to my throat, and more importantly, made me irrationally annoyed by the rest of the tourists gawking at the casts.

So, I wrote a post.

In fact, it’s one of my more popular posts, getting more traffic than most of my others.

Then today I read a post by Howard Williams criticizing the way archaeologists seem to look down on anyone who does not engage with human remains in the ‘proper’ way.  He very successfully argues that archaeologists look down on anyone who displays ‘morbid curiosity’, which he likens to accusing people of being ignorant or disrespectful.  Accusing people of being morbidly curious means the only appropriate way of engaging with the dead is as ‘serious relics for science’, dismissing many of the diverse ways of experiencing the archaeological record.  Finally, he calls out this gatekeeping of the experiencing of human remains as being directly counter to what the heritage community is trying to accomplish  – trying to encourage engagement of larger segments of the population and demonstrate their relevance.


So, when I read that I immediately thought about my grumpy post about Pompeii, and wondered if I was being snobby.  Was I being elitist?  Was I looking down on other people’s experience of human remains as being inappropriate?  Was I killing curiosity?

Maybe I was.  Who am I to detail how other people experience human remains and death?  In fact, that was my conclusion of the initial blog post, but then I saw some other commentary from Alison Atkin on Twitter.

Atkin also spoke about the fact that she reconsidered some of her previous criticisms of the display of human remains as voyeurism in response to this post.  She and Williams agreed that encouraging curiosity and engagement was no license for have contextless corpse-gawking.

The Pompeii plaster casts were anything but contextless.  They were embedded in their original location, and it was important for understanding site and enhancing visitors experience.  So, tourists were not just corpse-gawking.

Williams also makes the point that museums and archaeological sites are not cemeteries and they are not dealing with the recently deceased and mourners who demand a certain level of decorum and sensitivity.  It is important to remember that the remains were once people, but if archaeology is relevant today as informing us about the human condition, how more human can it get than a fascination with mortality?

As I discussed in my original blogpost, the display of human remains in museums is a difficult, fraught issue.  Human remains are often segregated from the main display area in the hopes that visitors will remain respectful.  The thinking is also that people can avoid viewing the bodies if they choose.  Maybe this isn’t the right tact.  Maybe museums should be a place for confronting uncomfortable truths about ourselves?  Do museums display weapons and discussions of war or slavery so as not to make people uncomfortable?  Museums and heritage are relevant for modern life for their ability to make us reflect on our past, on our identity, and on ourselves.  Our mortality and our physicality are integral to our lives, particularly in an age where the destruction of culture is being used as a weapon of oppression.  Our physical bodies, and the inevitability of our deaths is a cross-cultural reality, and maybe being confronted with that more often would only help.

We are very isolated from death in our modern world.   Maybe we should be more curious and less squeamish.

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2 Responses to Morbid curiosity and archaeological human remains

  1. anniedm778 says:

    In the case of Pompeii, I wonder if it should serve as warning to see the body forms. A warning to heed the signs of impending volcanic eruptions and disasters. Having been married to a physician, and former medical student, I remember his reaction to his first patient who died. An elderly lady, who he reassured just before surgery that she would be fine. She didn’t make it off the operating table and he was devastated and this all happened on our first wedding anniversary. Years later, having dealt with death and dying in his patients, his reaction is different, removed yet, sympathetic. Coroners, nurses and EMT workers probably react in the same way. The general public though, if they are not in a medical or archaeological field, do not have this background. I am not in any of these fields, and my perception is one of respect and to take a warning from them.

    • It’s true, I think most people are very isolated from death, and that means that people in careers that deal with human remains have a unique perspective. I guess this was why I was surprised by my reaction to the casts since I really didn’t expect it. I definitely took it as a warning! Bad things can and do happen all the time.

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